Before he got on the big yellow-and-blue bus that bore his name, Pete Buttigieg ironed his shirt in his hotel room. His tour across Iowa this week comes at the beginning of the school year, and as kids around the country were boarding buses of their own, they must have felt a similar apprehension. As Buttigieg climbed aboard, everybody stared at the new kid as he tried to find the right place to sit.
From the beginning, Buttigieg’s rise in the Democratic presidential primary has been rooted in media exposure. So it was fitting that the South Bend, Ind., Mayor launched the latest phase of his campaign the same way he launched the first one: by courting the news media with a level of access unmatched by any other candidate.
The four-day, on-the-record bus tour with reporters, modeled off Senator John McCain’s “Straight Talk Express,” demonstrated his campaign’s understanding of a central rule of politics: the press are like hyenas, happiest when fed, and avoiding engagement with them can turn an already adversarial relationship into a hostile one. In a primary that will likely be decided by personality attributes as much as policy preferences, the bus tour was a chance to show the press (and, by extension, the voters) what kind of guy he was.
The bus was arranged like a living room, with leather seats and ice buckets filled with beer and lime-flavored spiked seltzer. The lights were surrounded with marbled glass sconces and the sinks were made of frosted glass. In the bathroom, a small bronze sign requested that guests avoid putting “solid waste” in the “commode.”
The venue played to Buttigieg’s strengths. Unlike Elizabeth Warren, who loves translating her policies into plain English, or Bernie Sanders, who has given different versions of the same rousing speech since 2016, or former Vice President Joe Biden, who is most at home riffing off old anecdotes, Buttigieg does best in conversation. As the bus hurtled past cornfields and wind turbines, Buttigieg was game and pleasant, answering questions about everything from the whistleblower complaint enveloping President Trump to the state of the race (only one in five Iowans have made up their mind, he noted) to the leftward tilt of the party (“most voters want to know that you are a capitalist as well as a progressive”).
But on the day TIME joined the tour, the questions were often personal. He talked about his favorite road snacks (pickle bites), whether he and his husband plan to have kids (“Chasten’s ready to be a dad…I’m ready but not as ready as he is”), and what jobs he would do if he doesn’t get elected President of the United States. (One was a truck driver, because on long-haul drives he could “listen to a lot of content” and “learn languages and talk to people.”) He said if Al Gore had won the 2000 election, American politics would have gone on such a different trajectory that he would probably be “happily living as a literary critic at some university” instead of running for President.
The conversation became most revealing when Buttigieg—a man raised by English and Linguistics professors—started to offer his own definitions of the terms that have so far shaped the primary. Buttigieg has long been a student of political language: most of his old columns in the Harvard Crimson revolved around the need for Democrats to seize control of the words used to frame political debate. To that end, Buttigieg has sought to sidestep the left vs. center axis used to define the Democratic field, instead insisting on a political framework that is more about the future vs. the past. That’s caused many in the Democratic field to paint him as a centrist, an incrementalist, or a moderate, mostly in contrast to his rivals on the left.
Buttigieg rejected each of those labels.
“The one I find most problematic actually is centrist,” he says. “It’s actually a very ideological framing. It says you’re about being in the middle. And there are ideological centrists in this race, and I don’t view myself as part of that.”
“Incrementalist” isn’t right either, he argued. “What I’m proposing to do with Medicare for All Who Want it, for example, may not be the furthest left idea in the field, but also represents the most profound transformation in American healthcare since the implementation of Medicare.”
“Moderate,” he says, “is largely about tone. I’m definitely tonally more moderate. I don’t think waving my arms and hollering is gonna help, because there’s so much of that.” Populism, he says, is the most “slippery term of all,” because “It’s not as easy as finding the backroom where a lot of supervillians are pulling the strings.”
This is where Buttigieg is most comfortable: with a rigorous analysis of political terms and their contextual meanings. In fact, he has a different definition of “progressive” than most people.
“Progressive’ is a relatively new term in the Democratic Party, used by people who wanted to avoid calling themselves liberal,” he says. While other candidates and activists define “progressive” as a commitment to support a specific set of policies—like Medicare for All, a Green New Deal, or student debt relief—Buttigieg embraces a broader definition. “To me, it’s about insisting that we protect people and that we actually advance towards a more equitable society as we go.”
“I don’t think anybody gets to own the term,” he adds. “It’s certainly not the case that you have to be for free college for all to be a progressive…we say a policy is more progressive if it favors those on the lower income spectrum. Free college is the opposite of that.”
Buttigieg describes himself as a “democratic Capitalist.” But “the label I’m most comfortable wearing,” he says, “is that of a Democrat.”
Correction, Sept. 24
The original version of this story misstated the number of Iowa voters who have made up their mind about the 2020 election. Only one in five voters have made a decision about the candidates, not four in five voters.