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Twin crises of airline cancellations, port delays crash Buttigieg's once-rising political star

'Secretary Buttigieg is a prime example of failing up,' national co-chair of Sanders' 2020 presidential campaign Nina Turner tweeted

Published: December 29, 2022 3:28pm

Updated: January 2, 2023 12:27am

When he joined President Joe Biden's Cabinet two years ago as transportation secretary, Pete Buttigieg had the pedigree of a rising progressive star. He had won a mayorship in a red state as an openly gay Democrat, ran for president against his future boss and captured the coveted Iowa caucus and displayed an ability to attract young voters and raise big money.

A second crack at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue seemed inevitably in his cards as he became a hot raw on the political talk circuit.

But today, his stewardship of the Transportation Department amid the twin 2022 crises of supply chain shortages and airline debacles has tarnished his once-rising star.

The TV images of container cargo ships lined up and unable to access one of America prime ports of entry in January and the howls of angry passengers stranded in airports this Christmas punctuated his second year in power and gave fodder to Democrats and Republicans alike to suggest that Buttigieg wasn't up to the task of being a Cabinet secretary. 

Prominent Democrat strategist Nina Turner even went so far as to suggest last week that Buttigieg was a "prime example of failing up."

"What’s happening with the railroads, airlines & the supply chain is a result of a small city mayor being made the Secretary of Transportation as a means to pad his resume for President," she tweeted Tuesday. 

Young and ambitious, Buttigieg blazed a path as mayor of South Bend in red Indiana, unafraid to embrace his homosexuality or his husband. He boldly skipped a few steps in the normal path to presidential ru, and threw his hat in the 220 ring. When he won Iowa, besting the favorite Bernie Sanders and eventual winner Joe Biden, he became an instant heartthrob to young progressives.

But "Mayor Pete" -- as he was affectionately called -- crashed into the hard realities of Washington's unforgiving climate about a year ago when he was criticized for taking a paid two-month paternity leave to spend time with his husband and new son during the supply chain crisis that left scores of container ships lined up near the Los Angeles coast for more than a month.

That cargo crisis persisted for months, then gave way to fresh criticisms that the climate-change crusading Buttigieg had at times flown private jets instead of commercial airlines like everyday Americans. By summer 2022, a second crisis had emerged as airlines performed horrendously during the summer travel season.

The airline crisis was years in the making, brought on by aging computer systems, Baby Boomer pilots aging into mandatory retirement and the travails of the COVID-19 pandemic. But Buttigieg made a cardinal mistake of politics, vowing to fix quickly a problem that clearly could not be readily solved without dramatic action.

During a September appearance on comic James Corden's The Late Late Show, Buttigieg vowed he have a handle on the airline crisis by Christmas.

"I think it will get better by the holidays. We're really pressing the airlines to deliver better service," he declared.

He was proven wrong, as a once-in-a-generation winter storm in Secember exacerbated an already struggling industry's woes, causing thousands of flight cancellations and stranding tens of thousands of passengers without a way to get to their holiday destinations, find their scattered luggage or reach a customer service rep.

Buttigieg played into the AWOL narrative from his paternity leave episode a year earlier by failing to speak up or intervene in the holiday airline crisis for four days. By the time he did last Tuesday, he was primed to be mocked on both sides of the aisle.

"It took four days and thousands and thousands of cancelations for DOT to finally speak up; same thing, it took four days for the CEO of Southwest to finally speak up," Rep. Nancy Mace, R-S.C.,opined. " "I hope at some point the government, when we are intervening and looking at some of these issues, that we are more efficient and more effective."

Five days into the crisis and a day after Buttigieg surfaced, 62% of Southwest Airlines scheduled flights still were cancelled.It was too much even for Bernie Sanders to bare.

"Southwest's flight delays & cancellations are beyond unacceptable," the Vermont socialist tweeted Wednesday. "This is a company that got a $7 billion taxpayer bailout & will be handing out $428 million in dividends to their wealthy shareholders."

Sanders added that the Department of Transportation "must hold Southwest's CEO accountable for his greed and incompetence."

No critic was more pointed that Turner, who worked for Sanders during his presidential campaign. And when Buttigieg's supporters tried to suggest that her criticism was bigotry because the Secretary was gay, she turned the argument around quick enough to cause even more heartburn for Butttigieg.

"Demanding the Secretary of Transportation be held accountable for the department’s lack of oversight on airlines, something Senators and DAs have been vocal about for months, isn’t bigotry," she tweeted Wednesday. "Claiming it is bigotry diminishes actual bigotry."

Buttigieg hasn't found a strategy yet to dig out from the caricature of an out-of-touch, AWAL leader that has been crafted, as evidenced by one tweet last week from conservative Rep. Andy Biggs of Arizona.

"If @USDOT is serious about addressing Southwest’s recent implosion, it should prohibit its leader @SecretaryPete from flying private," Biggs tweeted Wednesday. "Why wasn’t he aware of these challenges beforehand? Late to the game and out of touch."

Pete Buttigieg's office has not responded for comment as of now. 

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