If Pete Buttigieg wants to be taken seriously as a potential presidential contender, he ought to spend some time studying Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. Compare the transportation secretary’s bungling of the toxic train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, with DeSantis’s hands-on management of Hurricane Ian and it’s obvious why the governor’s presidential prospects are rising — while Buttigieg has likely damaged his future chances to win the Oval Office.
When Hurricane Ian ravaged Florida, DeSantis was the very model of a commander in chief leading in a time of crisis. Before the storm hit, he was on the ground briefing Floridians on evacuation plans and putting in place strategies to manage gasoline shortages and restore power, internet and cellphone service. Once the storm had passed, he moved swiftly to restore essential services and rebuild critical infrastructure. He got the bridge to Pine Island rebuilt in three days, reopened the Sanibel Causeway in just two weeks, cleaned up thousands of miles of debris, reopened roads and highways, created a state-run program to get travel trailers to residents whose homes had been destroyed, and offered free mental health services via online therapy to those impacted by the disaster. Even President Joe Biden praised DeSantis’s response to the hurricane as “remarkable.”
His crisis management is one of the reasons he won independent voters in Florida. Even voters who didn’t love his war on wokeness loved how he swung into action and delivered help quickly and effectively when they needed it the most. It’s also why he has a serious shot at the White House in 2024. Americans look at how he managed the response to one of the deadliest hurricanes ever to hit our country and can see him managing the storms and crises facing our nation from the Oval Office.
Buttigieg had a golden opportunity to demonstrate the same kind of leadership when a train carrying toxic chemicals derailed in East Palestine on Feb. 3. He could have been on the ground from Day 1, meeting with local residents and officials, and marshaling federal resources to help a community in need.
Instead, he blew it. Buttigieg did not even mention the crash for 10 days — not a tweet, much less a visit to the disaster site. He spoke publicly, at the National Association of Counties Conference in D.C. on Feb. 13, but failed to so much as mention East Palestine. It was not until Feb. 13 that he issued his first tweet on the subject. And it was not until Feb. 23 that he finally visited the site of the crash — a day after Donald Trump showed up. Yes, the former president got there before the sitting transportation secretary.
Amazingly, Buttigieg attacked Trump for his visit and tried to deflect blame onto the former president, declaring that it was “somewhat maddening to see someone who did a lot try to gut not just rail safety regulations, but the EPA ... then show up giving out bottled water and campaign swag.” His suggestion that the Trump administration’s regulatory rollbacks had contributed to the disaster was, according to The Washington Post’s fact checking, untrue.
Then, Buttigieg tried to downplay the incident, declaring, “While this horrible situation has gotten a particularly high amount of attention, there are roughly 1,000 cases a year of a train derailing.” Even fellow progressives such as Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., criticized his response, tweeting that the derailment “will have a significant negative impact on the health and wellbeing of the residents for decades,” adding that we need “direct action from @PeteButtigieg to address this tragedy.”
It’s not just the crisis in East Palestine that Buttigieg has botched. In the fall of 2021, as cargo ships lined up outside U.S. ports and Americans grappled with an unprecedented supply chain crisis — while Congress nearly melted down over the bipartisan infrastructure bill — Buttigieg was mysteriously missing in action. It turned out that he was on unannounced paternity leave for his newborn twins. Ultimately, he seems wholly uninterested in his job, which is probably why he never seems to be able to right things when the you know what hits the fan.
The job Buttigieg really seems to be interested in is president. He likely saw the transportation post as a boring but easy steppingstone on his way to the Oval Office. But his shambolic performance has done damage to his presidential aspirations. Americans might look at Buttigieg’s incompetence and think: If he can’t manage a train derailment, how is he going to manage a crisis like the war in Ukraine?
Buttigieg’s feckless crisis management has shown that he’s no DeSantis. And with his performance in East Palestine, his presidential aspirations might have just gone up in smoke as toxic as the stuff wafting from a burning rail car.
Follow Marc A. Thiessen on Twitter: @marcthiessen.