Dec 17, 2020

Pete Buttigieg gets a Cabinet spot.

Pete Buttigieg gets a Cabinet spot.

Plus, a new Tangle poll and some reader feedback.

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, ad-free, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum — then “my take.” You can read Tangle for free or subscribe for Friday editions, and you can reach me anytime by replying to this email. If someone sent you this email, they’re asking you to sign up. You can do that by clicking here.

Today’s read: 12 minutes.

Pete Buttigieg’s Cabinet post, some reader feedback, another Tangle poll and some news about the snow day.

Mayor Pete Buttigieg speaking with attendees at the 2019 Iowa Federation of Labor Convention hosted by the AFL-CIO at the Prairie Meadows Hotel in Altoona, Iowa. Photo: Gage Skimodre / Flickr


Yesterday, in responding to a reader question, I wrote that Donald Trump’s decision to execute Brandon Bernard was “the first time anyone has ever been executed by a lame-duck president.” As the link to that fact clearly states, it’s the first lame-duck execution in over 100 years — not ever. It was the first time ever that federal executions outpaced state executions, and I just got those first evers mixed up.

Also, as many of you noticed, the “A story that matters” section was copied and pasted twice in the newsletter. That’s the second time that’s happened in the last few months, and though it’s not a correction — it is sloppy. Twice is a coincidence, let’s hope it doesn’t become a pattern. My apologies.

This is the 24th Tangle correction in its 68-week existence and the first since December 9th. I track corrections in an effort to be transparent and very much wish I didn’t on a day like today.

Reader feedback.

There was a lot of awesome reader feedback yesterday. In replying to my argument that we needed nuclear in order to achieve net-zero emissions, several readers sent in a recent episode from How To Save A Planet (a great podcast) about nuclear energy. I listened to the episode last night while doing the dishes, and it was very compelling. The thrust of their argument is that new nuclear plants are too expensive to build and that the timing would be extremely difficult to get right. Even without getting into the safety concerns, they make the case that it’s not cost effective, and that it’s not worth building new plants in the U.S. (where hydro, solar and wind power could be so abundant). It’s worth a listen.

Llywolaf, a retired organic farmer from West Haven, Connecticut, wrote in and said “I do think there are solutions to the climate dilemma, they just aren’t ones being discussed by the monied and political interests of Washington D.C. It mostly focuses on a radical change in our agricultural practices. That is the enterprise that affects the largest area of the global landscape and thus has the largest impact on the environment and the climate (and no it doesn’t include ending eating meat, more addressing how we raise meat animals). Yes, we need to reduce our consumption of fossil fuels and lessen C02 emissions, but we need an easy and scalable way to draw down carbon out of the atmosphere, it’s called photosynthesis by green plants. It’s how we (us humans all over the planet, nearing eight billion) manage that process. Nobody likes it cause it’s not techy enough, and there’s not a lot of money in it except for farmers.”

Merry from Potomac, Maryland wrote in to push back on the “A story that matters” section about a tax break provision in the new coronavirus bill. “The Intercept is incorrect when it states that the vast majority of business deductions are used by wealthy corporations and that the fix they're proposing in the latest relief package will largely benefit the wealthy,” she said.

“I'm not wealthy nor is our publishing enterprise large — and I know that the tax "fix" in the PPP legislation will benefit a lot of small publishing companies and event businesses that were grateful for the PPP cash as the pandemic took hold. And we deduct expenses. I am aware that the program was abused, but I also know that many, many benefited. And now at year's end, if the expenses — the payrolls — are taxed .... it means that they really only gave us part of the money; the rest they want right back. This is why Congress was surprised by the IRS guidance suggesting PPP expenses were taxable.”

A year ago…

We were breaking down the impeachment scandal and I was answering a reader question about whether I would vote to impeach President Trump. Also, the “Numbers” section was highlighting the incredible fundraising run the Republican National Committee was having…

Quick hits.

  1. COVID-19 cases are dangerously high but holding steady, with 19 predominantly rural states seeing a decrease in cases, 12 states seeing an increase and the rest not seeing significant changes. French President Emmanuel Macron tested positive for the virus yesterday.
  2. A top Trump appointee repeatedly urged top health officials to adopt a “herd immunity” approach to COVID-19 and allow millions of Americans to be infected by the virus, according to emails obtained by Politico.
  3. Joe Biden’s incoming deputy chief of staff Jen O’Malley Dillon is under fire for referring to Republicans as “f—ers” and calling Mitch McConnell “terrible” in an interview with Glamour magazine. Biden’s team says despite the “spicy” language, O’Malley Dillon was making the point you sometimes have to work with people you may not trust.
  4. Thomas P. Bossert, the former homeland security adviser under President Trump, says the networks used by government officials to communicate have been totally “compromised” by hackers. “The magnitude of this ongoing attack is hard to overstate,” he wrote in a New York Times op-ed.
  5. President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President Mike Pence say they will get the COVID-19 vaccine publicly. Pence’s inoculation will be on Friday and could be broadcast on national television.

What D.C. is talking about.

Pete Buttigieg. President-elect Joe Biden officially named Buttigieg to head the U.S. Transportation Department on Tuesday, one of the most important Cabinet posts in the country. Buttigieg will oversee 53,000 employees and he’ll be responsible for a department that regulates our airlines, railroads, commercial trucking, mass transportation and even pipelines.

Buttigieg became the first Democratic candidate for president (besides Kamala, who became vice president) to join Biden’s team. After dropping out of the race, Buttigieg was one of the most prominent surrogates for the Biden campaign, frequently appearing on Fox News and CNN to discuss Biden’s policies. He is said to have bonded with the president-elect during the early parts of the race, and it was always expected that Biden would make giving him a post in the Cabinet a priority.

His appointment as Secretary of Transportation is another step in a remarkable rise for “Mayor Pete” in national politics. Buttigieg served as mayor of South Bend, Indiana, from January 2012 to January 2020. He served in the War in Afghanistan in 2015 and he was briefly in the running for chair of the Democratic National Committee in 2017. When he announced his run for president, he was viewed as a long shot — but he gained significant momentum early on in the campaign, even leading in the contentious Iowa caucuses that opened the race.

At 38, Buttigieg would have been the youngest president in American history. If confirmed, Buttigieg will also be a historic pick: he’ll be the first openly gay Cabinet secretary approved by the Senate. Richard Grenell, who is openly gay, served as the Acting Director of National Intelligence in the Trump administration.

Buttigieg will be replacing Elaine Chao, who took over the position in January of 2017. Chao, who was born in Taipei, Taiwan, and immigrated to the U.S. when she was 8 years old, had worked in senior Transportation positions under Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. She also led organizations like the Peace Corps and United Way. She is married to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. In 2019, Chao was investigated by a House ethics committee for allegations she leveraged her position for personal and family benefit (Chao’s family runs a prominent shipping company).

What the left is saying.

Generally speaking, the left is happy. Buttigieg has drawn some ire from the progressive wing of the party and Bernie Sanders’ supporters in particular, but he’s had some experience at the local level in the transportation space. He’s also been a loyal foot soldier for the Biden campaign, and many view him as one of the most articulate and reliable spokespeople for the Democratic party’s positions.

“Is Pete Buttigieg the most deserving person for this job?” Henry Grabar asked in Slate. “Emphatically not. Does he know the most about transit? I’m not even sure he knows the most about transit among former Slate bloggers. It’s a fitting turn for a man who, to his enemies, represents how America’s failing institutions reward shiny credentials and unprincipled striving above experience or demonstrated success.

“And yet some optimism is warranted… In his time as the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, Buttigieg was a standout on urban-design issues. He legalized accessory dwelling units (which, besides increasing housing availability, has the potential to reduce commutes), reduced and eliminated parking requirements, focused on reducing impervious surfaces (which are a major factor in urban flooding), and tried to make the streets safer for pedestrians. He pushed for a faster and more reliable rail connection to Chicago. In 2016, his work in South Bend won a handful of awards from the U.S. Department of Transportation, including then-Secretary Anthony Foxx’s award for overall success, recognizing South Bend’s efforts to build safer streets.”

In Bloomberg, Noah Smith argued that Buttigieg could “finally give the U.S. its infrastructure day.

“The biggest transportation issue on everyone’s mind is infrastructure. Not only are U.S. roads and bridges perpetually falling apart, but big construction spending is needed as a stimulus to boost the country out of its post-pandemic doldrums… That’s where Buttigieg comes in. He spent several years working as a McKinsey & Co. consultant. During that time, he consulted for various federal government agencies. Now, you may have a problem with McKinsey’s ethics, but you have to admit they know their stuff when it comes to cost-cutting. Buttigieg is therefore uniquely qualified to get to the bottom of U.S. infrastructure costs.”

In Jacobin Magazine, Liza Featherstone criticized Buttigieg’s experience at McKinsey, noting that the firm is responsible for some of the biggest mass layoffs in U.S. history.

“Experience at McKinsey is taken by many in government to signal that a person is smart, because of the firm’s well-known hiring preference for Ivy League whiz kids like Mayor Pete,” she wrote. “But as the power of the grassroots left grows, that perception could change… it would be a mistake for us [on the left] to throw up our hands and give up on Biden — and not giving up means strenuously rejecting appointees like Buttigieg from companies like McKinsey.”

What the right is saying.

The right has been critical of Buttigieg, accusing Biden of simply finding a place for him to land whether he’s qualified for the post or not.

“Joe Biden had reportedly considered his former primary rival to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs and then to head to Beijing as our ambassador to China,” Tiana Lowe wrote in the Washington Examiner. “If all three of the positions the president-elect had in mind for Buttigieg seem completely unrelated, that's because they are.

Lowe adds that Buttigieg’s “greatest transportation feat until now was making South Bend's downtown streets more pedestrian-friendly,” but concedes it’s “not worth fighting” a nominee running an operation as bureaucratic as the Transportation Department. “But Buttigieg's nomination cannot be interpreted as anything other than Biden repaying a political debt to the former mayor who crucially bowed out of the Democratic primary before Super Tuesday and endorsed Biden, arguably securing his eventual victory in the primary and then the White House.”

In Hot Air, Karen Townsend said Buttigieg is “failing up” and getting rewarded for his support of Biden.

“There are stories about Mayor Pete and train whistles,” she wrote. “South Bend was a quiet zone for years and problems arose when the Grand Trunk Western — a subsidiary of Canadian National Railway — began blasting warning whistles at crossings and residents were losing sleep at night. Apparently, Buttigieg wrote about tackling this problem in his book. It sounds like a typical problem a small city mayor would handle but that kind of experience doesn’t normally elevate a mayor to a presidential cabinet position.

“Is Mayor Pete a good manager, though?” she asked. “He had a pothole problem in South Bend which he didn’t address to the satisfaction of his fellow South Bend residents… while city residents waited for their streets to be repaired and stop having to get their vehicles repaired due to damage from potholes, Mayor Pete’s street was re-paved though it wasn’t even on the list to be re-paved. That sort of petty special treatment doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in his leadership abilities.”

In The Wall Street Journal, Daniel Henninger said Biden’s Cabinet picks are becoming an “absurdist exercise in box-checking appeasement,” and accused the administration of a “diversity spoils system.

“Mr. Biden’s 81 million votes and his presidency are undeniably an aggregation of diverse voters in the U.S., and yes, he tailored appeals to them. The question now is whether he or any American president should be able to assemble a government whose goal is to give the country the best possible execution of policy, or whether the presidency should be first of all a vessel through which competing factions receive [appointments] based on who or what they are.”

My take.

A few years ago, I saw Pete Buttigieg speak live in New York City before he had really entered the public consciousness. It was, and is still, one of the most impressive showings I’ve ever seen from a politician. He responded to questions, interacted easily with guests, spoke respectfully to people who clearly disagreed with him and articulated positions in a way that naturally created a big tent — I remember telling my friend I went with as we left that he was going to be a household name soon. So far he has not disappointed.

Look, I didn’t know where Buttigieg was going to land. I thought maybe he’d end up at the United Nations or Veterans Affairs. He can speak approximately twelve million languages (editor’s note: slight exaggeration) fluently and has served in the military, so either post would have been an easy sell to the public. Like many of Biden’s picks, this one feels a little off to me — just as Xavier Becerra should have been Attorney General and not head of Health and Human Services, or the way Lloyd Austin as Defense Secretary creates other problems. It’s not nearly as bad as Antony Blinken for Secretary of State or Neera Tanden on the economic team, but it’s no slam dunk either.

I get the haters, trust me. Buttigieg has heavy corporate experience, he’s got the perfect resume, he’s squeaky clean and always on script and he’s “so smart” and your mom loves him and there’s just something that doesn’t feel genuine about his whole shtick sometimes. He’s annoying and slippery. And all the people who feel that way, including me, are petty children.

Is he qualified? Not really. He was the mayor of a city of 100,000 people and now he’s going to inherit a $72 billion budget and 53,000 employees. Most Americans can’t properly wrap their heads around how important, and wide-reaching, some of these Cabinet positions are. But to put it in perspective, the 2020 budget in South Bend, Indiana, was $358 million. That means the Transportation Department budget is about 201 times bigger, and he’ll oversee enough employees to cover more than half the population of the town he ran as mayor.

It’s also true that the Transportation Department is going to be critical to the Biden administration. People who describe this as a dead-end, last-ditch job to take, are on a different planet, in my opinion. Transportation will be crucial to Biden’s jobs plan, which relies heavily on rebuilding our infrastructure. It will be critical to fighting climate change. And it’s going to be more important than ever given that the pandemic just crippled the airline and mass transit industries. This is not a snoozefest job, though it is clearly a thank you for Buttigieg’s work on the campaign.

But you know what? Let’s see what he’s made of. I’m excited about the prospect of a young leader who is ambitious enough to do the best job he can and prove he’s as smart as people think he is. I’m excited that we have a small town’s mayor running a major federal organization — local politics is the real lifeblood of this country and giving someone like Buttigieg this kind of clout is a nice change of pace. Buttigieg has focused on the future of city life and transit as mayor, and he’s got forward-looking and novel proposals that other politicians don’t.

Our infrastructure is crumbling, and our Transportation Department under Elaine Chao has done very little to fix it. As Grabar put it, “We spend way too much money building new roads, we drive too much, and our gas is too cheap. We have more square footage devoted to parking cars than to housing people. Air travel is dominated by four companies, treats customers like cattle, and is teetering on the edge of collapse. Transit operations, from Amtrak to local buses, are decades behind on global best practices.”

And we’re due for a change. I’m excited about some fresh blood and I’ll withhold my judgment until I see how he does. It could end up being one of Biden’s best picks, and Buttigieg’s work could propel him to a future as a Senator or even president. He knows that, so whether it’s cynical and self-serving or not, he’s going to give it his best effort. That’s more than I can say about a lot of people in government now, and I genuinely believe Buttigieg wants to prove he can help make the country a better place to live. That gives me hope.

Your Blindspot.

As part of a partnership with Ground News, an app and website that tracks the political bias in news reporting, I feature parts of Ground News’s “Blindspot Report” in Tangle. The Blindspot Report tells you what stories folks on the left and right miss each week because of their media echochambers.

The right missed a story about the Trump administration smuggling in armed Mexicans to guard his border wall, according to a whistleblower report.

The left missed a story about New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office being a “toxic” work environment where employees are “deathly afraid of him,” according to a former aide.

Want to check out Ground News’s bias ratings, blindspot reports or other news sources? Click here.

Take the poll.

Instead of a reader question today, I’m asking everyone to take another reader poll. For those who have been around for a while, you know Tangle loves to conduct reader polls. This is an opportunity for me to get a sense of what my readers think, solicit feedback on the newsletter, and get an idea of who is reading this newsletter.

Some of you filled out a brief survey when you subscribed, but I try to conduct polls every month or so. After I sent out the last one (in October), I didn’t get a chance to go through and write back to everyone I wanted to, and I’m still catching up on those responses and the surveys you filled out when you subscribed.

In this poll, I’m also soliciting questions from you about the COVID-19 vaccine. I’m trying to interview an expert in vaccine development who can answer questions you might have — so feel free to fire away about anything you want to know. As always, leaving your email is optional, and I just ask that you only take the poll once (honor system). If you leave your email, I’ll try to reply at some point. And remember, you can always reach me by replying to these emails.

Take the poll!

A story that matters.

Business Insider’s Anthony Fisher is out with a troubling op-ed on the state of America’s mental health, and what should be a priority for Americans heading into this winter. “A new Gallup poll shows Americans' mental health is in its worst state since the company began recording such data in 2001,” he writes. “Just 34% rate their mental health as ‘excellent,’ a nine percentage point drop from 2019. (The high-water mark for Americans' "excellent" mental health was 51% in 2004.) A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention survey released in August found 25.5% of young adults aged 18-24 had "seriously considered suicide" as a result of the pandemic. Among all adults, symptoms of anxiety disorder were reported to have more than tripled — from 8.1% to 25.5% over the past year. The number of adults reporting symptoms of depressive disorder roughly quadrupled, from 6.5% to 24.3%, during the same period.”

Fisher’s advice? Just talk about it. “Therapy, medication, consistent sleep cycles, and regular exercise are among the most recommended courses of action for people experiencing mental health crises,” he writes. And if it’s a friend or family member in the pits, he notes “the simple act of active listening, rather than trying to solve someone's problem for them, is among the most effective ways to provide non-professional therapy to friends and family.”

If you or someone you know needs help today, you can find help at the Crisis Text Line and the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. They’re free and available 24/7: Text “HELLO” to the Crisis Text Line at 741741. Call the Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.


  • 209,000. The average number of new COVID-19 cases every day for the past week.
  • 10 million. The number of videos removed from the adult website PornHub after an exposé in The New York Times about underage and nonconsensual content on the site.
  • 10. The number of states that joined a lawsuit alleging Google overcharged publishers for ads sold around the web.
  • $900 billion. The estimated price tag of the coronavirus relief bill being negotiated in Congress.
  • 900,000. The estimated number of people who applied for jobless benefits last week.
  • $300. The estimated weekly boost to unemployment benefits that will be included in the coronavirus relief bill.
  • $90 billion. The estimated amount of money in the bill that will go to emergency aid for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).


This afternoon, I’m interviewing election expert David Becker to talk about the 2020 election fraud allegations, how we can improve our elections going forward and what, if any, concerns he has about the results. Paying subscribers will get a full transcription of our conversation tomorrow.

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Have a nice day.

With remote learning in full swing, schools across the country have embraced a disastrously bad policy: abolishing the snow day. That’s right, one of America’s greatest traditions is at threat now that the infrastructure for remote learning is in place. Thankfully, though, some leaders are smarter than to let snow days die. Check out this tear-jerker of a letter, which was submitted by a reader to Axios, from a superintendent in West Virginia:

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