WASHINGTON – It is said that no politician travels to Iowa to give a speech unless they plan to run for president. So the announcement this week that South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg is scheduled to be a headline speaker at a Des Moines political event in September begs the question: What is Pete up to? He will be speaking along with Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley, who is by all accounts mulling a presidential run.
Undoubtedly, Buttigieg is a rising star in the Democratic Party. He earned rave reviews for his recent dark horse campaign for Democratic National Committee Chair.  Though he didn’t win sufficient commitments from the delegates to seriously compete for the post, his message of reforming the party by going outside-the-Beltway resonated. Nearly all of the former DNC Chairs, including Howard Dean and Ed Rendell, endorsed him. He clearly elevated his national stature, one that was already climbing.
The Democratic Party is in desperate need of the kind of change that Buttigieg advocates and offers. The party’s 2016 presidential candidate lost to possibly the least prepared candidate in American history. Republicans control both Houses of Congress and two-thirds of the governor’s offices. Republicans have veto proof majority’s in nearly half of the state legislatures in the county. As Bernie Sanders points out in an opinion editorial this week in The New York Times, “If these results are not a clear manifestation of a failed political strategy, I don’t know what is.”
A Buttigieg presidential campaign would undoubtedly point the party in the right direction, just as his DNC race did. It would be a magnet for young activists and organized at the grass roots. And, his focus on winning back working class white voters would help him with a critical and too often ignored segment of the party. But, his youth and inexperience in national affairs would likely undermine prospects for any realistic success in a presidential campaign. In the end, it is hard to see how a Buttigieg presidential campaign would be any more successful than his DNC effort.
During his run for DNC Chair, Buttigieg talked about the importance of building the Democratic Party from the ground up and to start winning back statehouses instead of treating the presidential campaign as the only one that matters. By that, it would seem that Buttigieg is using his Iowa trip and other recent national speaking engagements (last month he gave the commencement speech at the University of Pennsylvania’s Fils Institute of Government) as a platform to continue the conversation he started during his DNC campaign.  
David Axelrod, the architect of Barack Obama’s rise to the presidency, commented to me by e-mail: “Pete’s one of the great talents in the Democratic Party. He has a compelling personal story and has written an impressive record of achievement in public office. That said, I don’t think he is speaking nationally in preparation for a race so much as to try and provide thoughts, as a progressive mayor in the Heartland, about where Democrats should be going.”
Would that be enough to put Buttigieg in the position of influence that he seems to be seeking? It’s not clear that it would. Nor is it clear whether Buttigieg is in a position to move up politically in his home state. He is apparently taking himself out as a candidate for Congress in Indiana’s 2nd District, though that is a race he would stand a good chance of winning. Incumbent Republican Jackie Walorski’s record of accomplishment is thin and 2018 looks to be a good year for Democrats. He has said Congress doesn’t interest him because of the partisan culture and gridlock.
Some have suggested that a run for governor of Indiana is a more logical move. But in 2020 Buttigieg could face the popular Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett in a difficult primary. Even if he won the nomination, he would somehow have to topple the incumbent Republican governor, Eric Holcomb, who so far is avoiding the ideological pitfalls that marked Mike Pence’s tenure.
Axelrod suggests that Buttigieg would be wise to play a major role in a presidential campaign in hopes of landing a top administration position should that candidate win.  But the likely Democratic field—including everyone from former Vice President Joe Biden to the progressive icon Senator Elizabeth Warren to newcomer California Sen. Kamala Harris is huge. It would be a big gamble to attach himself to any one of them early on. And, it would be a wasted effort if his candidate wound up on the losing end.
Such an analysis could land him on the presidential campaign trail as a candidate after all. Even if all he wins is the same kind of positive reaction to his ideas and message that he generated as a DNC Chair candidate, he is probably in a stronger position to influence the direction of the party than running for governor or advising another presidential candidate. And, he could be rewarded for his ideas and approach to government by being asked to join the new administration.  
Pete Buttigieg is a brilliant idea guy and presidential races are usually driven by ideas. A campaign for the presidency would allow him to continue to showcase his ideas and demonstrate that the most successful progressive ones come from outside the Beltway.

Sautter is a Democratic consultant based in Washington.