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How to rebuild the Democratic Party after losing an election - that is a question one presidential candidate was wrestling with 15 years ago, and it shaped his political path. South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg was a newly minted Harvard graduate studying at Oxford on a Rhodes scholarship. He and his friends created an informal group with a mission to help their party's future. NPR's Asma Khalid reports.
ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: When Pete Buttigieg arrived in England, he was a curious, bookish 23-year-old, known to his friends as Peter. The year was 2005. The Iraq War was raging on. John Kerry had lost the presidential election, and Democrats were soul-searching.
DAN WEEKS: It felt like a pretty dark moment.
KHALID: Dan Weeks was one of Buttigieg's old buddies at Oxford.
WEEKS: I think finding like-minded people who were progressive but weren't quite content with the Clinton, Third Way status quo that had defined the Democratic Party for basically our lifetimes - we were really looking for a way out of that.
KHALID: And so every week, they would meet up with other friends to discuss deep political thoughts. Their group was like a book club, but without books. Together, they called themselves members of the Democratic Renaissance Project.
WEEKS: We were nerdy types, I suppose. It was something more than just the camaraderie, which counted for a lot. We were looking to challenge each other's thinking, especially at that moment when, after almost eight years of George W. Bush, a lot of us were feeling like the country was almost unrecognizable.
KHALID: Sometimes they met in common rooms in the ancient, ornate colleges around Oxford, other times at a local British pub that had been frequented by a now-famous former Rhodes scholar, Bill Clinton. Buttigieg first conceived of the Democratic Renaissance Project with Ganesh Sitaraman, a friend from his undergrad days at Harvard. Sitaraman declined to be interviewed on the record for this story. He's a longtime adviser to Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren. But Sabeel Rahman, who was also a part of the group, says the name the Democratic Renaissance Project was kind of tongue-in-cheek.
SABEEL RAHMAN: It was very informal. We would take turns hosting in our - you know, we'd bring some snacks or something. We'd rotate who would tee up a different topic of conversation.
KHALID: But as ad hoc as it was, there was also a sense of generational urgency that if they wanted to live in a better country, they were going to have to fix the country themselves. And so they wanted to prepare for public service. Sometimes the group would circulate writings by modern-day political theorists about citizenship or progressive values.
Here's Rahman again. He's now president of the progressive group Demos.
RAHMAN: A lot of times, we'd think through some of the policy debates of the day. The Iraq War was one that came up a number of times.
KHALID: Rahman was one of Buttigieg's roommates in Oxford. At the time, Buttigieg was studying politics, philosophy and economics.
PETE BUTTIGIEG: You know, we were students. It was our full-time job to try to think big thoughts and understand how the world works.
KHALID: That's Buttigieg reminiscing over his Oxford days in an interview with me. He says there was an assumption that in order to win elections, Democrats had to contort their values, work within the Republican framework and put a conservative spin on their message.
BUTTIGIEG: There had been a smallness to the aspirations of, I think, our own party because it felt like the - all those years, that whole first decade of this century, it felt like all that Democrats were doing was responding to Republicans.
KHALID: Buttigieg was frustrated that the GOP seemed to have a monopoly on family, patriotism and morality.
I contacted over half a dozen old Democratic Renaissance Project members. Most declined to talk on tape for this story. They didn't want to discuss campaign politics, given their professional ties. But the consensus among former members is that the focus in these discussion groups was on values and philosophy, not so much a specific policy.
Here's Buttigieg again.
BUTTIGIEG: A big part of what we were doing was studying the right. One of the things that we had noticed was that it was actually the American right wing that had built the strongest relationship between kind of ideas and politics.
KHALID: Buttigieg and his friends were obsessed with reforming the Democratic Party. Rahman says he remembers one particular example.
RAHMAN: We actually staged a debate in Oxford. And the frame for the debate was, the Third Way is good for the Democratic Party, yea or nay?
KHALID: The Third Way refers to the moderate Democratic politics of the Bill Clinton era that sought to reconcile centrist economic ideas with progressive social ideas.
Here's Dan Weeks again.
WEEKS: Pete spoke up. I remember he was against that Third Way approach. He was a strong, and I thought, certainly, a pretty compelling critic of that way.
KHALID: Buttigieg's critics now accuse him of being a modern Third Way politician focused on rhetoric. When Buttigieg began his presidential campaign, he spoke about some radical changes, like getting rid of the Electoral College and reforming the Supreme Court. Now that he's seen as a more viable candidate, he's not as vocal about those ideas. I asked Buttigieg how he reconciles how people see him today with his vocal opposition to the Third Way back in the day.
BUTTIGIEG: You know, I think over time, I've come to appreciate more the policy work that comes out of moderate organizations.
KHALID: Those friends who formed the Democratic Renaissance Project never came to a consensus on ideology amongst themselves. Today, some are more centrist, others more liberal. But Sabeel Rahman says there was something that united them.
RAHMAN: I think we came into that space not just with a sense of crisis but with a sense that progressive politics, as it was being practiced in the post-Clinton era, was not up to the task of what we needed progressivism to do.
KHALID: Many friends said the focus on freedom, values and generational change that you hear in Buttigieg today come from all the soul-searching they did as liberal millennials living in a George W. Bush world.
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BUTTIGIEG: If we want to win, we can't look like we're the party of back to normal. What we have now isn't working, but normal wasn't working either. That's part of how we got here.
KHALID: Asma Khalid, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF BERTHOLET AND SEBASTIAN KEMAE'S "CHIMNEY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.