In the 1960s, there was a professor and business analyst named Lawrence J. Peter. He became famous for coming up with something called the Peter Principle. The informal way to describe it was this: In a business hierarchy, an employee does well and is promoted. He does well in his new, higher-level job, and is promoted again. He does well in that position and is promoted yet again. Finally, he rises to a job that is beyond his abilities. He is no longer promoted and stays in the job he does not do well.
"In a hierarchy, every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence," Peter wrote. "In time, every post tends to be occupied by an employee who is incompetent to carry out its duties. Work is accomplished by those employees who have not yet reached their level of incompetence."
It was bitterly funny and true. And now we are seeing the Peter Principle in action, fittingly in a person named Peter, at the Biden administration Department of Transportation.
Secretary Pete Buttigieg has mishandled several crises that have come into his area of responsibility. One was the supply-chain crisis. The other was the Southwest Airlines meltdown. And most recently has been the disastrous train derailment and chemical spill in East Palestine, Ohio. In response, Buttigieg has received the most intense criticism of his career. He is not reacting well.
Over the weekend, Buttigieg unburdened himself to CNN. He "admits he got it wrong on the Ohio train derailment response," CNN reported, and even concedes that his critics have a point. "But while the criticism is fair, he says, the critics are mostly not," the CNN article continued.
Buttigieg then launched into a tirade of anger, self-pity, and sheer non sequitur that one might not have expected from a Harvard-educated Rhodes scholar. But out it came. "It's really rich to see some of these folks -- the former president, these Fox hosts -- who are literally lifelong card-carrying members of the East Coast elite," Buttigieg told CNN, "whose top economic policy priority has always been tax cuts for the wealthy, and who wouldn't know their way around a T.J. Maxx if their life depended on it, to be presenting themselves as if they genuinely care about the forgotten middle of the country. You think Tucker Carlson knows the difference between a T.J. Maxx and a Kohl's?"
Huh? Faced with criticism of his botching the extraordinarily serious matter of the East Palestine derailment, after the Southwest debacle, after the supply-chain mess -- after all that, Buttigieg's response is to ask: "You think Tucker Carlson knows the difference between a T.J. Maxx and a Kohl's?" It simply made no sense. You know that saying about living rent-free in someone's head? It appears some at Fox News have taken up residence inside the Buttigieg cranium.
His poor performance in office is especially damaging to Buttigieg because he wants to become president of the United States. Indeed, most Americans first heard of Buttigieg in 2020 when, as the 37 year-old former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, having served in no other public office, he ran for the Democratic nomination for president. He sort of won the Iowa caucuses ("sort of" because state Democrats made a hash of the vote counting) but later faltered before the rise of Joe Biden in the race for the Democratic nomination.
But Buttigieg had created a national image for himself. Before, who knew this guy, this former mayor of a town of 103,353 people? Afterward, he was something of a Democratic star. He was smart, from the heartland, had served in the military in a deployment to Afghanistan, gay, had a husband named Chasten, and, once in Washington, adopted two infant boys and went on a long parental leave. What was not for a Democrat to like?
Buttigieg was widely known to still harbor presidential ambitions. Indeed, when President Biden's job approval dipped, when he messed up one thing or another, and when Democrats focused on the president's advanced age, Buttigieg was waiting in the wings, ready to step in should Biden decide not to run.
Ready, at least, until his recent troubles. Taking the transportation secretary job might have seemed like a good resume-builder for Buttigieg, giving him some national experience and allowing him to prove his ability to run a large organization, in this case, the 58,622-employee Department of Transportation. But now, the job has done just the opposite -- it has shown Buttigieg to be unable to handle running a large organization when faced with the sort of crises that happen on an unfortunately regular basis.
The Peter Principle suggests that Peter Buttigieg, at just 41 years of age, has already risen to his level of incompetence. It's fair to say many national Democrats did not expect a rising star to peak so soon, and Buttigieg himself certainly did not. But moving up has its risks, and unfortunately for himself, and for the nation, Buttigieg has found a job he cannot do.
Byron York is chief political correspondent for The Washington Examiner.