In a Democratic primary field filled with partisan warriors, Sen. Amy Klobuchar is sometimes cast as too moderate, too “Minnesota nice” to fire up the Democratic base and win back the White House.
“Some people will find her boring,” says Steve Schier, a political science professor at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota. “But Trump may have made boring attractive.”
Within the Democratic Party, there’s unanimity about the urgency of replacing President Donald Trump. But there’s an internal debate about how best to do that, a debate that could be described as fighters versus peacemakers – the Bernies versus the Betos. The fighters are passionate, even angry, about systemic economic and racial injustices that they say President Trump did not cause but has accelerated. The peacemakers are more concerned with partisan polarization and the coarsening of national discourse, which they believe is undermining America’s strengths and ability to surmount the challenges it faces.
Enter Senator Klobuchar, who is in some ways trying to be both: positioning herself as a fighter who can bring America together – with neither angry speeches nor kumbaya sessions, but with conviction and heart.
“[She] is clearly ready to fight and be critical of the president,” says Neil Levesque, director of the New Hampshire Institute of Politics at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, which hosted Senator Klobuchar for a Politics & Eggs event last week. “But a lot of what she said is ‘We’ve got to bring everyone together.’”
The senator and her supporters argue that you don’t need to be an ideological crusader to beat President Trump. She has one of the strongest records of any Democrat when it comes to winning over moderate and conservative voters; in 2018, she won 42 Minnesota counties that went for President Trump two years prior. And as she talks about civility and needing to bridge America’s divides, she also emphasizes that she’s got a backbone of steel – fittingly for the granddaughter of an iron ore miner in northern Minnesota.
On Tuesday, she released a plan outlining more than 100 “concrete steps” she would take during her first 100 days in the White House – everything from rejoining the Paris climate agreement to allowing prescription drugs to be imported from Canada to updating Department of Justice guidelines on enforcing antitrust laws.
“If you’re a progressive, you’d better make progress. You can’t just talk about it; you actually have to get things done,” Senator Klobuchar said to reporters after her Politics & Eggs appearance.
Ranked the most effective Democratic senator in the 2017-19 Congress, she has passed more bills than any other lawmaker running for president – including nearly five times as many as fellow senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders.
She is currently lagging well behind both of them in the latest Iowa poll, however, with only 4% support in the state that will kick off the Democratic nomination process next February. Heading into the first Democratic debates next week, her national poll numbers average around 1%.
“The odds don’t favor her,” says Professor Schier. “When you have 24 candidates, the probability of anyone who is not already well known nationally [winning the nomination] is pretty low.”
Still, as a Minnesota Vikings fan, she knows things don’t always end up the way they start. And maybe, for once, that could work in a Minnesotan’s favor.
THE RIGHT KIND OF FIGHTER?
Senator Klobuchar kicked off her presidential campaign outdoors on a 14-degree day in the middle of a Minneapolis snowstorm. No hat, no gloves. Because she wanted people to know she has grit.
But that image of toughness got the wrong kind of burnishing thanks to a series of stories about her track record as a demanding boss, including a New York Times piece about how Senator Klobuchar – exasperated with an aide who forgot to get her utensils to eat a takeout salad on the plane – ate her salad with a comb and then told the staffer to clean it. The story was based on four former staffers’ accounts, none of whom spoke on the record.
“I know I can be tough; I know I can push people too hard, and I also know I can do better – and I will,” Senator Klobuchar told the Minneapolis Star Tribune in a statement.
Former staffer Zach Rodvold likened working for her to Navy SEAL training. “It’s not intended to be fun. It’s hard,” he told the Star Tribune. “But what you get from it is you become very, very good at what you do.”
It is perhaps ironic that a candidate criticized in the press for being too tough as a boss is conversely being portrayed as not enough of a fighter to go to bat for progressive issues, or to take on President Trump.
But Democratic voters are looking for a particular kind of tough, and New Hampshire resident Marie Duggan for one isn’t sure Senator Klobuchar fits the bill. Back in March, she told the Monitor she could see the Minnesota senator breaking up banks – in contrast to former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke, whom she had come to see at Keene State College, where she teaches economics. But after hearing Senator Klobuchar in person later this spring, she was less impressed.
“Amy is obviously a fighter by temperament, but she’s not going to show that to us,” says Professor Duggan, who is still paying off her student debt 18 years after finishing her Ph.D. and feels an urgency about fixing a broken economic system. “For me, a person that’s drowning in the current situation – she didn’t say that she would do anything about it.”
‘SO NEW HAMPSHIRE!’
For a candidate who’s been criticized as both bland and overbearing, Senator Klobuchar is surprisingly dynamic and warm on the campaign trail.
“She loves people; she loves talking to people. More importantly, what I’ve observed is she really listens to people,” says Karen Cornelius, one of the senator’s closest friends in law school who is now working as an unpaid special adviser to the campaign in New Hampshire.
She describes a lesser-known side of the senator as a student at the University of Chicago, where she was the smartest member of their four-woman study group but also loved going out and dancing to Prince and Tina Turner. “She’s not what would be described as a nerd at all,” Ms. Cornelius says. “She was a rock star.”
Whereas other candidates on the trail here often begin with their personal story – Mr. O’Rourke launched right into talking about his hometown of El Paso and his views on the southern border crisis before a crowd of people who live within a bike ride of Canada – Senator Klobuchar starts with the people of New Hampshire.
She calls out more than half a dozen attendees, lauds the work of the state’s two female senators, and extols an 11-year-old who asked for her autograph in church on Easter Sunday and then showed up the next day at a town hall meeting in Peterborough, N.H., where he raised his hand during the Q&A. “I’d like to know if you think if Bob Mueller testifies,” she recalls the boy asking, “should he go before the House or Senate first, and should he be at the intelligence committee or the judiciary?”
“So New Hampshire!” she tells the crowd.
Not one for soaring rhetoric, Senator Klobuchar instead drills down on issues that New Hampshire voters care about – like the opioid crisis and access to broadband internet.
Iceland, she says, is wired for broadband. “I’ve been there – because that’s a vacation for people from Minnesota,” she jokes.
She pokes fun at President Trump – we have to use humor back at him, she tells the crowd – but also makes serious policy proposals on everything from immigration and infrastructure to mental health. But the tone remains bright throughout, without the Sturm und Drang that characterizes some of her rivals’ stump speeches. She talks about governing from a standpoint of opportunity, rather than chaos and division.
“Anger is not a plan. Anger is not how you govern. Anger is how we got to where we are right now,” says Michael Atkins, a lawyer in Peterborough who came to hear the senator at the Politics & Eggs breakfast.
That said, he and his law firm partner, Jim Callahan, haven’t the slightest concern about whether she’s tough enough to parry President Trump’s jabs.
“I think she’s going to bust an aikido move and deftly avoid it,” says Mr. Callahan, who got interested in Senator Klobuchar after seeing her calm but firm questioning of then-Judge Brett Kavanaugh during last fall’s contentious Supreme Court confirmation hearings. “She’ll turn it on its head to her advantage.”
“You don’t have to fight back with insults and the like,” agrees Mr. Atkins. “You should fight back with strength of character.”
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