Adhering to the adage that voters will always spot a phony, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) is not trying to be someone else. She isn’t pretending to be the farthest left candidate, nor does she aim to win crowds over with soaring eloquence. She’s not going to out-fire-and-brimstone some of the other contenders. What she is doing is betting voters are sick of strife, dysfunction and hyper-partisanship.
Before a CNN town hall on Monday night, she readily acknowledged she isn’t running as the most progressive candidate. “You’ve gotta be able to be yourself and not just try to be someone different than you’ve been,” she said.
At the town hall, she stuck to that theme. “I think what we need right now in this country is less of this grandstanding and gridlock, less of the shutdowns, which we just saw, and the putdowns, and much more of moving our country forward,” she told the first questioner. She talked about ending the “chaos” that envelops this president.
She pledged to reenter the Paris climate agreement on her first day in office. Nevertheless, she doesn’t fall into the trap of signing onto the Green New Deal, which she rightly said, “This is put out there as an aspiration . . . something that we need to move toward.” For her, “compromise” is not a dirty word. Likewise, she said Medicare-for-all may be a long-term goal, but for now she aims to fix Obamacare and expand coverage.
On the emergency declaration, she delivered in an even tone a concise recitation of the facts and flat condemnation of his actions:
Even when talking emotionally about her father’s alcoholism and how that influenced her work as a prosecutor, she remained upbeat, telling the crowd she and her father “got through that together” and remain close. She said the message of redemption followed her as a prosecutor and into the Senate on her work on drug courts and addiction.
In some ways, she’d be an ideal moderate for a general election. She’s not going to scare ex-Republicans disgusted with Trump. In fact, she talked about the debt Trump has rung up, something self-described conservatives ignore, and refuses to buy into “free college for all.”
She would offer independents who hate acrimony a candidate who likes to point to concrete achievements, even small ones. For pundits and pols bemoaning the loss of “candidates in the middle” and dealmakers, she should be a breath of fresh air. In short, she’s going to appeal to the same voters who turned out in droves in 2018 to elect moderate Democrats (many women) in the suburbs.
The question for her is whether that will work in a Democratic primary, where voters like rhetorical fire and historically have fallen in love with inspirational candidates. Does the “energy is on the left” nostrum actually apply here? Part of the answer will depend on how crowded the left lane becomes (the candidates are piling up already) and whether she can use Iowa and New Hampshire as places where retail politics can overcome other candidates’ money and celebrity.
Klobuchar reminded us she has several skills.
For one, she is terrifically disciplined. She’s got her answer down on the “mean boss” question. “Am I a tough boss sometimes? Yes,” she told an audience member. “Have I pushed people too hard? Yes. But I have kept expectations for myself that are very high. I’ve asked my staff to meet those same expectations.” That’s her answer, and she delivered it confidently (as if she is the job interviewee who, asked her biggest flaw, says, “Gosh, I just work too hard”) without a trace of resentment.
Second, in defense of popular Democratic positions, she often makes conservative arguments. She opposes taking money from the military to pay for the wall because “we should be standing up for the troops.” She sounds like the constitutional conservative that Republicans can no longer be when she says emergency powers should be used, well, for emergencies. That, once more, is an advantage in a general election.
Third, she uses few words to great effect (as she did in the Brett M. Kavanaugh hearings) and, despite her “Minnesota nice” demeanor, can land a zinger now and then. Her succinct, direct speech pattern certainly differentiates her from some long-winded candidates who seem to compete to use the most words to convey a simple point.
At bottom, she really does come across as the kind of Midwestern neighbor you’d trust to give you a good referral for a handyman or to keep an eye on your house when you’re away. (Instead of an impassioned speech about restoring faith in democracy, she said matter-of-factly, “Well, I think the first thing is to stop governing by tweet. Okay? … You see this news on TV, you don’t want your kids to see it.”)
Voters tired of an incumbent president often look for a challenger least like the incumbent. In Klobuchar, voters would have an opportunity to replace incompetence with no-nonsense efficiency, blather with brevity, lies with directness and drama with practicality. There certainly is a need felt by emotionally exhausted voters to return to “normal.” Right now, to many voters, “normal” sounds like nirvana.