The subtext was unmistakable. Clinton’s decision not to visit Wisconsin during the 2016 general-election campaign is one that has dogged her ever since. She wound up losing the state by less than one point, and her narrow losses there and in two other states -- Michigan and Pennsylvania -- were what made the difference in the 2016 election.
It’s notable that Klobuchar went there -- on this day of all days -- and it fits something of a burgeoning pattern in the 2020 Democratic primary field. For decades, everyone in Democratic politics knew that you ran afoul of the Clintons at your own peril (the Clintons have even kept a “hit list”), but some 2020 hopefuls aren’t being so shy about distancing themselves from them anymore.
The most high-profile example has been Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.), who has said that, in retrospect, Bill Clinton should have resigned as president. That was a particularly stunning comment, given that the Clintons have served as Gillibrand’s benefactors and she occupies Clinton’s old Senate seat. Here was Gillibrand saying something that could help recast views of Bill Clinton’s legacy, and she was doing it as her own national aspirations were taking off.
On a smaller scale, we’ve seen a couple of other 2020 hopefuls wander close to this third rail of Democratic politics. Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.), whom Hillary Clinton defeated in the 2016 Democratic primary, suggested last year that Clinton’s campaign should have done more with what it knew about Russian efforts to interfere in the 2016 campaign. "The real question to be asked is what was the Clinton campaign [doing]? They had more information about this than we did,” Sanders said in an interview with Vermont Public Radio. In 2017, he responded to Clinton’s attacks on him in her book by saying, “Secretary Clinton ran against the most unpopular candidate in this country and she still lost.”
None of these candidates, it should be emphasized, have made attacking the Clintons anything amounting to a 2020 campaign strategy. Brown’s criticism was much more tempered than that of some other Democrats at the time, including then-Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (N.D.) who said Clinton couldn’t go away “soon enough.” Gillibrand has made pains to clarify that she is still a huge admirer of Hillary Clinton, saying last year that she “is still my greatest role model in politics.” And Sanders has been far less critical of Clinton than she has been of him. A reluctance to alienate the Clintons and foment internal Democratic fights still clearly exists.
Klobuchar’s comment, though, seems to suggest that she might see some value in contrasting herself with Clinton. Her biggest asset as a 2020 candidate, after all, might be pragmatism and electability -- the idea that, as a Midwestern candidate and a respected-if-understated senator, she could be Democrats’ best hope for victory. Using Clinton’s underperformance in 2016 as something Democrats should be wary of repeating with a coastal, big-city candidate makes sense.
We’ll see if she continues to pursue it, or if it was just a one-off. And we’ll see whether Democrats continue to see value in arguing that it’s time to turn the page. The Clintons’ legacy in the Democratic Party hangs in the balance.