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Is Amy Klobuchar a moderate?

Across the spectrum, Klobuchar holds positions that until recently were considered the definition of liberalism, and even on the left edge of that definition. 

Sen. Amy Klobuchar
Across the spectrum, Sen. Amy Klobuchar holds positions that until recently were considered the definition of liberalism, and even on the left edge of that definition. Now those positions look moderate.
MinnPost file photo by Craig Lassig

This will eventually be about Amy Klobuchar’s place in the Democratic presidential field, but let me start with a different presidential candidate from three cycles back.

In a video, taken in 2003, Barack Obama, a mere Illinois state legislator starting a longshot bid for a U.S. Senate seat, said:  

I happen to be a proponent of a single-payer universal health care program. I see no reason why the United States of America, the wealthiest country in the history of the world, spending 14 percent of its gross national product on health care, cannot provide basic health insurance to everybody. And that’s what Jim is talking about when he says everybody in, nobody out. A single-payer health care plan, a universal health care plan. That’s what I’d like to see. But as all of you know, we may not get there immediately. Because first we’ve got to take back the White House, we’ve got to take back the Senate, and we’ve got to take back the House.

After that man won that Senate seat, and then became president — at a time when his party controlled the White House, the Senate and the (other) House — he led the push to create the Affordable Care Act (now generally known as Obamacare). Obamacare is not “single payer” nor any other form of “universal” health care coverage, but did succeed in reducing the uninsured portion of the U.S. population to the lowest level it had ever reached. Still, even at the peak of Obamacare, the United States continued to have a far larger share of its population uninsured than most wealthy industrialized democracies. And we certainly didn’t get single payer or any of the other systems that provide pretty much universal health care coverage to other nations’ populations.

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I’m not sure how close he has ever come to admitting it, but I believe that the now grey-haired ex-president probably agrees with what his young self said back in 2003. But even by the time of that same election cycle, he had stopped being so clear about it. The political and practical realities – the long American aversion to anything that can be called “socialism” and the power of the for-profit health industries – told him that he couldn’t get anywhere politically or practically, pushing the heavy rock labeled “socialized medicine” or even the less-scary-sounding “single-payer” up that steep double-black-diamond hill.

But times have changed in America, and certainly within the Democratic Party’s electorate. A man who openly called himself a socialist, Bernie Sanders, came close to winning the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination. That never happened before. And no one to this day knows whether Sanders might’ve ended up doing better in the finals than Hillary Clinton did.

Many of the new darlings of the Democratic Party are unafraid to call themselves socialists. And most of the known aspirants for the 2020 Democratic nomination have endorsed some form of universal coverage, single-payer or otherwise.

Our senior senator, Amy Klobuchar, who is expected to launch her presidential bid Sunday, has never come out in favor of single payer or any other plan that provides or guarantees health insurance to everyone. But, short of that, the solidly liberal Klobuchar has supported pretty much every idea that has come along during her career that would shrink the ranks of the uninsured.

Here is the most recent statement I can find online about Klobuchar’s views on health care. Not very long ago it would have been viewed as almost unimaginably liberal. Almost everything in it is about increasing access to more and better health care at better prices to consumers, especially the families of the working poor who make a little too much to qualify for Medicaid.

She favors allowing Medicare to be authorized to more aggressively negotiate with drug companies to drive down prices (the “Empowering Medicare Seniors to Negotiate Drug Prices Act”). She favors a “public option” that would allow people who are not old enough for Medicare or poor enough for Medicaid to buy into those programs.

I mentioned in a recent post that there are two versions of what could be called “Medicare for All.” One version, which the leftmost Democratic candidates are supporting, is really a name for single-payer, which could virtually do away with private insurance. Kamala Harris and Bernie Sanders favor that.

The more moderate version would allow anyone who wants to to buy into Medicare. It would be universal “access,” but not universal coverage, because some would not use that option and would remain uninsured. Pending her announcement, that appears to be what Klobuchar favors. It’s a perfect example of my overall point: Not long ago, a sitting senator advocating a universal option to buy into Medicare would have represented the leftmost wing of the Democratic Party. Now it makes you a moderate.

Klobuchar has not signed on to Sanders’ single-payer health care bill, commonly called Medicare for All. She said it “should be considered,” but prefers “a sensible transition” such as allowing people to buy into Medicare, or expanding Medicare it to cover those 55 (as opposed to the current 65 )and older.

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Her push to make college more affordable is not as expansive as the left would like. While she has denounced Trump’s border policies, she has not joined the movement to abolish the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.

At the risk of running on too long today, I won’t go issue by issue. Across the spectrum, Klobuchar holds positions that until recently were considered the definition of liberalism, and even on the left edge of that definition. Now those positions look moderate, and, some will say, too moderate for the energized Democrats of today.

I’ll make the point one more way. I looked up Klobuchar’s annual ratings by Americans for Democratic Action. For most of my life, the ADA was sort of the definition of “liberalism” in the United States.

Since she joined the Senate in 2007, Klobuchar has never gotten a rating lower than 85 percent from the ADA. In three years, ADA scored her at 100 percent. (One year, she was among only three who got a perfect ADA rating.) For seven years, she served alongside Al Franken and they were never more than five points apart ADA ratings-wise. These are the ADA scores of a very solid liberal, which is what Klobuchar always has been and still is.

But the word “liberal” is going out of fashion in the activist wing of the Democrat Party and the word “socialist” is becoming a word you can call yourself in some places without committing political suicide. The energy of the party is concentrated at that end.

The success of Bernie Sanders in 2016 energized that end. Many of the leading candidates for the nomination are at that end. And many of them will call Klobuchar, who is still a solid liberal, a moderate. And on today’s new spectrum, that may be accurate. Which brings us to the question of electability.

For most of my life, Democrats shied away from nominating candidates from their own left wing. And when they did go left — think George McGovern in 1972 — it didn’t go well. The argument was that a too-far-left nominee would scare away moderate voters, which would cost Democrats the election. That argument is still out there, and I assume it is an argument will be deployed on behalf of Klobuchar and others who are not in the Sanders-Warren-Harris wing of the party.

Of course, the defeat of Hillary Clinton, who was nominated in part based on the idea that she was electable and Sanders was not, was a blow to that argument, but hardly dispositive.

The counter-argument is that a leftier Democratic nominee will excite increased turnout among groups that sometimes don’t turn out, like younger voters and voters of color, as well as reduce the number of votes the party will lose to Socialist and Green Party alternative tickets.

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Klobuchar’s truly impressive record of landslide wins in her Senate races will help her make an electability argument. But Harris and Sanders and Warren and others have won many elections, too, all of them in blue states. The Klobuchar argument will probably be that she can compete in purple states if she is harder to label as a big-government, borderline socialist lefty.

Right after the midterms, when the national punditocracy started focusing on the possible huge field of Democratic presidential candidates, the New York Times turned its gaze toward Klobuchar and encapsulated the question/dilemma I’ve been exploring today. The piece included this:

But while winning over independents and some centrist Republicans, as Ms. Klobuchar has done, may be an asset in a general election, it could be a hindrance in a Democratic primary dominated by the left. Although she is hardly a centrist, Ms. Klobuchar departs from progressive orthodoxy on several fronts.

She has not signed onto Mr. Sanders’s single-payer health care bill, commonly called Medicare for All; she said it “should be considered,” but prefers “a sensible transition” such as allowing people to buy into Medicare, or expanding it to cover those 55 and older. Her push to make college more affordable is not as expansive as the left would like. While she has denounced Mr. Trump’s border policies, she has not joined the movement to abolish the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.

“She’s a perfectly fine Democrat,” said Adam Green, a founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, “but if we’re looking for a transformational leader and someone who’s going to elevate big, bold ideas and systemic change, others like Elizabeth Warren seem to fit the bill a little bit more head on.”