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Small steps: Klobuchar presents herself as the incremental Democrat

She favors changes that would move in the direction of most liberal goals.

Screen shot from CNN

In New Hampshire Monday night for a CNN Town Hall Forum, Minnesota’s senior senator made quite clear, at least to me, what her pitch will be as she seeks the Democratic nomination for president. And it was what I expected (and pretty much described in this piece). She is a solid liberal who favors pretty much everything liberals have favored for decades, but not as far left as much of the rest of the developing field of Democratic candidates.

Amy Klobuchar is not, on principle, against single payer or any other form of a government guarantee of health care for all, but she’s not exactly for them either, and they are not part of her platform as she runs for the Democratic presidential nomination. She will run on smaller steps that will reduce but not eliminate the ranks of the uninsured.

The “Green New Deal,” a fairly radical (by American standards) collection of proposals, is “aspirational,” she said. Universal health care is “something we can look to in the future.” She seems to think that maybe access to two years of college for everyone is a reasonable goal but a government-paid four years of college for everyone she specifically said she does not favor, at least not in the foreseeable future.

Likewise, she is left of Republicans on everything. She shares the aspirations of health care for all and maybe even someday college for all. But she is not going to run on a platform of a comprehensive government plan to pay for universal health care or universal college or the Green New Deal.

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She favors changes that would move in the direction of those and most other liberal goals. She favors steps in those directions, but smaller steps than many of the other Democratic candidates. Perhaps she would like those who are impatient to achieve those goals to believe that she would go further if she thought it was politically possible, but she does not think it is.

As I argued in a previous piece, this is also an electability argument, although I haven’t heard her make it explicitly in those terms. The argument, I assume, is that many Americans – including many of the moderate swing voters who can determine the outcome of national elections — are still allergic to things that can be labeled as socialism.

The current incumbent has made clear — explicitly and as recently as his State of the Union speech — that he is prepared to hang the S-word around those who are advocating big expansions of government to pay for things like health care for all and college for all. I don’t claim to know whether that will work. Until recently, the S-word was a killer in U.S. politics. Is it still? We may find out.

But Klobuchar seeks to deprive Republicans of that argument by offering incremental steps in the same direction that most Democrats want to go, but not to offer too easy a target to those who will want to denounce all movement toward more and bigger government as “socialism.”

The New Hampshire studio audience seemed to like Klobuchar, and the CNN commentary after the show was also quite favorable. It seemed to me the CNN crew was actually giving her credit for having the courage to promise less than some of the other candidates have. This was an interesting reversal of the days when seeking the center was considered sort of the opposite of political courage. We live in interesting times.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar revealing what she’d ask President Trump if the two were a part of a hypothetical debate.

There is a complication to the electability argument. There are two electorates to think about. The solid-liberal-but-not-socialist argument might work best for the general election. And presumably Democrats, even those fired up about the Green New Deal, understand the importance of winning the 2020 presidential election.

But to be on the general election ballot, one first has to win the Democratic nomination. The Democratic electorate is much less scared of expanding government and perhaps much more impatient to see bold federal programs to guarantee things like health care and college for all.

Among the major declared candidates so far, Klobuchar sort of has this middle-ish ground to herself. If, as expected, Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown and former Vice President Joe Biden get into the race, she will have some competition for that niche.

Lastly, just to update the stupid ranking of Democratic nomination aspirants, the Washington “Post Pundit 2020 Power Ranking,” in which a group of Post opinion writers rank the Democratic candidates according to their perceived likelihood to become the Dem nominee, has this week – for the second week in a row – ranked Klobuchar at No. 2, behind only Sen. Kamala Harris of California.

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In this week’s ranking, those two are followed by, in order, Biden, Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Brown, and former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke. (Full rankings here, but I wish to reaffirm my belief that no such ranking are worth the pixels they are written in. Pity us. We just can’t help ourselves.)