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Small steps: Klobuchar presents herself as the incremental Democrat

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.

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.

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.)

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Comments (18)

  1. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 02/20/2019 - 09:13 am.

    “…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.”

    I certainly agree about the “interesting times,” but also agree about the CNN commentary. I was mildly surprised by their positive tone regarding a candidate who is significantly more toward the center than some of the more popular Democratic names out there at present. Whether that will prove to be a winning strategy, I have no idea.

  2. Submitted by Lynnell Mickelsen on 02/20/2019 - 09:22 am.

    Yes, my sons and their friends–all of whom are in their late 20s/early 30s–find incrementalism to be so inspiring. Incrementalism will really rev up the base and bring in new voters, especially the younger ones and Black, Latino and Asian voters.

    Not.

    Incrementalism is partying like it’s 1999.

    Good luck with that, Sen. Klobuchar.

  3. Submitted by Pat Terry on 02/20/2019 - 10:12 am.

    Klobuchar is just being honest and realistic. Yeah, its not very sexy, but people do respond to it.

    When people figure out what Medicare for all actually means – replacing everyone’s health insurance with a single government payor – it becomes extremely unpopular. I hope the candidates climbing over each other to be the furthest left on healthcare aren’t screwing us later on.

    The Democrats won the House by electing moderates. People like AOC and Ilhan Omar get all the headlines, but they just replaced other progressives in safe districts. The pickups were by candidates in suburbs who took Klobuchar’s approach.

  4. Submitted by Brian Simon on 02/20/2019 - 10:13 am.

    Incrementslism can work, as a way to compromise. I value a willingness to compromise in a leader. Realistically, compromise & incrementalism are how we will improve things like our health care system.

    But starting at incrementalism is atrocious strategy. Starting at incrementalism is conceding ground before discussions have begun. If the Senator wishes to build momentum as a nominee, she will need to propose a bolder vision than she has so far.

    • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 02/20/2019 - 11:59 am.

      Yes! This is exactly it!

      Obama compromised with himself right out of the box on healthcare. He even said he’d prefer single payer. So he proposed a good conservative plan.

      In return, the GOP trashed the Heritage Foundation plan and the individual mandate the had previously championed, giving him no support at all. And we ended up with some convoluted system that preserves for profit insurance companies and all of their overhead.

      “I’ll meet you half way right at the start” is an incredibly naive strategy. And no one that naive should be President.

  5. Submitted by Karen Sandness on 02/20/2019 - 10:24 am.

    Amy has a record of not taking a stand on anything the least bit controversial. Sure, she’s strong on safe covers for pool drains and not texting while driving, both non-controversial stands, but if you write to her on any important issue, like foreign policy, inequality, or the environment, you get a reply in which she seems to be taking all positions at once.

    After the human wrecking ball that is Donald Trump, we need a bold candidate who stands for something besides not offending anyone.

    • Submitted by Tom Anderson on 02/20/2019 - 05:45 pm.

      Well said!

      “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.”

      Proof of being on both sides of most things. Sen. Klobuchar is still against the medical device tax that she voted for, and still today, after years and years, has not managed to propose and pass legislation to repeal it. As each Presidential candidate proposes all of their plans, watch how our Senator rarely says yes or no whether she supports them. Meanwhile, we can breathlessly hang on every word until the end of March 2020 when she bows out of the race and crosses her fingers for the Vice President call…

  6. Submitted by Tim Smith on 02/20/2019 - 11:27 am.

    Not real hard hitting event. Came across as very rehearsed in terms of guests and questions. Almost like the Star Tribunes coverage of her.

    She may have a good niche though. The all is free alt left Unicorn State crowd may divide up the core dem vote, leaving Klubuchar with everything else( as long as Biden diesnt run).

    My favorite questiom from the forum was the millenial guy who asked if she believes in « free » college tuition for all incuding illegals and felons. She was called courageous for saying no. Really? Hard to say no to that?

  7. Submitted by Cameron Parkhurst on 02/20/2019 - 12:01 pm.

    If all you push for is incremental movement, after a compromise is reached all that you are likely to achieve is minuscule movement. It is okay to be realistic, but dream a little, get people excited about what might be accomplished, and then talk about the steps to get there.

  8. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 02/20/2019 - 01:20 pm.

    This is why she’s toast already. Her opening gambit is to champion failed compromises that nibble at the edges of huge problems voters want fixed.

  9. Submitted by Michael Miles on 02/20/2019 - 01:40 pm.

    Given the enormous problems besetting the nation and planet, such as looming climate chaos, and how to prevent it; and record wealth inequality, and it’s systemic consequences, such as corrupt politicians and poor health care insurance for ordinary people, incrementalism is just an endorsement of the status quo. That is another way of saying she is for the current path off the cliff.

    It may be a good job, if she wants it, but it’s not what we need.

  10. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 02/20/2019 - 02:15 pm.

    You can’t be a “liberal” and reject basic New Deal liberal proposals out of hand. She’s not a liberal, she’s a centrist. By framing Klobuchar as a “liberal” Eric is framing everyone else as “Leftists” and THAT is a typical centrist/moderate trope. Enough of Democrats claiming to be “liberal” while pushing back against any truly liberal proposal that approaches the table. When you reject liberal proposals in favor of Conservative compromises, YOU’RE not a liberal. If you don’t believe liberal policies work, or that liberals can win elections… your not a liberal. This is neither practical or realistic, it’s just pretentious and condescending mediocrity pretending to be political wisdom.

  11. Submitted by Joel Stegner on 02/20/2019 - 04:18 pm.

    So, how much of Bernie Sanders’ agenda or the Democratic platform has been accomplished since 2016? Or a different question. How much damage has been done to progressive causes because a divided Democratic Party lost to Trump?

    Big changes take time. How long did it take to end slavery? How about getting women the right to vote? Collective bargaining through labor unions? We live in an instant gratification consumerist culture where people have lost a sense of what is involved in making big changes and how much resistence has to be overcome. People have literally given their lives to make these things happen, as those who oppose progress freely and without moral concerns use their money and power to resist change.

    Klobuchar is the anti-Trump. Collaborative, not bullying. Happy, not angry. True to her word, not creating a fantasy world where rich white men are the true victims. Nobody is going to out nasty Trump, but offer people something more normal and human and caring, and average voters will see the difference.

  12. Submitted by Peter Zeftel on 02/20/2019 - 09:32 pm.

    Amy is running a centrist – things are not too bad, we really only need small changes etc. Reminds me of some previous woman candidate-America is already great- what was her name anyway?
    So the voters who are fed up didn’t vote for her or stayed home. So we got Trump! We don’t need another Hillary who inspires no one. Amy, stay in the Senate!
    Let’s get a real progressive like almost anyone else and beat Trump!

  13. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 02/21/2019 - 08:33 am.

    Here’s the thing about incrementalism: Baby steps are fine for those who are currently comfortable with failed compromises of the past. It’s easy to dismiss living wages, affordable college, and health care as “radical” proposals when you don’t need any of that. But when your a teenager dying of an asthma attack in a tent 30 feet from Hiawatha Ave. baby steps towards affordable housing and health care will get you killed.

    These are NOT new demands, and they certainly aren’t NEW crises. Tens of millions of Americans have been suffering with these crises for decades, if YOU think these are NEW demands or problems that we’ve just started recognizing, you have been living in a bubble of privilege and affluence. This is privilege pretending to be realism.

    None of the proposals Klobuchar is dismissing are “radical”, they’re just good old fashioned New Deal liberalism. The fact that Klobuchar (and others) is willing let millions of American continue to suffer under the weight of multiple crises while she baby steps towards compromises demolishes her credibility. The fact that she thinks she needs a magic wand to solve the nations most critical problems simply tells us that she can’t imagine workable solutions, it doesn’t tell us that there are no workable solutions.

    If anyone could lose to Trump, it would be a Hillary clone like Klobuchar. Klobuchar’s “solution” for high tuition’s is literally identical to Clinton’s. Turn the problem over to the banks… who created the problem in the first place.

    But another observation about centrism/incrementalism/moderation that rarely gets voiced is this: Look at how divisive it is. Look at the comments that always arise from centrists bashing liberals, and liberals responding to centrists? Here we have a native Minnesotan and with every day the criticism mounts. Does it look like we’re all pulling together for Amy here? Quite the opposite. This fact betrays the illusion of “moderation” and “centrism”. The illusion of bipartisanship as “unifying” as if failure, obstructionism, and gridlock brings us all together. The truth is that the bubble mentality that is centrism is the most radical and divisive mentality on the board. It attacks anything beyond its own narrow range of status quo comfort. It’s ironic that those who claim to be seeking consensus the loudest are actually the ones who repeatedly sabotage consensus with their cynicism and mediocrity.

  14. Submitted by cory johnson on 02/21/2019 - 10:26 am.

    Who advised her to do this? Has she been asleep for two years? I can’t fathom how anyone thinks running as a centrist will ever win a major party endorsement for president ever again. If not for a rigged delegate system it would’ve been Bernie vs Trump in 2016. That’s all she and Howard Schultz need to know.

    • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 02/22/2019 - 09:00 am.

      Yes, and frankly, at THIS point, the fact that she’s staked out THIS kind of campaign at THIS point in time actually calls into question the very judgment and competence that’s supposed to be at the heart of her campaign. What competent candidate makes campaign choices like this?

      She’s boxed herself in, so now she’ll have to pretend to be more liberal than she is.. and that calls her honesty into question for the first time. I agree with Mr. Johnson- who’s idea was this?

      And for those who claim she’s just being “realistic”; the hubris of claiming to have a monopoly on “reality” doesn’t actually help her campaign, it actually promotes an aura of elitism and condescension. When you tell people that programs and relief they desperately need are “unrealistic”, you don’t promote “unity”, you undermine your own credibility and promote division. Again, we saw this with HRC, that was the nastiest and most divisive primary in Democratic history.

  15. Submitted by Chris Scott on 02/23/2019 - 09:58 am.

    Amy Klobuchar will not be the Democratic nominee because she doesn’t bring anything compelling to her campaign. There are no compelling ideas. Her personal story isn’t particularly interesting. She’s competent though unremarkable in delivering a stump speech. Even her supposed strong suit of being a likable, folksy, get-things-done Midwesterner is now undermined by credible stories of many years of being a bully toward those who work for her.

    As another commenter noted upthread, she seems to be the perfect 1990s candidate running in 2019.

    Klobuchar’s stands on major issues is just not where we need to be going. On health care, for example, the ACA was an incremental approach whose original concept had previously been touted by many moderate Republicans. It was seen as a more politically realistic and reasonable starting point to getting more people insured. But with a Republican Party now completely dominated by white nationalist Christians and Ayn Rand lovers, even the incremental approach of the ACA has been under constant attack by Republicans intent on destroying it.

    It’s time for Democrats to commit to guarenteed health coverage for all people. That’s not radical. It’s not socialist. It’s reality in every single other major industrial country. Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the UK, the Nordic countries, Germany. It is a moral outrage that the wealthiest country in the history of human civilization still doesn’t provide health care coverage to every citizen. That Klobuchar is unwilling to really push for this goal bodes poorly for her presidential ambitions, as it should.

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