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In debate debut, Klobuchar avoids head-on clashes with rivals

Without naming him, at most, it seemed like Klobuchar disagreed most with Sanders. But fate (or more likely randomized selection) did not place him on the debate stage.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar
During the night, Sen. Amy Klobuchar didn’t find a foil or anyone to contrast her policy positions.
REUTERS/Mike Segar

There was a moment, during the debate yesterday, when Sen. Amy Klobuchar pointed out that someone on the stage was being flippant.

“I am the only candidate here who has passed a law protecting a woman’s right of reproductive health in health insurance,” Washington Gov. Jay Inslee said, inviting very obvious criticism.

Klobuchar obliged. “I just want to say, there’s three women up here that have fought pretty hard for a woman’s right to choose. I’ll start with that.”

But beyond this, Klobuchar was notably absent from the night’s more heated exchanges. And it’s not that Klobuchar didn’t have time to speak. She was able to speak 8.5 minutes in total, more than Tim Ryan (D-OH), Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI), John Delaney, New York Mayor Bill De Blasio, and Washington Governor Jay Inslee. It’s that during the night, she didn’t find a foil or anyone to contrast her policy positions.

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The format was conducive to interactions between the candidates. When former Rep. Beto O’Rourke said people need to be able to choose between private insurance and a public option, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio immediately jumped in: “Wait, wait, wait. Congressman O’Rourke, Congressman O’Rourke, private insurance is not working for tens of millions of Americans.”

When the two Texans onstage spoke about immigration, Julián Castro was able to shine a light on O’Rourke’s refusal to delve into the specifics of how border crossings are criminalized. After the debate, Casto told reporters: “I find it very ironic that a senator from Massachusetts and a senator from New Jersey are the ones who understand this border policy and this law better than Congressman O’Rourke.”

And when Rep. Ryan began to talk about the necessity of having the U.S. military “engaged” with the Taliban, his colleague, Rep. Gabbard, a veteran, took considerable time to disagree and do so from personal experience: “As a soldier, I will tell you, that answer is unacceptable.”

When Klobuchar did elaborate on her positions, her wonkiness was evident, but it felt more conducive to a town hall format. She had time to toss out anecdotes and policy knowledge, calling back to her “Uncle Dick and his deer stand” and pointing out that gun buybacks are not confiscation. She clearly knows her platform and what she’s fought for.

But if her goal was to show how her policy stances contrast with specific candidates, that was unclear.

When all of the candidates were asked to raise their hand to show who is in favor of eliminating private insurance, only de Blasio and Sen. Elizabeth Warren raised their hands. But that left eight other candidates looking similar to Klobuchar on health care.

In many ways, it seemed as if Klobuchar had the same strategy as Warren, who also didn’t take time to directly push back on anyone. But Warren was the frontrunner on the stage (by a longshot for some).

Klobuchar made a veiled attack on Warren’s free college for all plan, saying “So I do get concerned about paying for college for rich kids,” but she never challenged Warren specifically — and that attack might have made more sense for Sen. Bernie Sanders and his student loan cancellation plan, which isn’t means-tested like Warren’s. But he wasn’t on the stage.

Similarly, she said: “I am just simply concerned about kicking half of America off of their health insurance in four years, which is exactly what this bill says,” responding to Sanders’ Medicare-for-All bill, which several candidates on stage have endorsed, but not responding to any candidate in particular.

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Without naming him, at most, it seemed like Klobuchar disagreed most with Sanders. But fate (or more likely randomized selection), did not place him on the debate stage.

Klobuchar mostly made it clear that she was different from President Donald Trump — which certainly all of the candidates are. Instead of someone on the stage, her sparring partner was at times was the specter of the president, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, or the pharmaceutical industry. “I don’t think we should conduct… foreign policy in our bathrobe at 5:00 in the morning, which is what he does,” she said of the President.

After briefly pushing back on Medicare-for-All, she invoked the president, rather than debate the merits of the bill with anyone else on the stage.

“The president literally went on TV, on Fox, and said that people’s heads would spin when they see how much he would bring down pharmaceutical prices. Instead, 2,500 drugs have gone up in double-digits since he came into office. Instead, he gave $100 billion in giveaways to the pharma companies. For the rest of us, for the rest of America, that’s what we call at home all foam and no beer. We got nothing out of it,” she said.

“And so my proposal is to do something about pharma, to take them on, to allow negotiation under Medicare, to bring in less expensive drugs from other countries. And pharma thinks they own Washington? Well, they don’t own me.”

She also briefly had time to talk about one of her signature issues, pushing McConnell to do something about election interference. But she barely had time to speak before being cut off. In many ways, the moderators only let candidates continue if some sort of debate followed, which was unkind to Klobuchar attempting to bring up her accomplishments and legislative priorities. And it seemed likely on the stage that no one disagreed with her on election security.

But because of this, when Klobuchar ended the night, it was unclear who she was criticizing. If you’ve never heard of Amy Klobuchar until this night, what exactly would set her apart from the rest of the candidates on the stage in terms of her policy platform?

What’s at stake for Klobuchar is the ability to generate enough traction, and in turn contributions, to qualify for the next debate; the ability to climb in the polls, and the ability to perform well when the first caucus comes around.

For her part, Klobuchar seemed upbeat about her performance.

“How do you think it went tonight, in terms of standing out from your opponents?” CNN Anchor Anderson Cooper asked her after the debate.

“I thought it was great,” Klobuchar said. “I made a lot of points about Donald Trump.”