On Monday morning in Washington, Sen. Amy Klobuchar was in her element: taking the lectern at the liberal Center for American Progress think tank to deliver a speech about the importance of enforcing strong anti-trust laws.
Surveying the crowd of 100 or so people, mostly free lunch-enjoying senior citizens, Klobuchar declared her approval of such a turnout for a wonky topic like this.
“I know that antitrust law may not make front-page news or even capture the attention of all of our lawmakers at any one moment,” she said. “But it’s important stuff. It’s consequential.”
She then expounded on the importance of vigorously preventing monopolies and mega-conglomerates and busting up existing ones. It had all the hallmarks of an Amy Klobuchar speech: the spotlighting of an important but unsexy topic, numerous paeans to bipartisan cooperation, mentions of her travels in rural America and a few good one-liners.
Since arriving in the U.S. Senate in 2007, Klobuchar has perfected a certain brand of politics, one that has largely eschewed strident partisanship and fiery takes on hot-button issues; instead, she’s more frequently used her public perch to plug away at important, but lower-visibility issues where she can work with Republicans to rack up legislative wins.
That approach has served her well over the past decade, taking her to the highest level of the Democratic Senate hierarchy, and to widespread popularity across Minnesota.
But times are changing. The election of President Donald Trump devastated and galvanized the Democratic Party base, which wants total war with Trump and his allies in Congress.
The front line of that war is the Senate, where progressives are holding up a microscope for any signs of weakness — also known as compromise — from Democratic senators. For Klobuchar, to whom compromise is no four-letter word, the Trump era is testing the limits of her brand of politics.
Senate Democrats scramble for influence
On January 3, the first day of the 115th Congress, Senate Democrats found themselves in a place that, just months prior, few thought they’d be: stuck in the Senate minority with Trump in the White House.
With no obvious public face of the party, Democratic Senators have jockeyed for position at the forefront of resistance to the GOP, through sharp questioning in confirmation hearings, countless TV hits, and speeches, no-votes, and days-long delay tactics on the Senate floor.
The progressive base has looked chiefly to Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, the left-wing champions who are most vocally challenging Trump. Others have seen their stock rise, like New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, who has only voted yes on two of Trump’s 19 Cabinet nominees, the fewest of any senator.
Sen. Al Franken has emerged as the viral sensation of the liberal opposition — not with humor, but with pointed cross-examinations of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, and Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, exchanges widely replayed on TV and around the internet.
Minnesota’s other Senator has been mostly absent from these headline-grabbing moves. Klobuchar has taken few opportunities to assume the fervent, obstructionist stance that progressives desperately want from elected Democrats right now.
To those who know how Klobuchar operates, that’s not a surprise. In the era of Trump — a figure who, without question, alarms her — she has continued to search for common ground with Republicans in the service of passing law and, in some cases, trying to mitigate Trump’s agenda.
The ‘emergency brake’
Sitting in her Capitol Hill office on a recent afternoon, Klobuchar explained, briskly and matter-of-factly, what is happening right now in the United States Senate, which has been gridlocked for over two months as it handles bills and confirmation votes at a glacial pace.
“I’ve never seen a time like this in the Senate,” she said, by way of prologue. In her view, those in the upper chamber have two key duties: looking out for constituents and passing legislation. With Trump, a third duty has emerged — something she calls the “emergency brake.”
If the Trump presidency is a runaway train, then, the Senate — and Senate Democrats — are the only thing that can stop it. Or at least slow it down.
What that looks like, to Klobuchar, is pushing back against measures like the White House’s travel ban, the Republicans’ Affordable Care Act replacement, and fighting the president’s more troubling Cabinet picks.
On those items, Klobuchar has been a dutiful soldier in the Senate. Some in her party, however, want to see all-out opposition to every facet of the GOP agenda, a “no” on every Trump pick. Klobuchar has drawn criticism from that corner of the party because she’s voted in favor of nine of the 19 Trump nominees who have come up for a vote, more than the majority of members of the Democratic conference.
She departed from most of her colleagues in voting to confirm Wilbur Ross to head the Commerce Department, and Mike Pompeo to lead the CIA.
Her reasons for supporting them are revealing of her political approach: Klobuchar sits on the Senate Commerce panel, so she voted for Ross, a Trump pal and hedge fund magnate, because she anticipates the need to work with him in the future.
On Pompeo — a former House Republican who once suggested Muslim-American leaders were “potentially complicit” in terror attacks — Klobuchar voted yes in order to have someone in charge of the agency as soon as possible, which she believed to be a necessary check on the president after Trump visited CIA headquarters in January and turned a planned national security speech into a meandering diatribe against the media.
“I think there are people in our party who would say, vote against every single nominee,” Klobuchar said. “I figure I’ve gotta look at them on an individual basis… They wouldn’t be the first person I picked, but are they going to be able to govern better than just having all these employees report directly to the president? Or to Steve Bannon?”
On that other element of Senate business, legislation, Klobuchar has maintained the high level of cooperation with Republicans that is central to her political brand.
She may even be ramping it up: so far this year, Klobuchar’s press office has sent out at least 25 releases touting the senator’s work with one or more Republican senators, from moderates like Maine Sen. Susan Collins to conservative hard-liners like Utah Sen. Mike Lee.
That bipartisan work tends to be focused on narrow problems or issues that aren’t partisan: legislation to help speed up the processing of veterans’ benefits, for example, or expanding support for families dealing with Alzheimer’s disease.
But Klobuchar has also worked with Republicans on big, broadly popular items that have failed to gain traction, like allowing the importation of cheaper prescription drugs from Canada, on which she has a bill with Arizona Sen. John McCain.
She also traveled with McCain and Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, on a tour of Ukraine, Georgia, and Baltic countries after Trump’s victory to reaffirm U.S. support of NATO.
“I’ve seen more reachout from the Republicans,” Klobuchar explained, “maybe because they’re dealing with angry constituents. Look at what we’ve done since the beginning of the year — about how many bipartisan bills I’ve either introduced where I’m the lead or I’m the lead Democrat on. It’s a lot.”
‘In the most positive way, calculated’
Whatever their merits, GOP-backed bills on expanding rural broadband and vocational training and stopping fraud on seniors are not going to fire up the progressive base, or put them at ease.
In fact, many of them don’t want to see any Democrats cooperating with the GOP, and they are exploring the idea of confronting those who do with primary challengers from the left.
So far, few are clamoring for a primary challenge to Klobuchar, who is up for re-election in 2018. But to some progressives, Klobuchar’s bipartisan style is a deal-breaker for her to assume a lead role in resisting Trump — or for her to merit serious consideration as a presidential contender in 2020. (Klobuchar, along with a dozen senators and governors, is frequently thrown out as a possible candidate for the wide-open Democratic primary.)
Markos Moulitsas, founder of the popular progressive blog Daily Kos, hammered Klobuchar for her moves in the Senate, arguing that she is legitimizing Trump and is showing Democrats “how NOT to do things” in the Trump era.
“I want to like her as a presidential contender,” Moulitsas wrote, “but then she has to go with that ‘we all need to work together’ crap and… ugh.”
According to Steven Schier, professor of politics at Carleton College, the Democratic base is craving the sharp partisan barbs that Franken is dishing out. Klobuchar’s style of politics, he said, “is pretty unfashionable in national politics, generally.”
“Trump has produced an equal and opposite reaction, and Al Franken’s part of that equal and opposite reaction,” he said. “Resist, slow everything down, don’t be seen in any way as facilitating Trump.”
“This is a problem for someone like Klobuchar who’d like to find ways to work on issues in a bipartisan way. She has to worry about her own base now, and that’s not her style.”
Even if some progressives aren’t buying what Klobuchar is selling at the moment, stalwart members of the grassroots left in Minnesota have little ill to say about her.
To some Minnesota Democrats, the well of trust that Klobuchar has built in in the state is deep enough to excuse a political track record that isn’t 100 percent in line with what they want.
Kaela Berg, director of the Minnesota Fair Trade Coalition and a Sanders delegate at the 2016 Democratic convention, said she doesn’t want to see any Democratic “yes” votes on Trump appointments but is willing to give Klobuchar the benefit of the doubt.
“I don’t know her reasons behind the votes she’s taken on the cabinet,” Berg said. “I know we’re a little surprised by them.” But Berg has come to regard Klobuchar as a thoughtful and intentional politician — “in the most positive way calculated,” she said.
“Knowing how Amy operates, having confidence because of the history of her leadership, the only way I can reconcile her giving a yes vote is there is a possible positive outcome for the yes vote she took.”
Ahead to 2018 — and 2020?
For her part, Klobuchar does not seem especially worried about increased heat from the Democratic base, though she does appear deeply attuned to the criticism that comes her way. When asked a broad question about her cabinet votes, Klobuchar cut right to explaining why she voted for Ross and Pompeo, without even mentioning their names.
Unlike Franken, Klobuchar has her own re-election next year to worry about. If she doesn’t have a challenge from the left, she still must navigate an electorate that was a few thousand votes away from putting Minnesota in Trump’s column in 2016.
Democratic operatives describe Klobuchar as a deeply cautious politician — one who, as one Democrat put it, is reluctant to count her chickens even after they’ve hatched. That can sometimes frustrate people like Berg, who said progressives get nervous at the length of time it takes her to come out with positions on certain issues important to them, like trade.
But her careful approach and outreach to Republicans helped her secure a landslide re-election in 2012, with widespread support in areas of the state that voted for Trump four years later. Whichever Republican faces her will have their work cut out for them.
As for any 2020 aspirations, Klobuchar answered diplomatically, as she always does. “I think right now we have a lot on our plate to stand up for the people of our states and our country, that’s what I’m focused on right now. That’s why I decided to run for Senate again,” she said.
What kind of Democrat should run in 2020, then?
“People ask that a lot, ask about me some, ask about, who’s the perfect candidate — I think we kinda did that the last election,” Klobuchar explained, flashing a self-effacing smile. “We probably need a bit of a competition.”
If that competition will reward a compromise-oriented Democrat like Klobuchar or a progressive warrior like Warren — whom top Democrats, like former Senate leader Harry Reid, urged to consider running — remains to be seen.
For now, Klobuchar says she feels the progressive base’s pain. But governing, she said, demands a different set of priorities — tackling the not-so-front page news, like anti-trust law, and getting things done where you can. Even if it means working with Republicans.
“When you’re in government and have to rule and govern and try to do the right things… You have to understand that emotion because it’s real and I feel it myself every day,” she said.
“But then you have to figure out, do we need a vets’ secretary anyway? Because we need someone in charge. Do we need a Department of Defense general in charge? Well, we do.”
Klobuchar has no love for Trump. But she calls as friends the people tasked with implementing his agenda.
“If Trump continues along these lines of this kind of rhetoric and actions and orders, there’s going to be a lot of fights,” she said. “That still doesn’t mean that you don’t look for some common ground. If he says he wants to do something about the capital gains tax, great. You have to look for those common ground moments.”