Most presidential contenders hope to launch as the hottest candidate in the race. Amy Klobuchar's announcement nearly froze the candidate to the dais: The three-term Minnesota senator announced her entry into the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination sweepstakes while a winter storm dumped several inches of snow on the Twin Cities.
But the snow was the least of Klobuchar's concerns. Even on a sunny day, she would have had difficulty standing out from the crowd of her fellow Senate Democrats seeking to challenge President Trump. Sens. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.) have more visibility and media presence; Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D) has a similar mien but has New York and its second-greatest population behind her. Sen. Sherrod Brown has his own connection to the Midwest and the Rust Belt in Ohio.
There seems to be little evidence that Klobuchar can break away from this pack, let alone face the challenges to come if Joe Biden and Michael Bloomberg join the race. She has spent most of her career operating quietly behind the scenes and has few signature accomplishments on the record. Her media appearances tend to make her look like a pleasant and competent but hardly dynamic presence in the Beltway, an impression that her opening address, with its string of vague platitudes, hardly dispelled.
"I don't have a political machine. I don't come from money," Klobuchar declared. "But what I do have is this: I have grit." That same description could be lifted by almost every Democrat considering a 2020 run, with the exception of multibillionaire Bloomberg. Everyone also has "family … friends … neighbors," another Klobuchar citation for her campaign. She also noted that "we may come from different places, [and] we may pray in different ways," but Klobuchar emphasized that "we all live in the same country of shared dreams."
It's almost as if her staff created a cliché machine and forgot to turn it off.
The fascination with Klobuchar as a presidential contender peaked two weeks ago with a George Will column in The Washington Post that highlighted her "equipoise" as a counter to both Trump and former Democratic Texas congressman Beto O'Rourke. Will has been a fierce critic of the former for years, and castigated the latter for his fundamental unseriousness; O'Rourke's recent Instagramming of his teeth cleaning, for example, exasperated Will. Klobuchar's sunny disposition and quiet competence provides a stark contrast to both men, Will wrote, and provides a "fatigued nation" a long exhale by "pick[ing] a Minnesotan, at last."
However, Klobuchar's reputation as a Hubert Humphreyesque "happy warrior" might be more legend than reality. As her campaign prepared for its launch, several reports about the unhappy nature of her Senate office emerged. Klobuchar at one point had the highest staff turnover on Capitol Hill, prompting a 2015 intervention by then-Sen. Harry Reid. "She yelled, she threw papers, and sometimes even hurled objects," BuzzFeed reported after talking with several sources. She even reportedly accidentally hit one staffer with a binder. HuffPost reported that duties assigned to staffers included cleaning up Klobuchar's dirty clothes.
Perhaps she's more like Trump than we know.
Even if these reports were inaccurate, Klobuchar would still represent an essential contradiction in presidential campaigns: What we value in office generally doesn't pay off on the campaign trail. Tim Pawlenty would likely have proven a good president had he been able to win an election outside of Minnesota, but "equipoise" doesn't do much in presidential races. People want passion and fire from their presidential candidates, not pleasantries and snowflakes.
On the other hand, the things we value in candidates generally turn into complicating factors at best in presidents. Trump won the nomination because Republican voters got disgusted with the lack of fight in traditional candidates. He won the election out of a combination of Hillary Clinton's incompetence as a candidate and his ability to connect with an even broader population of voters who were disenchanted with the status quo in Washington.
Trump has certainly delivered on the disruption that voters hoped to get from his election, and has managed to score a number of wins on the GOP-populist agenda. Almost all of them, however, have either come from executive action or simple-majority votes on which Trump needed no Democratic support. At least thus far, it appears that we will spend the next two years playing chicken on Pennsylvania Ave. as both sides refuse to cooperate or compromise.
That pattern might be lamentable, and it might underscore Will's point about what a "fatigued nation" ought to do. That isn't Klobuchar's fault; the fault lies with the voters who value combat over cooperation and personality over policy. Until we start casting votes for what we value in politics rather than as a proxy fight against our perceived enemies, "equipoise" doesn't stand a chance.