Why moderates should think twice about Klobuchar
"Hello, America. I'm Amy Klobuchar and I will beat Donald Trump."
With those words, the newly surging contender for the Democratic presidential nomination greeted supporters in New Hampshire after a surprise third place finish. The senator from Minnesota not only managed to beat heir presumptive Joe Biden in the Granite State, Klobuchar more than doubled his vote count — and did the same to Elizabeth Warren, who needed to show she could compete in her home region. Thanks to a strong debate performance last week — and despite a fifth-place finish in Iowa, a state in her own home region — Klobuchar's fortunes are on the rise as a potential new option in the moderate lane of the Democratic primaries.
Part of this perception comes from two other dynamics in the race. First, Bernie Sanders has become the improbable frontrunner in a party he only occasionally joins as a member. Second, Biden's sudden fade as the establishment choice over the past two weeks has turned the primary campaign into a contest to become the next Not Bernie rather than the next Not Biden. Democratic anxiety over Sanders' momentum and potential to become the first outright socialist to top a major-party ticket has sharpened the competition in the "moderate" lane.
No other candidate embodies the moderation label as much as Klobuchar does, and perhaps none other was as direct in rebuking Sanders with it. Klobuchar was the only candidate to raise her hand in Friday's debate to say she was troubled by the prospect of a socialist takeover of the ticket, which set her apart from the rest of her "moderate" competitors. She embraced that position all the way through the weekend into the election, telling CBS reporter Ed O'Keefe that "I believe in leading."
"As I've said so many times," Klobuchar added, "people are tired of the extremes in our politics and the noise and the nonsense." That, she explained, was why she raised her hand despite her personal affection for Bernie and occasional policy cooperation. "I am troubled by having a socialist lead our ticket."
That perfectly positions Klobuchar in the moderate lane, perhaps a bit more than her actual legislative track record would suggest. Over the weekend, Klobuchar also tried to push Pete Buttigieg farther to the left by telling pro-life Democrats they have a place in the party, a message Buttigieg fumbled in a Fox News town hall last month. With Sanders as her foil, Klobuchar wants to build a big tent to consolidate the Not Bernie sentiment within her party. Her New Hampshire finish in the money suggests that she's starting to succeed.
But does this mean we're seeing a Klobosurge? And does it mean that Amy Klobuchar can beat Donald Trump? For the moment, both seem possible, but the odds are stacked against them — mainly because of Klobuchar herself.
Within the Democratic primary, Klobuchar still has multiple challengers for the Not Bernie position. Buttigieg finished ahead of her in both Iowa and New Hampshire, which seems even more improbable for a South Bend mayor than it does for a senator from Minnesota. Joe Biden still has strength in South Carolina, where Klobuchar has barely registered in polling. She's far behind in Super Tuesday states like California, Texas, and Massachusetts, where Warren will likely do well even if she's all but faded out of the national picture. Her finish in New Hampshire will likely produce improvements in some of those races, but the number of people ahead of her limits her dynamic potential, especially since most of those states will be rewarding progressives rather than moderates. One third-place finish in an independent-heavy state does not a consolidation make.
Speaking of dynamic potential, Klobuchar has a problem with her general election argument as well. Like most politicians in Minnesota and the upper Midwest in general, Klobuchar succeeds by projecting an image of calm affability. Based on a couple of personal interactions with her, I'd argue that it's a fairly genuine image rather than an affectation. That would create a strong contrast on the stump between her version of Moderate Minnesota Nice and Trump's Outer Borough Tough Guy, which might have provided Democrats an advantage if Trump was running for his first term in office.
That, however, is not the case. Trump will likely run mainly on two themes in arguing for a second term. First, he needs more time to "drain the swamp," i.e., reduce the influence of longtime Beltway figures like Klobuchar, Biden, or Sanders. Second, the economy is so strong that changing horses in midstream makes no sense, especially when the alternative is the socialist or socialist-lite agenda being pushed by whomever Democrats nominate.
That second argument will be especially tough to rebut as long as the economy keeps performing at its current level. Gallup published two polls this month, both showing record optimism among Americans about the economy. In the first, 59 percent of Americans say their economic condition improved year-on-year as opposed to only 20 percent who claimed it got worse, the best numbers in Gallup's 41-year series on this question. The same poll shows a record 74 percent of respondents expect to do even better in the coming year. A week later, Gallup reported that 61 percent of Americans see themselves as better off than the previous election, also a record in a 28-year series — by 11 points over the previous high of 50 percent. It's the first incumbent-re-elect cycle in which that response has significant bipartisan and independent support.
Klobuchar's appeal in a campaign against Trump would be a return to status quo ante normalcy. If voters become anxiety-ridden about the present state of affairs, they won't want a revolution in the Bernie Sanders sense, but a nostalgic turn toward a pre-Trump technocracy to rescue the country from chaos. Under those circumstances, Trump's chaos-agent qualities would play against him, and Democrats would be well advised to nominate an establishment figure who can soothe panic.
That only works if the status quo ante is far more appealing than the status quo, however. And frankly, that kind of crisis suits Joe Biden better than Amy Klobuchar too, as Biden has the eight years of the Obama administration on his resumé while Klobuchar has no real executive experience to tout, in either the private or public sector. Absent an economic crisis, though, voters are much less likely to care about Trump's comportment or his Twitter habits. If the good times are rolling and they expect them to keep going, then voters will not want a return to technocratic/bureaucratic governance. In these populist times, they will be reluctant to trust the institutions while an entertaining iconoclast is delivering for them, and especially while an earnest but uninspiring establishmentarian proposes a sea change in policy.
Klobuchar still has time to make a stronger argument, in both the primaries and for a general election. The rush to declare a Klobosurge is premature at best, however, as is the impulse to anoint Klobuchar as the true counter to Trump in 2020.
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