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Make Room for a Moderate

Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar has sustained her candidacy even as so many other senators have faltered and withdrawn from the Democratic presidential race 

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

What Kamala Harris, Beto O’Rourke, and Cory Booker each have in common, aside from recently suspending their presidential campaigns, is that their peak polling numbers all surpassed Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar’s highest mark. And yet Klobuchar remains in the Democratic primary race heading into the Iowa caucus. She ranks sixth among the remaining contenders in the field, at 4 percent in national polls, tied with Andrew Yang and below Mike Bloomberg. She will almost certainly not win Iowa or New Hampshire; in her home state of Minnesota, she trails Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren by 10 points. Klobuchar is not going to win her party’s nomination, but she persists into the Iowa caucus, and possibly beyond, as the last quixotic moderate in an overcrowded primary season defined by ambitious left-wing policy proposals.

Former vice president Joe Biden and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders entered the race as front-runners. Warren and former South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg have each competed for that distinction in recent months as their support grew to double-digits in Iowa and New Hampshire. Conversely, Warren and Buttigieg’s rivals, like Harris, Booker, and O’Rourke, saw their support dwindle, leading them to withdraw from the race. It’s been a long process of elimination in an overcrowded contest where any long-shot, also-ran candidate might have emerged as a front-runner; the difference between one candidate’s surge and another’s collapse often owed to minor distinctions, slim margins, and dumb luck.

The moderate observer who doubts Biden’s stamina, hopes to counter the leftist front-runners Sanders and Warren, and is reluctant to rely on rookies such as Buttigieg and Yang might invest some last-ditch confidence in Klobuchar, the three-term senator. Her Upper Midwestern temperament confers a vague sense of “electability” in states like Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, which Hillary Clinton shockingly lost to Donald Trump in the previous presidential election. “We are going to build a big, blue, beautiful wall around the Midwest,” Klobuchar says in her stump speech, “and we are going to make Donald Trump pay for it.” Biden, Sanders, Warren, and Buttigieg make grand national pronouncements against Trump; Klobuchar speaks, first and foremost, as a Middle American who intends to humiliate Trump in the electoral college.

Klobuchar has polled below 5 percent in national polls for the past year, and below 10 percent in the most recent Iowa polls, which seems at odds with how her campaign positions her as having unquestionable appeal among rural Midwestern voters. Klobuchar tempts pundits to regard her moderation and her “sticktoitiveness,” as The New York Times puts it, as her unique advantage against Trump. Last week, the Times endorsed not one, but two candidates for the Democratic Party’s nomination: Warren (“a standard-bearer for the Democratic left”) and Klobuchar (“a standard-bearer for the Democratic center”).

The Times casts Warren and Klobuchar as peers with contrasting ideologies. But given the polling disparities between the two candidates, there seems to be some major-minor condescension in the newspaper’s endorsement: Warren earned the editorial board’s confidence as the real presidential contender, while Klobuchar earned its pity as the meritorious moderate who really ought to be doing better. “Her more recent legislative accomplishments are narrower but meaningful to those affected, especially the legislation aimed at helping crime victims,” the editorial board writes. Notably, the Times used similar language when it endorsed Clinton in 2016. “Mrs. Clinton has honed a steeliness that will serve her well in negotiating with a difficult Congress on critically important issues,” the editorial board wrote.

In splitting the newspaper’s endorsement, the editorial board seems to revel in the potential for two powerful women—not just Hillary Clinton—to represent a variety of political perspectives in a presidential contest: “May the best woman win,” the endorsement concludes. Warren’s progressive agenda complements the progressive significance inherent in her potential election as the first woman to serve as president. Meanwhile, Klobuchar expresses her weariness about such progressive ambitions in her stump speeches as well as in her televised exchanges with Sanders and Warren, especially regarding Medicare for All: “If you want to be practical and progressive at the same time, and have a plan and not a pipe dream, then you have to show how you’re going to pay for it,” Klobuchar said.

Curiously, the Times declined to split the newspaper’s endorsement between Clinton and Sanders in the 2016 Democratic primaries despite the ideological contrast between them mirroring the differences between Klobuchar and Warren. “His boldest proposals—to break up the banks and to start all over on health care reform with a Medicare-for-all system—have earned him support among alienated middle-class voters and young people. But his plans for achieving them aren’t realistic,” the editorial board wrote about Sanders in 2016, “while Mrs. Clinton has very good, and achievable, proposals in both areas.” In 2020, Sanders and Warren together represent the “boldest proposals,” and Klobuchar represents the “achievable.”

It’s tempting to cast Biden as the most Clintonian figure in the 2020 election. Functionally, sure: Biden most closely resembled Clinton early in the campaign as the race’s “presumptive nominee,” and he resembles Clinton’s institutional dominance and symbolizes the friction with the party’s left-wing factions, led by Sanders, who may well upset Biden as he nearly upset Clinton four years ago. In her two presidential campaigns, Clinton billed herself as a modest technocrat determined to frustrate the most progressive aspirations of her party. Klobuchar’s candidacy poses a question for the Democrats: What if Clinton’s political outlook, far from being decommissioned, were refurbished, repackaged, and resold under some other destigmatized name?

In the debates, Klobuchar ridicules what she views as the intrusive, expensive, impossible left-wing projects that Sanders and Warren espouse. She campaigns as if Clinton never lost the nomination (in 2008) nor the general election (in 2016) by antagonizing the same left-wing factions who support the very projects that Klobuchar now trivializes. Klobuchar remains optimistic about her own impossible odds, though not so optimistic about her party’s ambitious agenda—such is the moderate presidential candidate’s plight in such an impossibly proud and confident party.