The conservative appeal of Amy Klobuchar
The winner of Tuesday night's Democratic primary debate was Sen. Amy Klobuchar (Minn.). I can say this without hesitation because, with the exception of one somewhat embarrassing memory lapse, she spoke with the most confidence and clarity to the widest number of possible primary voters, not least in Iowa.
Klobuchar will not receive the credit she deserves in large because her performance was not meant to appeal to the vast majority of people commenting on these debates. The question is not whether I and my colleagues find Klobuchar likeable. (Personally she reminds me of a mean-spirited elementary-school librarian who is about to remind us for the fifth time to use our indoor voices.) It is whether she appeals to moderate Democrats who think that former Vice President Joe Biden is too old to run for (much less serve as) president, which is to say, the most important segment of the Democratic primary electorate. Earnest progressives who want Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) or nothing made up their minds years ago. Even if one imagines that half of Sen. Elizabeth Warren's (D-Mass.) current base of support would name Sanders as their second choice, we are left with roughly 80 percent of likely primary voters trying to decide which moderate candidate is the most electable. These are the people who reliably show up at the polls and support the party financially. They do not vote their conscience and go third party when they do not get their way, nor do they swing for Republicans.
The appeal of Klobuchar is essentially conservative, even Burkean. What she offers is not a dream solution to problems like the cost of health care or university education or the mess we have made of our foreign policy, but something that she thinks will sound reasonable. She accepts the reality of bad decisions that have been made in the past and hopes to prevent future ones by way of incremental improvements. This is why she rejects single-payer despite her willingness to acknowledge the shortcomings of the Affordable Care Act, why she insists on maintaining some American troops in Iraq even though she says that the war was a mistake, and why she rejects the Green New Deal without denying the threat of anthropogenic climate change. It is also why she was the only person on the stage Tuesday night who mentioned the federal deficit even once. She identifies herself as someone who stands in between the "extremes of our politics," a no-nonsense, commonsensical go-getter who will do her best for everyone — so long as they are willing to compromise. She adds to this an intriguing background, folksy charm, and an admirable fighting spirit (she more or less tied with Warren for second place in speaking time).
I and many enthusiasts on either end of the political spectrum find this position loathsome. But believe it or not, there are millions of Americans who feel this way, who think that marginally improving the lives of their fellows should not come at the cost of their own well-earned comfort and security. Over and over again, Klobuchar argued that her opponents were either too idealistic (Sanders, Warren) or too inexperienced (South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg).
Does this mean that she has a chance at winning her party's nomination, much less the White House? To take them in reverse order, it seems clear to me that President Trump, who currently polls at roughly the same levels that former President Barack Obama did at this point in his first term, will enjoy all the ordinary advantages of an incumbent, in addition to the benefits he will incur thanks to the unpopularity of impeachment in swing states. It would take a very good candidate to defeat him, and I think that in a general election, Klobuchar would have a better shot than anyone else still in the Democratic race. Unfortunately, because this has been a crowded field and because Iowa, the state in which she has chosen to concentrate much of her energy, is less relevant than ever, I do not think that she has much of a chance. If Biden had not run, the center lane might have been hers for the taking, but there are still too many voters — especially in Super Tuesday states — who will ignore all of his obvious shortcomings until — or rather unless — he drops out. And even if this happens, Michael Bloomberg, a vastly better funded candidate with more or less the same implicit message, is waiting.
Which is perhaps the most unintentionally amusing thing about the 2020 presidential election so far: Common sense has so many messengers that it might just fail.
Want more essential commentary and analysis like this delivered straight to your inbox? Sign up for The Week's "Today's best articles" newsletter here.