Amy Klobuchar Embodies the Politics of No

Amy Klobuchar speaks into the microphone in her left hand while gesturing with her right.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar speaks at Dartmouth College on Feb. 8 in Hanover, New Hampshire. Drew Angerer/Getty Images.

A curious thing happens when you search among Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s supporters for the positive case for her candidacy for president: There doesn’t seem to be one. New recruits to a campaign sometimes register something like the zeal of the convert—a passionate rationale for their choice now that they’ve finally decided. And there are, to be sure, some Klobuchar megafans. “She’s everything that I’ve been hoping for in a candidate,” one supporter who teared up after meeting Klobuchar told the New Yorker, “and I haven’t been able to say that in a really long time. And she’s a woman, and she’s so nice.” But by and large, voters who switched to Klobuchar from another candidate in New Hampshire were uniquely poor at explaining why their allegiance shifted. Take this Nevada resident, a former Warren voter, who told CNN: “We weren’t really considering her. We were firmly with Elizabeth Warren. [New Hampshire] changed our mind.” This isn’t an explanation; it’s a reassertion. (This interview happened before Warren’s blistering debate performance.) Even when explanations for Klobuchar do materialize, they tend to be relational rather than substantive. Another voter, asked why she supported Klobuchar, gave what CNN called “one key reason:” “She is still viable.”

These aren’t especially inspiring arguments. They’re barely arguments at all. That seems to be the point: The senator appeals to those who claim to value pragmatism over passion. This position has its merits—Klobuchar won 19.8 percent of the vote in New Hampshire—but given how much we all rationalize our preferences, the lack of defense is odd. Many voters who’ve recently tuned in to the election seem to be turning to Klobuchar not out of any positive attraction, but out of a very American distaste for what they see as the extremity or bellicosity of the rest. In a column ostensibly championing her at the Daily Beast, Matt Lewis called her “the Goldilocks candidate,” a phrase one can read as either the perfect compromise or a sagging embrace of averages. Lewis’ argument would seem to tilt toward the “tepid porridge” reading: “She’s young, but not too young. She’s philosophically moderate (for today’s Democratic Party), but won’t lose progressives.” This last seems unlikely, especially given her lack of support among minorities, but the column as a whole reflects a broader tendency to describe Klobuchar as the solution to a logic problem.

This is largely the candidate’s doing. It’s unjust to say Klobuchar has no plans—she does, and the New York Times editorial board laid them out in its endorsement of her—but her supporters, the pundit class, and the senator herself have framed her campaign as the Not-That candidate. She’s not a man, she’s not a socialist, she’s not a New Yorker, she’s not gay, she’s definitely not a firebrand or a reformer or a visionary. She has no online army—two subreddits dedicated to her campaign have fewer than 1,000 members each. She’s not Hillary and she’s not AOC. She’s not Bernie and she’s not Warren. She not rich and she’s not poor. She’s not legible as a “wife” or “mother” in ways that can hurt female candidates who seem too feminine or nurturing. Nor can she be slotted into the Tracy Flick or Lisa Simpson tropes that so often plague political women: She’s not a try-hard. Yes, she shared that her Spanish name was “Elena,” but she also forgot the name of the president of Mexico. (This last may ironically have saved her: We don’t really have a category for a less-than-perfectly-prepared Tracy Flick.) She’s not funny (sorry) but she’s not humorless. She’s not a political novice but she’s also not D.C. She does have proposals, but those proposals largely reflect her strategy to run on a “politics of no”—mainly to reject her opponents’ ideas. No “Medicare for All,” no pandering. And though she’s also a moderate Midwesterner, she’s also tried to make it clear that she’s not Pete. And of course, she’s not Trump.

Can an appetite for compromise with Republicans, among Democrats, win a presidential election against Republicans’ insatiable appetite for power? Klobuchar’s theory seems to be that it can: that the polarization of the United States is overstated and that there’s a middle ground to recapture, powered by distaste for the other options on offer. “If you are tired of the extremes in our politics, of the noise and the nonsense, you have a home with me,” Klobuchar said in New Hampshire. If there’s a base out there with a passion for political compromise, she’ll find it. She’s pinned her case on electability, her “Real American” authenticity as someone from a state that doesn’t touch a coast, and her history of winning elections and passing bipartisan bills. To say this isn’t exactly an attention-grabber is putting it mildly; even columns that are explicitly about Klobuchar frequently drift off into analysis of her opponents. An op-ed in the Chicago Sun-Times titled “Amy Klobuchar—the Democrats’ only hope” mentions the senator in question a grand total of three times, and only at the very end. Here’s the case it makes for her in full: “Amy Klobuchar is rumored to be tough on her staff. That’s it. She’s a solid, midwestern senator who wins in her home state by double-digit margins. She’s sane and centrist. And she’s the Democratic Party’s only hope.”

It’s a little unfashionable, in this political environment, to suggest that compromise can amount to a win-win—we’ve all gotten used to zero-sum thinking—but Klobuchar isn’t remotely worried about being fashionable. Some of her supporters in the wild have found this not just persuasive but legible as an actual campaign promise. Perhaps her ability to compromise could translate to an ability to heal. “She’s honest, super smart, hard working, down to earth. I live in MN and she actually does reach out to everyone. She’s been ahead on issues like environment, healthcare, was the first to go up against pharma years ago. Amazing energy level, gets things done. She’s not a divider,” one person wrote on Twitter when asked why they supported her. “❤️ My Senator is smart; quick on her feet; an experienced stateswoman but able to connect to the average person. She is caring but tough; confident but flexible; and wise enough to choose a good team. Most importantly she is the only one I feel that can heal our divided country,” tweeted another.

It’s hard to square these sunny assessments of the senator’s capacity for compassion and rift-mending with reporting that shows that she has been cruel and even abusive to her staff. This hasn’t seemed to matter much to voters; virtually every endorsement she’s received praises her empathy. The New York Times Editorial Board hand-waved their own reporting on this issue away, noting that it “give[s] us pause” but that Klobuchar “pledged to do better.” “To be fair,” they added, “Bill Clinton and Mr. Trump — not to mention former Vice President Biden — also have reputations for sometimes berating their staffs, and it is rarely mentioned as a political liability.” This is anti-aspirational rhetoric, more or less of a piece with other aspects of a compromise candidacy: The message seems to be why bother aiming higher, laced with a slim hope that an established politician might change, and a gesture at sexism to cover up the hall pass they’re granting.

Klobuchar’s recent debate performance make it harder to filter out claims that she takes things too personally and misdirects her rage. The senator took some criticism (over her failure to name the president of Mexico and mistakes made as a prosecutor) well enough during the Democratic debate Tuesday night. (She was certainly more controlled than Sanders, for instance, whose anger at Bloomberg’s cheap shot about Communism was justified but almost medically concerning in its intensity). But as the questions wore on, her amiability became more strained until her responses devolved into petty sniping at her favorite target, Pete Buttigieg. This was probably at least somewhat strategic. Attacking Pete has historically worked for the senator; after her victory in New Hampshire, my colleague Will Saletan described how Klobuchar’s deliberate (and repeated) misrepresentation of something Buttigieg said about the Senate impeachment trial helped save her campaign. Klobuchar’s animosity toward Buttigieg is obvious: They’re both vying for the same middle-lane voters and she seems to especially resent the ex-mayor, whose experience pales next to her own. But on that debate stage, Klobuchar wasn’t, as her recent San Francisco Chronicle endorsement would have it, ”a listener with a wickedly quick sense of humor that can make her point effectively and with civility.” Her attacks weren’t pointed or astute or rhetorically lethal; they were childish and ineffective. “Are you trying to say I’m dumb? Are you mocking me, Pete?” she said at one point, her voice seeming to crack slightly. And rather than respond to Buttigieg’s charge that she voted to make English the national language, she said, “I wish everyone was as perfect as you, Pete.” This was hardly gladiatorial conduct (despite Klobuchar’s repeated references to her experience “in the arena”). In fact, what it drove home was her understanding of what the “arena” requires: not perfection but an emphasis on “getting things done” that requires detachment from anything like a strong and unyielding stance.

Whether compromise is the same as healing is still an open question. So is whether a candidacy that has leveraged the negative space of the electoral field can flip into the foreground. So far, the results of a Not-That candidacy seem mixed. Yes, Klobuchar picked up a few delegates and keeps getting endorsements. But even the pundits championing her seem unable to focus on her. What they and other Klobuchar supporters seem to want is an abstract principle of moderation that will drag an alienated Midwest back to the Democrats and make unity (of a very specific kind) possible. They consider this “pragmatic” even if the definition of unity they’re using leaves voters of color—a crucial demographic without which no Democrat can win—behind. It’s a gamble. Today, as voters head to the polls in Nevada, we’ll find out if the “politics of no” pay off.