Amy Klobuchar had a great night in New Hampshire. In the three days before the primary, the Minnesota senator surged from the middle of the Democratic presidential pack to third place, behind Sen. Bernie Sanders and former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg. According to exit polls, Klobuchar captured many of the moderates, independents, and late deciders Buttigieg had hoped to win. By depriving him of victory and finishing close behind him, Klobuchar has positioned herself to compete with Buttigieg in the states that follow.
How did she do it? By outshining her competitors in a debate on Friday night. In a dramatic exchange, Klobuchar rebuked Buttigieg for belittling the Senate impeachment trial. In the debate and in subsequent TV interviews, she used his impeachment comments to portray him as unserious. It was a clever attack. It was also deceptive.
Here’s what happened. On Jan. 25, a woman at a town hall in Carroll, Iowa, asked Buttigieg about the Senate trial. “If you’re like me, watching this impeachment process is exhausting,” he replied. “It’s demoralizing.” Buttigieg said the trial “makes me want to change the channel and watch cartoons.” The audience laughed, but he explained that this desire to turn away was the problem. “The cynics win,” said Buttigieg, “if they get us to switch it off.” Instead, he urged voters to hold President Donald Trump and Republican senators to account. Politico reporter Elena Schneider attended the event and tweeted Buttigieg’s response: “That’s how we win: To refuse to walk away. How they win, how the cynics win: if they get us to switch it off.”
Three days later, at a town hall in Ottumwa, Iowa, Buttigieg repeated this message. “The Senate GOP is pretty much telling us that [acquittal] is just going to be a foregone conclusion,” he lamented. “It’s almost designed, I think, to make us feel so beaten down that you want to just … pick up the remote and change it to cartoons.” Buttigieg challenged the crowd to get out and caucus, because “the verdict is in our hands.” Later that day, in Indianola, Iowa, he suggested that Republican senators were trying “to make us want to switch it off and just watch cartoons.” Again, he implored the audience to resist that temptation.
Anyone who attended these events or watched videos of them knew that Buttigieg was saying Americans shouldn’t turn away from the trial. But Klobuchar, by taking his reference to cartoons out of context, inverted the meaning of his words. In an NBC interview, she described his message as “Let’s turn off the TV or go flip the channel and watch cartoons.” She contrasted this glib remark, as she presented it, with her own solemn responsibilities. “I have a job to do. I am in the arena,” she said. After the interview, Klobuchar’s communications director tweeted out her jab about cartoons.
On Jan. 29, at a town hall in Ames, Iowa, Buttigieg made his meaning unmistakable. He cautioned against the “temptation” to “switch [the trial] off and walk away.” Again, his remarks were posted on the Internet and tweeted by the press. But Klobuchar repeated her caricature.
Over the next two days, the truncated quote was widely debunked. On Jan. 30, Sunny Hostin, a co-host of ABC’s The View, warned that Buttigieg had been taken out of context. “He went on to say that’s what the cynics want us to do,” she pointed out. “The cynics want us to turn it off, but we shouldn’t do that.” “My point,” Buttigieg explained to CNN, was that “we cannot allow” coverage of the trial “to demoralize and exhaust us.” To avoid any misunderstanding, he stopped using the line about cartoons.
But Klobuchar didn’t let up. On Jan. 31, she repeated that voters “want someone with the experience of standing up and not just saying, ‘Oh, turn the channel and watch some cartoons.’ ” On Feb. 2, she boasted that unlike Buttigieg, who had suggested “watching cartoons,” she was “in the arena” and “getting things done.”
In Friday’s debate, Klobuchar turned to Buttigieg and declared:
We had a moment the last few weeks, mayor. And that moment was these impeachment hearings. And there was a lot of courage that you saw from only a few people. There was courage from Doug Jones, our friend from Alabama, who took that tough vote. There was courage from Mitt Romney, who took a very, very difficult vote. There was courage, as I read today, about Lt. Col. [Alexander] Vindman being escorted out of the White House. What he did took courage. But what you said, Pete, as you were campaigning through Iowa—as three of us were jurors in that impeachment hearing—you said it was exhausting to watch and that you wanted to turn the channel and watch cartoons. It is easy to go after Washington because that’s a popular thing to do. … It is much harder to lead, and much harder to take those difficult positions. Because I think this going after every single thing that people do, because it’s popular to say and makes you look like a cool newcomer — I just, I don’t think that’s what people want right now. We have a newcomer in the White House, and look where it got us.
It was a beautifully prepared ambush, casting Buttigieg as flippant and shallow, unfit for the company of statesmen. In a CNN interview after the debate, Klobuchar repeated her twisted version of what he had said. “I’m not just making it up for some debate,” she insisted. The next day, she repeated it again. And on Monday, in an interview with MSNBC, she sharpened her caricature. She accused Buttigieg of “making fun of what the rule of law is in this country, and the Constitution, and the people that make brave decisions.”
Often, in closely fought elections, there’s a gambit that changes the course of the race. The “cartoons” attack might be one such moment. In Iowa, Klobuchar couldn’t fully exploit it, because she was stuck in the trial. But in New Hampshire, she seized her chance. She won the debate, raised $3 million, damaged her opponent, and propelled herself into the top tier. Klobuchar has said all along that she knows how to fight. In New Hampshire, she proved it.