Exclusive: Can Amy Klobuchar salvage her campaign and liberal Minnesota’s reputation?

Exclusive: Can Amy Klobuchar salvage her campaign and liberal Minnesota’s reputation?
Lorie Shaull

Four years ago, in a Wisconsin town 150 miles south of the Minneapolis-Saint Paul metro, Barack Obama ended a century-long conflict. He declared Minnesota the victor in its “border battle” against Wisconsin. Campaigning in the city of La Crosse, the then-president told the Wisconsin crowd that they should flee their GOP-dominated state for the greener pastures of its Democratically-run neighbor.

Obama insisted conservative policies had led to Wisconsin’s downfall. He explained how Wisconsin repealed a statewide fair-pay law and attacked the right to organize and bargain collectively. He noted that the state had cut per-student educational funding.

“Just across the river,” Obama asserted, Minnesota had attained success through middle-class economics. “It’s a pretty interesting experiment,” he said. “In Minnesota, they asked the top two percent to pay a little bit more. They invested in things that help everybody succeed, like all-day kindergarten and financial aid for college students. They took action to raise their minimum wage and they passed an equal pay law. They protected workers’ rights. They expanded Medicaid to cover more people.”

Citing an editorial in La Crosse’s local newspaper, Obama concluded that Minnesota was “winning” the ideological battle between the states.

It seems like just yesterday when Minnesota represented the future of Democratic politics and liberal orthodoxy. Beyond its state-level achievements, Minnesota boasted the deepest of benches on the national stage. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Sen. Al Franken, Rep. Keith Ellison—these were the high-profile leaders that provided hope for American liberals; these were the heirs to Minnesota heavyweights like Hubert Humphrey, Walter Mondale, and Paul Wellstone. All three seemed poised to gain even more influence in the future.

Two years ago, any pundit would have acknowledged that Klobuchar was a left-center darling who had a path to the White House. They would have said that Franken was a Senate firecracker who could have made a run for the executive if he wanted it. And everyone would have agreed that Ellison was a groundbreaking Congressman, an expert organizer, and a bona fide progressive, the perfect profile for the next DNC chair.

Fast-forward to 2019, Minnesota’s national aspirations are floundering. Franken is gone, having unceremoniously resigned from the Senate in 2018 amid allegations that he’d touched women inappropriately. Ellison abandoned his post as the DNC deputy chair, a role he originally accepted after losing a tough contest against a more-moderate candidate in Tom Perez. He then left national politics altogether in 2018, having won Minnesota’s state attorney general race despite new allegations of abuse made by his former girlfriend.

When it comes to Klobuchar, reports of her demise may be a little premature. But there is no denying the ostensibly savvy politician has been unable to gain traction this election cycle. Klobuchar kicked off her campaign on a snowy Minneapolis day in February, but before she could even enjoy the usual post-announcement bump, stories alleging that she mistreats her staff came out. They ultimately got more attention than her campaign announcement.

These reports weren’t anecdotes of a stressed-out politician overstepping the line of decency once in a blue moon. They were accounts detailing a brutal workplace dominated by fear and anger. Right off the bat, Klobuchar’s image of “Minnesota nice” disappeared. People no longer saw her as the senator who had calmly provided one of the most profound moments during Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearing. Instead, they saw a lawmaker who punished an aide for forgetting utensils on a flight by eating her salad with a comb. Some women in politics, such as communications professional Jennifer Palmieri, reminded voters that female bosses and their male colleagues tend to be held to different standards. Yet that defense proved unconvincing as Klobuchar and her comb had already become a viral meme, a hurdle that has proven almost impossible to overcome.

In December 2018, two months before she officially launched her campaign, Klobuchar was polling at 10 percent in her neighboring state of Iowa. She was among the frontrunners, up there with the likes of Vice President Joe Biden, Sen Bernie Sanders, Rep. Beto O’Rourke, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren. In the most recent Iowa poll, Klobuchar only secured the support of two percent of respondents.

Despite the setback, Klobuchar is still trying to advance a progressive form of politics that weds pragmatism with audacious idealism. The type of politics that Minnesota was once known for.

To be fair, Klobuchar has ideas—good ideas. Out of all the contenders for the Democratic nomination, Klobuchar’s campaign is one of the more prolific in churning out policy proposals. She recently introduced a plan, for example, that would improve care for seniors. She wants to lower prescription drug costs and forgive the student loans of care workers. She’s also been a leader in the fights against the opioid epidemic and consumer fraud.

At the same time, Klobuchar has ducked and dodged some of the bigger-ticket issues. She hasn’t signed on to Sanders Medicare-for-all plan. She hasn’t pushed student debt relief or offered free tuition for college students at state schools (she does favor free community college). In an election cycle when many of the candidates are embracing the left wing of the Democratic Party, Klobuchar has stuck with her moderate agenda.

Klobuchar’s policy moderation alone cannot explain her campaign’s struggles. Biden would not be leading in the early polls if Iowa Caucus voters were not receptive to a more moderate candidate.

History Professor Jennifer Delton of Skidmore College suspects that Klobuchar’s liberal tradition no longer has a significant base in 2019, at least one big enough to propel her to a leading position in a Democratic primary contest. The author of Making Minnesota Liberal: Civil Rights and the Transformation of the Democratic Party, Delton is a scholar of the brand of liberalism for which Klobuchar is a standard-bearer. She says that before Klobuchar and Franken and Ellison entered the picture, Minnesota was home to liberal reformers who helped transform the Democratic Party during the post-war era. Politicians like Humphrey and Mondale built a party from the ground up, a policy-oriented party rooted in what Delton calls “programmatic politics.” It was this party that furthered the liberal-New Deal state. It was this party that catered to both labor and farmers, urban and rural areas.

It might be surprising to learn that the ideological fight seen in 2019 is not as extreme as the one that prevailed in the 1950s and 1960s. During the Cold War, Humphrey and Mondale, self-described anti-communists, positioned themselves somewhere in the middle. According to Delton, “The anti-communist, New Deal-type liberals were able to strengthen the middle. They defused the right because they stepped forward and said, ‘We will fight the communists.’ And the best way to fight the communists was to fight them with a strong social welfare program, so that people did not need communism.”

Humphrey and Mondale’s wing of the party had a whole laundry list of policy issues that they believed would prevent people from being lured into communism. And while they were always tied to the corporate infrastructure, they nonetheless kept a check on corporations. “The center was so strong it marginalized the right,” Delton says. “The right was totally marginalized until Ronald Reagan was able to get elected. It was working along the edges, but it was New Deal-liberals who marginalized [them] in mainstream politics.”

Delton says that Klobuchar and Franken “clearly identify with that strain and liberal tradition in Minnesota represented by Mondale and later Wellstone.” Support for that strain of liberalism is dwindling, however. The party structure is not as strong as it once was. Democrats have not been able to deliver on promises to farmers and organized labor as they once did. Delton believes that Klobuchar has done a good job adjusting to the times, figuring out how her practical politics works in this day where this is much greater cultural diversity and less party strength. Yet the politics of 2019 seems to have left Klobuchar alone in the middle.

“Now that the center has fallen, the Cold War is done, the labor movement is done, the New Deal-state is done, there is nothing in the middle to keep people there,” Delton says. “You got these resurgent movements on the right and the left and they are going to fight each other. The more the left pushes, the more ammunition for the right, and the more the right pushes, the more ammunition for the left. And centrists like Klobuchar are left saying, ‘You know, I got this program. Anyone? No one?’ That [form of politics is] done… The Democratic Party is really swept up on a lot of issues right now. Klobuchar doesn’t seem to address any of them,” she said.

In one sense, Klobuchar’s story is emblematic of Minnesota as a whole. While it was one of the few noncoastal states that voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016, President Donald Trump came awfully close to winning it. So close, in fact, that Trump won a larger share of the vote in Minnesota than any Republican presidential candidate since Ronald Reagan. The last time a Republican carried the state of Minnesota in a general election was Richard Nixon in 1972.

Trump’s demagoguery somehow convinced a large share of voters in this blue state that left-wing politics aren’t worth it. But the Trump scare in 2016 wasn’t the only complication for the Democratic Party in Minnesota (known as the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party in the state, or DFL). Republicans took back both chambers at the state capitol in that election, leaving DFL governor Mark Dayton powerless on the legislative front. It was an unexpected turn of events for a party that oversaw unprecedented growth in the state. Between 2011 and 2015, Minnesota had the 5th lowest unemployment rate in the country. It was ranked the 9th best state for business and had the 5th fastest-growing economy. The median income was $10,000 higher than the national average and the state boasted a $1 billion budget surplus, despite the fact that Dayton had inherited a $6.2 billion budget deficit in 2011.

Progressive policies allowed Minnesota to thrive at a time when most other Midwestern states were struggling. It was the foundation laid out by the likes of Humphry, Mondale, and Wellstone that bolstered this success. And it was this brand of success that Obama heralded on the Wisconsin-banks of the Mississippi River in 2015, campaigning during election that would see the liberal world fall on its head.

Today, the fate of Minnesota liberals on the national stage rests with Klobuchar. As Klobuchar’s odds of winning the nomination drop further with each new poll, perhaps she will pursue another route to political power. Like her models before her, there is a path where Klobuchar becomes the third Minnesotan to hold the office of the vice presidency. If some of the more progressive candidates can eke out a win over Biden, Klobuchar could be that tireless pragmatist to pair with a Sanders or Warren. An all-female ticket of Warren and Klobuchar might just be the package Democrats need to overcome the current danger in the White House. And such a ticket might just restore Minnesota’s relevance on the national stage.

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