vision 2020

With Some Elbow Room, Amy Klobuchar Could Have a Moment

Could Klobuchar yet become viable? You betcha! Photo: BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images

After the second round of 2020 Democratic debates in Detroit, there has been a natural upsurge of interest in what a winnowed field and different candidate interactions might produce to clarify the nominating contest and the choices Democratic voters face. My colleague Gabriel Debenedetti, for example, is hoping for a Warren-Biden confrontation in the next debate:

Biden and Warren spoke the most over the last two nights of debating, totaling exactly 40 minutes between them, and their disagreements have still only been implied, not directly confronted. When Warren shot “I don’t understand why anybody goes to all the trouble of running for president of the United States just to talk about what we really can’t do and shouldn’t fight for” at John Delaney on Tuesday night, it was no surprise that some of her allies wished she could aim that elbow at his fellow moderate Biden. And when Biden offered his extended defense of the Affordable Care Act on Wednesday, it was no shock that many in his corner wished he could have made the same points to Warren and Sanders the night before.

But Biden and Warren aren’t the only candidates who could really use a different configuration of the field and the debate stage going forward. Senator Amy Klobuchar just became the eighth candidate to qualify for the third round of debates in September. It would really, really help her if a number of other candidates did not make the cut.

For one thing, she and the other qualifying candidates would almost certainly benefit from keeping future debate rounds to a single night when all of them are on the same stage. For that to happen in September, only two more candidates can be included (assuming one or more of the qualified candidates does not drop out). My recent overview of where the candidates stand suggested that Andrew Yang and Julián Castro will very likely get onto the September stage, and several other candidates could realistically get there too, with some luck and a lot of effort.

But beyond that, Klobuchar in particular needs a major culling of the crowd of moderates fighting with her for oxygen and for the moderate-to-conservative primary voters not already pledging allegiance to Joe Biden.

Think about all the time and attention John Delaney got in Detroit. Consider Michael Bennet and John Hickenlooper’s pleas to the Democratic Party to avoid any lurch to the portside of politics. Steve Bullock’s electability pitch is very similar to Klobuchar’s. Tim Ryan can claim success in Trump country, too. Wouldn’t it be nice for the senior senator from Minnesota to become the only candidate who can credibly claim career-long electoral strength among citizens who otherwise vote Republican?

A less crowded debate stage would definitely give Klobuchar a better opportunity to contrast her very practical executive-order-heavy agenda of things she’d do in her first 100 days in office with all those big, bold progressive proposals from others that would require (as Bernie Sanders admits) a “political revolution” to get anywhere. And she might also usefully remind Democrats that she does not have Joe Biden’s “baggage” of responsibility for reactionary legislation, associations, and utterances. Klobuchar’s main baggage involves a reputation for being mean to her staff, and compared to the current president, she’s earned a shelf full of World’s Greatest Boss mugs.

Soaking up some of the attention, support, and money currently going to bottom-feeding “moderates” can only get the Minnesotan so far, of course. It would help her even more if Beto O’Rourke, who has qualified for the next debate, would perform euthanasia on his long-suffering, slow-bleeding campaign. Pete Buttigieg is another relatively moderate candidate ostensibly doing pretty well, but who may have hit his ceiling amid chronic speculation that he’s “really” running for veep. If he got out of the way by the time voters started voting, Klobuchar would have some serious elbow room.

Now this may all be phantasmagorical. Limited as they are, Buttigieg and O’Rourke are consistently polling a lot better than Klobuchar nationally. She’s currently at 3 percent in the RealClearPolitics polling averages for Iowa, where she must do very well to survive. She may lack both the charisma and the progressive positioning to go anywhere in 2020, and for that matter, my hunch that there is room for at least one “Bidenism Without Biden” candidate may be wrong because the actual Biden remains the front-runner.

But, if she gets a lot of breaks and takes full advantage of them, Klobuchar might get a look as a potential nominee who is strong but not shout-y, smart but relatable. To stand out as unbreakable and electable in the hothouse atmosphere of the 2020 race, though, she needs to start making a better and more powerful impression right away. That next debate in September could be her last chance.

With Some Elbow Room, Amy Klobuchar Could Have a Moment