Minnesotans like Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar. She was reelected in the purple state in 2018 by 24 points, and in January Morning Consult polling found her to be one of the most popular senators in the country.
She’s hoping that strong support in her home state — which happens to be in the upper Midwest, neighboring states where Donald Trump carved his path to victory — can translate into support from primary voters looking for someone who can beat President Trump as they choose the 2020 Democratic presidential nominee.
But on the way, Klobuchar faces some obstacles: her moderate politics (at least, relative to many of her competitors for the nomination) may turn off some Democratic primary voters, as may some of the reports that she has mistreated her staff.
Klobuchar discussed her approach to policy, politics and leadership with NPR’s Rachel Martin.
She’s the fifth 2020 candidate to talk to Morning Edition for an Opening Argument conversation, exploring the presidential candidates’ core messages.
Martin: Several Democratic presidential candidates support some version of Medicare-for-all or single-payer healthcare system. Do you?
Klobuchar: Every American deserves affordable healthcare, and we have to move to universal health care. So, what I support is moving to universal health care as quickly as possible.
Martin: And when you say universal health care, you mean a single-payer system.
Klobuchar: I mean healthcare for everyone… and we may end up there one day. But what’s the fastest way we can expand health care more immediately? I would do cost-sharing and reinsurance. That’s a bill that’s out there right now to help with premiums. …
Then, the public option, in the first year we should pass legislation for a public option that could be done with Medicaid or with Medicare. You could expand Medicare. You could expand Medicaid, but have a public option, which is the original idea that President Obama conceived. Why? Because then you would have a less expensive option for people to go to. That could result in a lot of people leaving other private plans to go to that public option, and Medicaid’s an interesting way to do it.
Many Democrats in this presidential field are backing some form of single-payer healthcare, following the lead of Bernie Sanders’ 2016 campaign, in which he pushed his Medicare-for-all plan.
That sets Klobuchar apart from some of her competitors.
Her route to “universal health care” doesn’t mean putting everyone on a government-administered insurance plan. Rather, she here first supports a bipartisan plan backed in the last Congress by Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn. That bill, which ultimately failed, would have stabilized the Obamacare exchanges.
In addition, Klobuchar has said that she wants to allow people to buy into Medicaid via a bill sponsored by Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii — a “public option” plan.
That said, Klobuchar explains that she’s not exactly against Medicare-for-all.
She told NPR, “We may end up there one day. But what’s the fastest way we can expand health care more immediately?”
On being more moderate than many of her Democratic opponents
Martin: More than any candidate, in a very large field of Democratic presidential hopefuls, you have a proven record of working across the aisle with Republicans. You are by most definitions someone who legislates from the center — a political moderate. Do you think that helps you or hurts you in this campaign?
Klobuchar: I would hope that it helps me, because when you look at my record I have stood up on so many progressive issues, whether it is choice, whether it is the environment, whether it is standing up for immigrants and against racial injustice.
But there are moments where we can find common ground.
… I worked with [Former Utah GOP] Senator [Orrin] Hatch to get a billion dollars for school safety after the tragedy in Parkland. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t stand my ground.
So while I was the lead Democrat on the school safety money, which passed overwhelmingly, I also was standing my ground against the president when it comes to universal background checks and an assault weapon ban. I sat directly across from him at that meeting, listened to him say nine times he wanted to get universal background checks done, and then saw him bow to the NRA the next day.
That’s just wrong. So, I use that example because on one hand you can find common ground with people like Senator Hatch on the billion dollars for school safety, and then you can fight the bigger battles.
Progressive voters are clearly energized in this campaign, as evidenced by the kinds of positions many of the candidates are taking.
Klobuchar still takes some relatively liberal stands — she’s a cosponsor on the Green New Deal, and a public option isn’t exactly a popular proposal among Republicans. But she has also stopped short of endorsing Medicare-for-all and said she opposes tuition-free college.
Her willingness to reach out to Republicans might help her with those voters who believe Washington is broken, and that compromise would break gridlock. But it’s easy to see how in a primary, running as a candidate who reaches across the aisle might not endear her to those Democratic voters who simply do not want compromise on their most important issues.
And while Democrats say they want someone ultimately who is “electable,” there are disagreements over whether that means someone who can appeal to the political center or has a clear, progressive message to excite the party’s base.
On regulating big tech
Martin: Senator Elizabeth Warren — also running for president — has identified privacy and transparency as an issue when it comes to these tech companies… She wants to break up those companies, so that they can’t sell the same products on their platform where competitors are also trying to get an edge in. Do you agree with that plan? Do you think it goes too far?
Klobuchar: Well, what’s interesting is I see it an even larger way, which is why I’ve been trying to use antitrust law and make changes there… Yeah, some of them you may spin off parts of the companies, some of them you may break off.
And you can do things like that, but I think you should do it by getting those things investigated and figure out which company is doing what, number one.
Number two: I would then change the standards under the law so that no longer does the government have to prove that it reduces competition to throw something out; that in fact the companies have to prove that they don’t materially reduce competition, which is also a language change to the standard, and also that you can look back at deals like what Facebook just did by buying Instagram and other apps, that you can look to see, even though they already did it, is that anti-competitive?
Tech regulation and, more broadly, antitrust regulation may be topics on which Klobuchar can set herself apart from a wide field of candidates. She is well-respected for her knowledge on the topic, and it’s an area where she has been active in the Senate.
Along with Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., and the late Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., she introduced the Honest Ads Act in 2017. That bill would require better disclosure of the people and organizations who fund online political advertisements.
She has also introduced antitrust legislation that could make mergers tougher for large companies. While that might be a dry policy topic to many voters, it could be more of a hot topic this year, as tech firms’ uses of customers’ private data, as well as the spread of hate speech and propaganda online, have angered many Americans.
On her treatment of her staff
Martin: There are reports citing several former staffers from your office who allege that you mistreated them. And I ask about this because we are in a moment in this country where we are having a national conversation about power and workplace dynamics and what is acceptable and what is not, especially in a leader.
Do you think your behavior in these instances should raise concerns in the minds of voters?
Klobuchar: No, I don’t. And I would first point to that over 60 of our staff — former staff came together, everyone from chiefs of staff to people on the front line that worked with me, that were in the car with me all day, and said that they had a good experience working in our office. So, to me that was really important when I saw that letter, and I think it’s worth looking at. So that’s the first thing.
Secondly, I do have high standards. I do push people hard. I have high standards of myself, of our staff and also for our nation. And so that is the way I’m going to look at this going forward. And that is – I can always do better and I will. But we have gotten so much done with our team. My state director has been with me seven years. My chief of staff around five years. My campaign manager 14 years.
You don’t win elections like we have, which is winning every single congressional district in Minnesota, including [former GOP Rep.] Michele Bachmann’s. You do not pass — get Vanderbilt to rate you as the number one Democratic senator for getting things done under 15 metrics in the U.S. Senate and the first minority party senator to break the top five since John McCain in 1994.
You don’t get that done alone. You get that done because you have great staff that work with you, and they’re not only just working for me, they are working for our country, and I’m very proud of them.
That is raising questions for voters, and Klobuchar has been attempting to answer those stories by acknowledging her high standards for her staff. She has also taken the chance to pitch herself as a candidate with a strength of character that would serve the country well.
“When you’re out there on the world stage and dealing with people like Vladimir Putin, yeah, you want someone who’s tough,” she told CNN. “You want someone that demands the answers and that’s going to get things done, and that’s what I’ve done my whole life.”
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