As the Democratic nomination race nears Iowa at long last, Amy Klobuchar sits with a resounding 2.4 percent in the RCP average of presidential primary polls.
Like several other candidates who’ve received lavish praise from the pundit gallery and a veritable pile of momentum stories from major media outlets, the Minnesota senator’s press attention has palpably failed to crystallize into significant or lasting popular support — with one extremely amusing difference: ephemeral and contrived as they may have been, the breathless, effusive media campaigns that aided the momentary surges of figures like Kamala Harris and Beto O’Rourke were at least accompanied by a noticeable uptick in a handful of polls.
Klobuchar, by contrast, has been an also-ran from the moment she entered the race, having failed to crack even the mid–single digits since announcing her candidacy in February. She’s a distant ninth in quarterly fundraising — behind the likes of Cory Booker, Andrew Yang, and Kamala Harris (who suspended her campaign this week) — and unless America’s liberal establishment somehow burns through its seemingly inexhaustible reserve of focus-tested centrists and billionaires before the polls close in Iowa, her position seems unlikely to shift.
None of this would matter in the slightest if elite pundits and marquee op-ed writers hadn’t been taking it upon themselves to tell us, again and again, that Klobuchar is both incredibly impressive and eminently electable. Indeed, perusing the coverage of the Minnesota senator’s perpetually flailing campaign, the casual reader might easily conclude that America is in the throes of chronic Amy Mania or, at any rate, that an insurgent Klobuchar breakthrough is mere days or weeks away.
Poll a representative sample of the nation’s leading pundits and you’ll discover that Klobuchar is an able and charismatic debater whom ordinary voters adore for her folksy charm, down-home affect, cuttingly dry sense of humor, and dogged commitment to political realism. Her debate performances always receive wide acclaim from the martini-soaked galleries at press viewing parties, and her campaign is currently receiving its fifth or sixth second look from a primary electorate some still insist is positively crying out for a Plainspoken Moderate whose biggest idea is expanded personal savings accounts.
So why, exactly, do elite pundits love Amy Klobuchar so much?
The simplest explanation is that some are more or less glorified sports commentators who revel in the kind of speculative, horse-racey, meta-commentary bullshit that now arguably comprises the vast majority of campaign coverage. Viewed in this way, democratic politics are mostly an amusing spectacle wherein various candidates compete on the basis of neatly taxonimizable personal attributes — like professional athletes or fantasy characters digitally rendered with +7 Electability and +15 Midwesternness for the latest release by EA Games. This was evidently the thinking behind a February analysis penned by pollster qua soothsayer Nate Silver entitled “How Amy Klobuchar Could Win The Democratic Nomination,” brimming with observations like the following:
The beer track . . . without the baggage? Klobuchar’s campaign is likely to emphasize her working-class Midwestern roots, her staff said; you’ll hear stuff about how her grandfather worked as an iron-ore miner, for instance. It will also pitch her to voters on candor, honesty, pragmatism, an ability to “get stuff done,” work ethic and so forth. It’s going to lean pretty heavily into her Midwesternness, in other words. The idea is to draw a contrast — probably softly at first, and maybe more explicitly if the campaign grows more combative — between Klobuchar and more left-wing candidates from the coasts, particularly Harris, Warren, Sanders and perhaps Booker. In some ways, this will recall the old distinction between “beer-track” (“flyover-state” moderates) and “wine-track” (coastal liberals) Democrats.
The preceding, of course, would make a bit more sense in a world where it was somehow possible to abstract a candidate’s “electability” from their popularity among actual people who cast votes. Given the obvious disconnect between her ostensible electability and her cavernous numbers, a bewildered Silver was thus forced to conclude of a recent poll unfavorable to Klobuchar: “[She] probably has one of the best electability arguments in the field, so the fact that she’s tied for last here is a sign that voters don’t really think about electability in the same way that political analysts do.”
Let that sink in for a moment.
However bleak her polling among the wider population might be, the Minnesota senator can at any rate rest easy knowing she’s doing well within the Pundit Track — a kind of special electorate for which elections are almost entirely aesthetic and political appeal has nothing to do with a politician’s ability to attract votes from real people. In this respect, she is the quintessential Beltway phenomenon: a Highly Electable Candidate with virtually no popular support. Satire hasn’t been this obsolete since Henry Kissinger won the Nobel Peace Prize.
Nonetheless, there’s a bit more at work in Klobuchar’s narrow appeal than the superficial crushes she’s induced in a handful of pundits made giddy by her canned one-liners and tiresome, “aw-shucks” Midwesterner schtick. Run through the most effusive coverage her campaign has received, and you’ll repeatedly find something else in the mix: namely, that Klobuchar is a darling of the pundit class because her principal political message involves telling people wracked by angst and economic insecurity that they can’t and shouldn’t expect anything better.
Asked by a reporter to comment on the twin ideas of free college and the elimination of student debt a few weeks ago, for example, the candidate had this to say:
I just don’t agree with these policies and I also think that they know they most likely won’t go through because they don’t make any sense when you really take down the veneer and get them off a bumper sticker . . . but they just keep promising it.
Taken on its own, such a comment would merely be emblematic of the parochial way centrist liberals conceive of what’s possible. But Klobuchar’s follow-up when asked why anyone would dare to promise free college or the elimination of student debt in the first place offered the real kicker: “Because people like it. They like to hear that they’re going to get everything free. Right?” Watch the clip for yourself, and you’ll hear Klobuchar’s voice oozing the kind of paternalistic relish typically reserved for quietly brutal substitute teachers and conservative members of the clergy.
Some of the nation’s leading pundits evidently hear much the same thing when Klobuchar speaks, only they’ve decided it’s this very quality that makes her worthy of praise and admiration. Read through the most fawning coverage of the senator’s campaign, and you’ll find a cavalcade of well-heeled pundits telling us more or less explicitly that her tendency to reject policies the average person might actually like or benefit from is precisely what makes her so appealing:
“Perhaps the most important figure on the stage was Amy Klobuchar, by which I mean that she most readily accepted and aggressively played the necessary role of suggesting that the most progressive proposals — namely, Medicare for All, backed by both Warren and Bernie Sanders — existed in the realm not of the doable but of the dream-able, and that they weren’t going to fix needy Americans’ lives anytime soon.” — Frank Bruni
“In the 2020 field, two Democrats have the strongest track record of running as middle-class fighters: Amy Klobuchar and Sherrod Brown . . . Both have also smartly avoided some ideas that play better with liberal Twitter than swing voters, like the fever dream of eliminating private health insurance . . . If I were Trump, I would fear Klobuchar.” — David Leonhardt
“Before last week, Beth Kundel Vogel was undecided when it came to the Democratic presidential hopefuls. But in the debate on Tuesday, Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota impressed her by calling out Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts for offering voters a ‘pipe dream’ rather than a plan to pay for universal health care.” — Trip Gabriel
“As Senator Elizabeth Warren promised “big, structural change,” and Senator Bernie Sanders offered his brand of “political revolution,” Ms. Klobuchar was steadily reminding voters of the factors that have long mattered in national politics, at least before the election of a certain current president: expense, experience and electability. Now, as the moderate wing of the party reasserts itself in the primary campaign, her message of plain-spoken politics is drawing greater attention.” — Lisa Lerer
“Klobuchar has embraced her no-nonsense image of someone willing to tell constituents ‘no.’ She has developed an unusual signature move, namely debunk the pie-in-the-sky proposals of the staunch progressives, undaunted by their arguments that she is not thinking ‘big enough.’ If Warren and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) do not win the nomination, much of the credit should go to Klobuchar, who has effectively grabbed the party by the lapels and told its members to ‘Snap out of it!’” — Jennifer Rubin
In an alternate timeline with a less hierarchical culture suffusing both media and politics, it would be difficult to imagine a candidate like Amy Klobuchar receiving such fulsome treatment from democracy’s so-called fourth estate. Most likely, her well-established reputation as one of Capitol Hill’s worst bosses would be considered instantly disqualifying, and she wouldn’t be running for president at all.
Boasting the highest rate of staff turnover for any member of the Senate last year, Klobuchar’s fondness for mistreating subordinates (which in 2015 even earned her a rebuke by Democratic Senate leader Harry Reid) has been widely reported — with former staffers describing “a workplace controlled by fear, anger, and shame” according to an investigation by BuzzFeed earlier this year. Among other things, Klobuchar has allegedly engaged in multiple efforts to shut down prospective job opportunities for members of her staff; thrown objects such as binders and phones in their direction; forced low-level employees “to perform duties they described as demeaning, like washing her dishes or other cleaning”; and emailed staff “at all hours of the day and night” with appraisals of their perceived incompetence. Her reputation as a boss is so bad it reportedly drove several people away from the opportunity to manage her presidential bid. As a February report from the Huffington Post described it, Klobuchar “defended her office as a ‘tough’ workplace that molds her employees for even greater challenges.”
If Klobuchar is well-liked among elite members of the media for her ability to affect a folksy charm while talking down to constituents, her reputation as the Hill’s most tyrannical boss certainly hasn’t proven any kind of hindrance — if anything, it’s evinced an eerily parallel appeal.
Reacting to a New York Times report entitled “How Amy Klobuchar Treats Her Staff” detailing (among other things) an occasion when the Minnesota senator is said to have told a subordinate “I would trade three of you for a bottle of water,” New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait chuckled: “This line makes me want to vote for Klobuchar.”
To which the Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin replied: “Exactly.”