Guess what happens when a presidential candidate gets into the top tier? Amy Klobuchar is starting to find out, as Politico’s David Siders reports today. When the Minnesota senator polled in the low single digits in the Democratic presidential primary, few people bothered to vet her or her record. Now that she’s taken third place in New Hampshire and displaced two previous front-runners — Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren — suddenly the vetting has gotten more serious:
Days after her surprising third-place finish in the New Hampshire primary, Klobuchar is facing a storm as aspects of her record get more scrutiny in the presidential campaign. …
There was the withering interview on “The View” this week, in which the Minnesota senator was asked why she “failed to prosecute a single killing by the police” during her time as a county prosecutor.
That one caught Roland Martin’s attention, who bookended the clip from The View with his own commentary. Sonny Hostin accused Klobuchar of pushing policies as Hennepin County district attorney that “harmed black and brown people,” and demanded to know why she didn’t take a more aggressive approach to investigating police shootings. Note well how Klobuchar slowly changes the subject, and how Hostin changes it right back:
That … doesn’t instill much confidence in Klobuchar, either as a candidate or as a prosecutor. She never even makes a coherent defense of her case despite the fact that, as Hostin notes, Klobuchar has used the case to show how she fights for African-American crime victims. Now, all she can say is that “the case must be reviewed”?
Speaking of “brown people,” to use Hostin’s phrase, oppo researchers didn’t take long to dig up Klobuchar’s support for a “fence” at the southern border. That will make for a tasty debate point in Nevada, where Latinos comprise a considerable segment of Democratic caucusgoers:
Then came the circulation of video in which Klobuchar called for a fence along the U.S.-Mexico border during a Senate campaign debate in 2006. And touching down in Nevada late Thursday, Klobuchar wasn’t 20 minutes into a presidential campaign forum before a question about her record on race arose. …
For Klobuchar, the hostile questioning is a sign of her arrival as a serious contender. But it also comes at a precarious time, as she scrambles to make inroads in Nevada and South Carolina — two racially diverse states in which she has little demonstrated support.
Is it really a sign of Klobuchar’s “arrival as a serious contender”? Or is it, as Washington Post columnist Monica Hesse alleges, a sign of the patriarchal misogyny inherent in the American political system?
It’s an exhausting Mobius strip of election cycles that we like women when they’re in office but find them unlikable when they’re running for a higher office. Studies have shown that voters exhibit gender bias in presidential elections more than in senatorial or congressional contests. Studies have shown that while likability is optional for male candidates — we’ll elect crusty curmudgeons if we believe in their policies — it is a requirement for female candidates. Studies have shown that Americans say they’ll vote for a woman but are still influenced by gender stereotypes even when they think they’re not.
It’s possible, of course, that Amy Klobuchar is just not your candidate, for reasons that have nothing to do with gender. You find her too moderate, or you have a phobia of the Midwestern hot dish.
But there is also a possibility that sometime in the future, if she appears more on your television screen, if she continues to gain in the polls, you might find yourself thinking negatively about her, in the ways we specifically think negatively about female candidates. For reasons you cannot explain, Amy Klobuchar will suddenly remind you of your mother-in-law or your ex-wife. It will feel like she’s lecturing to you. It will feel like she’s talking too much.
You’ll think it has nothing to do with her being a woman. It will have everything to do with her being a woman.
Actually, it will feel as though she’s never run for president before, and hasn’t been asked any tough questions until now on the national stage. Hesse argues that this misogyny is why Hillary Clinton suddenly became unlikable in 2016 when in truth she’s always been unlikable as a candidate, at least in national polling. (Hesse’s colleague Philip Bump did some good analytical work on that in 2015.) She also assumes the same about Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris, ignoring clearly poor performances from both and their previously sheltered status as deep-blue-state senators with little significant competition. Both of those conditions also apply to Klobuchar.
As Roland Martin says after the first clip, “none of these people have challenged Amy Klobuchar” before now. They didn’t have to challenge her before now, either. After snagging a finish in the delegate money in New Hampshire, Klobuchar’s getting her vetting late in the process. And as I wrote earlier this week, she’s not likely to stand up to the scrutiny for reasons that have nothing to do with her chromosomal composition:
Within the Democratic primary, Klobuchar still has multiple challengers for the Not Bernie position. Buttigieg finished ahead of her in both Iowa and New Hampshire, which seems even more improbable for a South Bend mayor than it does for a senator from Minnesota. Joe Biden still has strength in South Carolina, where Klobuchar has barely registered in polling. She’s far behind in Super Tuesday states like California, Texas, and Massachusetts, where Warren will likely do well even if she’s all but faded out of the national picture. Her finish in New Hampshire will likely produce improvements in some of those races, but the number of people ahead of her limits her dynamic potential, especially since most of those states will be rewarding progressives rather than moderates. One third-place finish in an independent-heavy state does not a consolidation make.
Speaking of dynamic potential, Klobuchar has a problem with her general election argument as well. Like most politicians in Minnesota and the upper Midwest in general, Klobuchar succeeds by projecting an image of calm affability. Based on a couple of personal interactions with her, I’d argue that it’s a fairly genuine image rather than an affectation. That would create a strong contrast on the stump between her version of Moderate Minnesota Nice and Trump’s Outer Borough Tough Guy, which might have provided Democrats an advantage if Trump was running for his first term in office. …
Klobuchar’s appeal in a campaign against Trump would be a return to status quo ante normalcy. If voters become anxiety-ridden about the present state of affairs, they won’t want a revolution in the Bernie Sanders sense, but a nostalgic turn toward a pre-Trump technocracy to rescue the country from chaos. Under those circumstances, Trump’s chaos-agent qualities would play against him, and Democrats would be well advised to nominate an establishment figure who can soothe panic.
That only works if the status quo ante is far more appealing than the status quo, however. And frankly, that kind of crisis suits Joe Biden better than Amy Klobuchar too, as Biden has the eight years of the Obama administration on his resumé while Klobuchar has no real executive experience to tout, in either the private or public sector. Absent an economic crisis, though, voters are much less likely to care about Trump’s comportment or his Twitter habits. If the good times are rolling and they expect them to keep going, then voters will not want a return to technocratic/bureaucratic governance. In these populist times, they will be reluctant to trust the institutions while an entertaining iconoclast is delivering for them, and especially while an earnest but uninspiring establishmentarian proposes a sea change in policy.
Klobuchar’s not getting a critical look at this point because of her sex. She’s getting a critical look because she finally became competitive, and Democrats now need to test her mettle. If her performance on The View is an indication of how Klobuchar responds, expect her time in the hot seat to be a short one.