Following the New Hampshire primary, Sen. Amy Klobuchar is in fourth place in delegates. She trails Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Sen. Bernie Sanders, and former South Bend, Indiana, mayor Pete Buttigieg but is ahead of former Vice President Joe Biden. Reporting showed that at least some voters were moved by her New Hampshire debate performance where she confronted Buttigieg for criticizing those doing the work in Washington. But Klobuchar will likely have a difficult time rallying support from voters concerned with progressive policy, given the centrism and — at times — shocking conservatism of her policy proposals in the realms of education, health care, disability rights, opioid treatment, immigration, climate policy, housing policy and more. Especially when taken in comparison to the bolder policy proposals of Senators Warren and Sanders, Klobuchar’s policies are largely an embrace of the status quo.
Klobuchar opposes universal, free public college — something that both Warren and Sanders support — arguing that it is merely “sending rich kids to college for free.” But Klobuchar is wrong to criticize universality, as that is precisely what makes popular policies like Social Security and Medicare more resistant to reactionary forces like class resentment and racist backlash. Klobuchar has similarly opposed Medicare for All, which Sanders and Warren have both embraced, saying in the September debate that it will mean “we will no longer have private insurance as we know it.” But the welcome move away from private insurance is a feature, not a bug, of Medicare for All.
Meanwhile Klobuchar’s proposals concerning reproductive health care and abortion access are unusually conservative for a Democratic senator. Klobuchar said she was “unsure” whether she would make misoprostol and mifepristone, drugs used to induce abortion during early pregnancy, available over the counter. Klobuchar has said there is room in the Democratic Party for anti-choice views, and brought up her work in the adoption caucus in the Senate. Adoption is not an alternative to access to health care, and the Democrats should not be conceding this.
Klobuchar’s disability plan lacks key changes that both Warren and Sanders have committed to.
Currently, there is a marriage penalty for U.S. residents receiving Supplemental Security Income (SSI), because if two SSI recipients get married, their benefits are cut by 25 percent. The plans crafted by Warren and Sanders eliminate the marriage penalty, but Klobuchar’s plan doesn’t even mention it. Her plan talks about increasing “treatment beds for people with mental illness,” meaning support for people with mental illness in inpatient treatment centers. But talking about mental health in terms of “beds” is dehumanizing language, and raises concerns about institutionalization for disability rights advocates. Moreover, Klobuchar’s approach to funding opioid treatment is a regressive one: Klobuchar has proposed taxing prescription opioid medications that are often medically necessary, making patients bear the costs. Meanwhile Klobuchar’s support for legislation billed to help “locate missing people with forms of dementia” has been criticized by some disability rights advocates for increasing tracking devices that can make it easier to institutionalize people with disabilities.
Before becoming a senator, Klobuchar was in law enforcement, serving as Hennepin County attorney in Minnesota. During her tenure, she had a then-teenager Myon Burrell sentenced to life over the killing of Tyesha Edwards by a stray bullet. But a total lack of DNA evidence or a weapon, confessions that were coached or coerced, and Burrell’s ongoing insistence of his innocence 14 years later call into question if Klobuchar prosecuted an innocent man.
She has used her record as prosecutor to position herself as “tough on crime.” In her 2006 race for Senate, Klobuchar put out a press release that bragged, “The average prison sentence for first degree drug offenders in Hennepin County is now 20% longer than the year before Klobuchar took office.” While Klobuchar has softened the way she talks about incarceration since 2006, her policy proposals remain moderate relative to the progressives in the race. Sanders and Warren both want to end solitary confinement; Klobuchar merely advocates for it to be reduced. She does support ending cash bail, as do all the other candidates apart from Buttigieg.
There are also stark contrasts between Klobuchar and the progressives on immigration enforcement. In 2006, Klobuchar said that a fence would bring “order at the border.” Klobuchar, unlike both Sanders and Warren, doesn’t support decriminalization of border crossings. She doesn’t support a smaller budget for immigration enforcement agencies like Immigration and Customs Enforcement and U.S. Customs and Border Protection, and actually calls for “more immigration enforcement and border security in exchange for relief for immigrants and their families,” according to grassroots, constituent-engagement group Indivisible’s scorecard. Klobuchar hasn’t committed to stopping deportations, whereas both Warren and Sanders have committed to a moratorium on deportations in the first 100 days, a plank of the undocumented, youth-led United We Dream Action’s “Free to Move, Free to Stay” platform.
Indivisible’s “Day 1 Democracy Agenda” scored candidates on their willingness to tackle the challenges of a Senate filibuster to block new legislation. Warren earned the highest marks, with an active commitment to abolishing the filibuster and an openness to adding justices. Klobuchar has expressed a less active openness to abolishing the filibuster, whereas Sanders has pushed for a different strategy for changing Senate procedures to overcome the challenge of the filibuster without directly abolishing it.
Should the next president be a Democrat, they will also face a challenge in a judicial system stacked with 187 new Trump appointments. Klobuchar has voted in favor of nearly two-thirds of Trump’s judicial nominees — 18 out of 29 (in contrast, Sanders voted yes on 10; Warren voted in favor of nine). One of the judges Klobuchar voted to confirm, Kurt Damian Engelhardt, ruled the Affordable Care Act’s (ACA) individual mandate unconstitutional in December 2019, which puts the entire ACA at risk.
When it comes to accountability for the most powerful, Klobuchar is meeker than the image she tries to project. She has called neither for Attorney General William Barr’s impeachment nor his resignation, calling instead for him to merely testify before the Senate.
Meanwhile Klobuchar’s climate plan is almost entirely focused on reinstating President Barack Obama’s regulations like the Clean Power Plan (CPP). But between coal plants being retired because they can’t compete and other state-level renewable energy policies forging ahead, a lot of states were set to meet the CPP targets regardless of the policy being in place or not, so reinstatement of this plan doesn’t warrant its placement as a keystone part of Klobuchar’s climate platform.
While Warren and Sanders both want to ban fracking, Klobuchar has embraced the fossil fuel industry talking point that natural gas can be a “bridge fuel.” This is a lie of the industry that most Democrats choose not to repeat; Klobuchar, however, remains unbothered. The environmental group Greenpeace gave Klobuchar a C+ on its climate scorecard (Sanders received an A+; Warren an A).
The fossil fuel industry is not the only big industry that is shaping Klobuchar’s decision making. Her coziness with Big Ag companies like Cargill (from which she receives massive contributions) was apparent in her decision in 2011 to write a letter asking the U.S. Department of Agriculture to classify “tomato-based sauces” like those on frozen pizzas as a vegetable. Klobuchar has since apologized for the letter, but it points to the degree to which she was prioritizing the sales of a Minnesota frozen pizza company, Schwan Food Co, over nutritional standards.
In the realm of housing policy, Klobuchar’s plan talks about attracting private investment and using vouchers, but her focus is far more on expanding Section 8 than on revitalizing public housing. This is especially surprising given that she is a senator in Minnesota, a state that is home to a significant amount of public housing and tenant advocacy by groups like Defend Glendale in Minneapolis. Both Warren and Sanders have called for repealing the President Bill Clinton-era Faircloth Amendment, which effectively froze new construction of public housing.
Klobuchar has said she will spend a combined $1 trillion on housing and poverty reduction, like strengthening the Earned Income Tax Credit. But her plan doesn’t explain how the proposed funding is split up, apart from a commitment to spend $50 billion on the needed repairs to public housing. In contrast, Warren has proposed a total investment of $680 billion in affordable housing — $500 billion to build and preserve affordable housing, and $180 billion as a part of the Green New Deal for Public Housing plan that Warren notes her support of in her plan for renters. The Green New Deal for Public Housing Act includes a goal to end the public housing repairs backlog, which is estimated at approximately $70 billion following decades of underinvestment. Sanders’s housing plan proposes $2.5 trillion total to invest in building nearly 10 million permanently affordable housing units. Of that, $70 billion is proposed to go to public housing repairs.
Klobuchar has been dogged by allegations that she systematically mistreats staff with abusive behavior, which is borne out by data indicating that she’s had more turnover than any other senator in the years 2001 to 2018. She’s responded to reporting on this subject by saying that such an edge is necessary to take on Donald Trump. But the ability to berate aides is no indication of one’s qualifications to challenge difficult adversaries. To the contrary, it takes little courage to mistreat staffers, especially those in congressional offices, who skew young, whose average wages haven’t risen in two decades and who have no access to meaningful human resources support.
Unfortunately, it appears that in more realms than one Klobuchar may have shown an inclination to bring added hardship upon those in structural positions of vulnerability. Whether through increases in prosecutions and sentences for drug offenses or excoriation of her Senate staff, she’s hailed her power to punish as evidence of leadership.