Relative to other senators, Klobuchar doesn’t get much criticism. But the theme to the criticism she does receive (other than that she’s a godless tax-and-spend liberal who supported the government’s socialist takeover of health care and wants to turn the United States into Europe) is that she is guilty of playing “small ball.” This means devoting herself to largely non-controversial legislation that doesn’t make headlines.
The “small ball” complaint comes up so routinely among the political chattering class that it feels like another artifact from the echo chamber, something people pass along at cocktail parties to sound more informed than they really are. But Klobuchar, who professes to “enjoy” the legislative work of researching and assembling bills and orchestrating co-sponsorships with other senators, happily and proudly rattles off examples of her recent work. Like the bill, with Republican Susan Collins of Maine, requiring the Pentagon to keep all evidence related to sexual assaults in the military on file for 50 years, instead of the one year that had been the norm.
“I got all 17 of the women to support that bill,” says Klobuchar. “The male senators, John McCain and others, came on later. But the point is, no man had ever taken this on. It’s important because sexual violence in the military is increasing, and if you deal with this issue, more women will join the military.”
Another accomplishment she’s proud of is securing additional money for breast cancer research, specifically an amendment she sponsored covering younger women. “The women [senators] do things together all the time,” she says, “because we get along better than any other cross-party group.” In the Senate, there’s a word for the ability to coordinate bipartisan cooperation, and that word is power.
The bar for “cross-party” cooperation in Washington is appallingly low these days. But Klobuchar’s point is that while the headlines are full of noxious partisanship, “down lower, away from the big fights, there’s still a lot getting done.” Call it “small ball” if you will, but it’s still fundamental legislative work, she argues, work that has bona fide value to people in the middle class. And while she’s reluctant to overemphasize it, many of the below-the-radar issues she’s taken on have specific value to women, who are still a long way from proportionate representation in The World’s Most Exclusive Club.
THE LONG GAME
Few, if any, politicos think Klobuchar will have much trouble vanquishing whatever opposition stands in her way come November. Her general popularity, Iron Range cred, ease with the hoi polloi, record on women’s issues, and ability to talk intelligently (and often humorously) into a microphone are qualities that make her as invincible as any incumbent could hope to be.
“Amy would have to screw up royally to lose this [election], and I don’t see that happening.”
Arne Carlson, former Republican Governor
Former state legislator Dan Severson—he of the $34,000 campaign war chest—is one of a handful of Republicans with their hands up to oppose Klobuchar this November, and even he concedes her popularity. “She’s a very non-offensive person,” is how he puts it. “But she’s on the wrong side of every issue, and she’s never called on it because the mainstream news media is protecting her. A lot of people I talk to say she’s a do-nothing senator.” Severson rolls Klobuchar into his explanation for so much gridlock and dysfunction in Washington. “She’s been an impediment and an obstacle to changing that.” He pauses and adds, “I believe she’s feeling comfortable right now, and that’s fine. But we believe voters will respond to our case.”
Severson’s view contrasts, just a bit, with that of former Republican governor Arne Carlson, who says bluntly, “Amy would have to screw up royally to lose this one, and I don’t see that happening.”
Klobuchar intends to win and to go on winning for a long time. “It takes, on average, 15 years to achieve chairmanship of a major Senate committee,” she points out when asked about Paul Wellstone’s memorable promise not to run for a third term, something he was doing when he died in 2002. “A lot of influence comes with seniority, so I’m not saying what Paul said.”
In recent years, Minnesota has seen a number of woeful-to-disastrous one-and-out Senate terms by the likes of Rod Grams, Mark Dayton, and Norm Coleman. Consequently, Minnesota is a long way down the influence ladder in Washington, a ladder that can translate to tangible value to the state, as well as to the politician pushing legislation through the Senate’s Byzantine rules and horse-trading among its various competing committees.
How far Klobuchar’s political skills might take her can’t be predicted, of course. But pundit flattery, such as the 2008 New York Times story mentioning her among 21 women who might have presidential qualities, or the 2010 rumor circulating through the media that included her with eventual nominee Elena Kagan for the U.S. Supreme Court, never hurts. And, as if more proof were needed that she’s just one of the common folk, in January she won a bipartisan hot dish cook-off between Minnesota legislators with her recipe for “Taconite Tater Tot Hot Dish” (taconite being the well-guarded secret ingredient in Iron Range cuisine).