Question: Who kidnapped halting, nervous, diffident Amy Klobuchar and replaced her with the dynamic, self-assured, and funny senator from Minnesota we saw Thursday on the Democratic presidential debate stage?
This was 5G Klobuchar.
From the very first question, which she aced while others cut-and-pasted, she stood out. Taken as a whole, her performance made a strong case for herself as a smart, pragmatic, legislatively accomplished center-left candidate — one with the prospect of bringing swing voters and swing states along.
That initial query was how she would persuade split-down-the-middle America that impeaching President Trump was the right thing to do.
Referencing a recent court decision that rebuked President Trump, she began: “As a wise judge said, the president is not king in America, the law is king.” She expanded on that by explaining why James Madison, father of the Constitution, thought it must include an impeachment clause: “He feared that a president would betray the trust of the American people . . . That is what happened here. . . [T]his is a global Watergate.”
Another pithy, practical answer came when Klobuchar was asked what she would say to those uncomfortable with demographic trends that may make white Americans a minority within a generation.
“I say, this is America,” she replied. “And we are not going to be able to succeed in the world if we do not invite everyone to be part of our economy.” That answer says, in essence, that our overall national economic well-being depends on making good and complete use of all of our country’s talents. She then anchored her answer in one of her proposals to help counteract Republican attempts at minority voter suppression: “I would pass, as president, my bill to register every kid in this country when they turn 18 to vote.”
Klobuchar’s performance should create a big buzz — and at just the right time.
Former vice president Joe Biden also has good reason to feel pleased. With this performance, he disrupted a favorite story line: that, at 77, he has lost a step or two.
Not on Thursday. He answered well (and truthfully) when asked about the Washington Post’s expose about the way US officials have misled the public about progress in Afghanistan. When he was in the Obama administration, Biden noted, he had long argued against nation-building and in favor of a smaller force focused on anti-terrorism. Another good moment came when he went through a fact-and-figure-filled argument for adding a Medicare-like option to the Affordable Care Act rather than moving to a full single-payer system, as Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren advocate.
Although his institutionalist style doesn’t meet the current mood of Democratic activists, Biden made a strong case for it. And in a remark about the speech-impaired kids that he, a former stutterer, meets and encourages on the campaign trail, he struck a deep and obviously heartfelt note of empathy and humanity.
But perhaps his best moment came when Politico’s Tim Alberta noted that Biden would be 82 by the end of his first term, “the oldest president in American history.”
“More like Winston Churchill," deadpanned Biden, and then when Albert said he was talking about American history, replied, “Oh, American history,” before explaining good-naturedly, “I was joking. That was a joke.”
Biden remains the safe harbor for uneasy Democrats, and on Thursday, he certainly reinforced that status.
The big debate fireworks were between Warren and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg. Warren went after (no, not attacked; these exchanges, while pointed, aren’t really attacks) Buttigieg over a fundraiser he held with wealthy donors in a wine cave.
Warren obviously intended that as a purity-test take-down, but Buttigieg proved himself an adept counter-puncher. First, he noted that Warren was far wealthier than he. Then he posed this hypothetical question: If she decided to contribute the maximum allowed amount, $2,800, to his campaign, “would that pollute my campaign because it came from a wealthy person?”
When Warren retorted that her refusal to hold fundraisers with wealthy donors or to make fundraising calls to them meant that “I do not sell access to my time,” Buttigieg was ready.
“Sorry, as of when, Senator?” he said, noting that in her pre-presidential-campaign days, she had done the same kind of fundraising she was now criticizing her rivals for. “Your presidential campaign right now, as we speak, is funded in part by money you transferred, having raised it at those exact same big-ticket fundraisers you now denounce,” he said. “Did it corrupt you, Senator? Of course not.”
For my money, Buttigieg won that exchange with a response that exposed some hypocrisy behind Warren’s assertion of small-dollar fundraising virtue.
When it comes to the campaign’s left lane, Sanders did better than Warren. A candidate who too often seems angry, he managed to modulate his tone. The political symphony he is perpetually conducting seemed to be more Brahms than Stravinsky. He even sprinkled in some humor. Take, for example, the way he contrasted his small-dollar fundraising to the Biden-Buttigieg approach.
“There’s a real competition going on up here," he joked. "My good friend, Joe . . . he’s received contributions from 44 billionaires. Pete, on the other hand, he’s trailing. Pete, you only got 39 billionaires contributing.” Noting that Buttigieg was an energetic and competitive guy, Sanders said he looked forward to seeing “if you can take on Joe on that issue.”
Confronted with a tough question, Warren too often tends to sidestep or talk around the difficulty. Sanders is more inclined to take it head on and explain his thinking, and on Thursday, his approach contrasted well with hers.
It’s hard to be particularly impressed by Tom Steyer, whose pitch, reduced to its essence, is this: It takes a billionaire businessman to beat a (putative) billionaire businessman. Hmmm.
But entrepreneur Andrew Yang continues to surprise with his quirky, eclectic, self-deprecating pitch. He is always good and interesting on technology issues. And he’s usually witty. On Thursday, his answer when asked about being the only candidate of color on stage fairly defined graciousness: “I miss Kamala, I miss Cory — though I think Cory will be back”
In its own way, Yang’s story is as remarkable as the rise of Pete Buttigieg. It’s no wonder young people find him intriguing.