On Wednesday night, Amy Klobuchar became the second Democratic presidential candidate to appear in a Fox News Town hall event, following Bernie Sanders’s appearance last month.
Sanders has always marched to the beat of his own drummer, but Klobuchar’s appearance on the network marks the first break in the boycott by establishment Democrats. It’s a smart strategy for a candidate who has struggled to make her voice heard amid the growing horde of candidates for the Democratic nomination in 2020.
Here’s what we learned.
1. Heartland Amy
The senior senator from Minnesota, Klobuchar is a Midwesterner and her focus on that region came up again and again in the town hall. The event was in Milwaukee, so this tactic went over well with the Midwestern crowd, but it also addresses a problem Democrats have been puzzling over since 2016.
The vaunted “blue wall” of the Electoral College ran from New England to Pennsylvania and through the upper Midwest, plus the Pacific Coast. However attached the Democratic Party got to the neoliberal consensus the Clintons practiced, they thought they could never lose that blue wall.
They were trading on a legacy put in place by Franklin Roosevelt, in which they were the party of the worker, the miner, the famer. Indeed, the Minnesota branch of the Democratic Party still calls itself the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, a relic of the fusion politics of those days.
But FDR has not been on the ticket since 1944, and Donald Trump made a hash of the Democrats’ claim to be the workingman’s party—a claim that has had increasingly less evidence to support it over the past few decades. Hillary Clinton’s loss of Ohio, Michigan, and above all Wisconsin signaled how deep the Midwest’s disillusionment with national Democrats has gotten.
Klobuchar sees, rightly, that a Republican Party that gets the votes of the South, the Plains, and the Midwest is almost impossible to defeat. As a Midwesterner, one of the few in the race, she sees herself as the best spokesperson for the region.
How does that play out in policy terms? That’s where it gets a little fuzzy. She talks about prosperity being shared unequally, a common complaint of Trump voters. The idea that much of our economic success is being accumulated on Wall Street and in Silicon Valley is one that resounds with a lot of Americans. Klobuchar nodded at that sentiment, but offered nothing different from the Clinton campaign in actually addressing it.
2. Moderate or Progressive?
One audience question from a grad student and podcaster probed Klobuchar’s progressive bona fides. There are now nearly two dozen Democratic candidates, each leapfrogging the others for the title of Wokest of the Woke.
Klobuchar stands somewhat outside the pack. From a state that almost went for Trump in 2016, she has never had the political leeway to be a liberal firebrand, even if she were so inclined. Yet the Democratic primary electorate expects Full Socialism at all times.
Klobuchar tries to square the circle by calling herself “a proven progressive.” It’s quite similar to Hillary Clinton’s 2016 promise to be “a progressive president who gets results,” and for the same reasons.
Klobuchar is a realist. She knows that even with the supermajorities the Democrats had in the first two years of the Obama administration, not every socialist dream could come true. America, even when it swings left, has a conservative temperament. We don’t like utopian schemes.
As someone from a swing state, Klobuchar knows that. Most of the more openly progressive candidates know it, too; they’re just morally flexible enough to play along with the radical’s make-believe.
3. The Victim Game
Klobuchar does not like to play the victim game. An audience member asked if early coverage of her campaign was sexist, and she brushed aside the idea pretty quickly. That alone makes her stand out among politicians.
Taking offense, being the victim, and whining about life’s vicissitudes are the bread and butter of the modern pol, no less on the right than the left. It may have begun among the Democrats, but Republicans also now love to cry outrage whenever anyone slights them or treats them unfairly.
Klobuchar has no real need to appear tough—if anything, the rumors of her treatment of her office staff make her look too tough—but not indulging in self-pity over news coverage was a welcome change.
4. Bomb Iran
The only foreign policy question of the night involved the current movement of a carrier group to the Persian Gulf in response to Iranian nuclear provocations. World affairs have not been Klobuchar’s focus in the Senate, but she acquitted herself well. Her answer to Bret Baier’s question—what we she do about Iran if she were president right now—was Clintonian.
First saying that she never would have left the Iran Deal, as Trump did, she acknowledged that it had flaws, without specifying what those flaws were. She then said that Iran must never be allowed a nuclear weapon, mentioning the threat to global peace and to Israel specifically, a contrast with progressives’ increasing distaste for the Jewish state.
But she also said that war must be avoided. Her answer was more about style of foreign policy than substance, but style has a substance all its own. It was a decent, if vague, response to a question that has stymied many people before her.
5. Some Things Are Different On Fox
Fox is known as a conservative network, but the questions from the crowd contained their share of softballs. An audience member asked Klobuchar a question about the rights of women “pursuing reproductive health-care services” and how Klobuchar would increase access to such rights.
The questioner, whom the network identified as “student” but whom could also have been identified just as truthfully as “former intern to two Democratic Congresswomen,” elicited a response from Klobuchar along much the same lines, a lengthy dialogue on these mysterious services that never once called them by name.
Martha MacCallum’s follow-up question shattered the illusion, asking Klobuchar how she could endorse unlimited access to abortion when 80 percent of Americans think third-trimester abortions should be banned. Klobuchar handled it well: her answer was assuredly pro-abortion, but she did not get tripped up by having to actually name the thing she supports. She also dared to say what used to be common parlance in the Democratic Party: that we should reduce the number of abortions (although not by banning it or restricting it in any way.)
It’s a minor difference from the other networks, but an important one. On MSNBC or CNN, the audience plants, the anchors, and the candidate would all have been on the same page about social issues like abortion. Not only would Klobuchar have not been challenged on her position, she likely wouldn’t have even had to say the word.
For Democratic candidates from deep blue states, having to defend themselves on this and other hot-button issues is unknown. Their biggest fights are to win the Democratic nomination, with the general election being just a walkover.
Klobuchar has had to defend her views to the voters before, and seemed comfortable with the process. The other Democratic candidates would be wise to follow her over to Fox for an hour to sharpen their skills. If not, they might well get an unpleasant surprise in the general election.