Radio Atlantic: Amy Klobuchar, Live at The Atlantic Festival

The 2020 hopeful says Democrats need to think hard about which plans they can pass, not just which ones they can propose.

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Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota has been thinking a lot about James Madison over the past few days. With House Democrats officially launching an impeachment inquiry, she’s been coming back to a quote from the Founding Father arguing for the inclusion of an impeachment provision at the Constitutional Convention.

“He might pervert his administration into a scheme of [embezzlement] or oppression,” Madison said in July 1787. “He might betray his trust to foreign powers.” Klobuchar pointed out one tweak she would make: “He used the word he. I would, of course, say he or she,” she told me.

To Klobuchar, a 2020 Democratic presidential candidate, Madison’s worry doesn’t just relate to what the country is facing right now in light of Donald Trump’s attempt to get the Ukrainian president to dig up dirt on Joe Biden and his son. It gets at the heart of what America is about.

“When you think about the founding of our country, that was all about independence and breaking away from a foreign power,” Klobuchar said on Wednesday at The Atlantic Festival. “And so it makes sense that they were worried that one branch of government—as in one president—would somehow sell out to a foreign power.”

In the interview, which can be heard in full on the Radio Atlantic podcast, she also reflected on facing off against Brett Kavanaugh during his Supreme Court confirmation hearings last year, her adjustment to life in the spotlight of a presidential campaign, and the text chain between the husbands of the female presidential candidates.

Klobuchar came out for impeachment in June, after Trump said in an interview that he’d welcome political help from a foreign country. But she said she doesn’t fault Nancy Pelosi for waiting to get on board until this latest incident, in which the president seems to have tried to actually get that kind of help.

However, Klobuchar demurred when I asked about the potential impact of impeachment on the presidential race. “If we’re only looking at everything through a political lens,” she said, “we are no better than [Trump], because he is only looking at it through a partisan and a personal-enrichment lens. That’s how he sees the world, and we must be better than that as a country.”

While many of her 2020 rivals spent the past week away on the campaign trail, chasing votes and donors ahead of the September 30 campaign-finance deadline, Klobuchar was in Washington. She spent so much time in the Senate that I nearly thought she would miss the window for our interview with all the votes on her schedule.

Klobuchar told me she wants to stay focused on the less glamorous work that’s required to get bills passed in the Senate, but she’s trying to do that at a crucial moment in the presidential race, when the field is likely on the verge of shrinking and everyone is fighting for attention. Her campaign has been polling in the mid–single digits, and she’s been trying to stand out by insisting that Democrats need to think hard about what they can pass, rather than just what they can propose. She mentioned ideas such as returning to environmental standards introduced by Barack Obama, passing immigration reform, and “investing in impoverished communities and in communities of color.” Contrast that with a line she used last week in Detroit—that some of the ideas being proposed by her Democratic rivals would “score 100 percent in the faculty lounge.”

Klobuchar insisted she wasn’t just talking about Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, who has emerged as a leading candidate in the race and who, before entering the Senate, was a Harvard law professor. Warren talks about “big, structural change”; Klobuchar, by contrast, says ideas like those “are good, and they’re good for discussion. But I think if we really want to be bold, then we’ve got to win.”

For Klobuchar to win, though, she’ll need to actually have a breakout moment—and as the Iowa caucuses get closer and closer, time is running out.