As a trailblazing woman in public life, a lot has been asked of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in the past four decades. She’s been forced to play the role of supportive wife and smile through humiliation. She’s been held to a higher standard than most men in office, enduring marathon sessions in front of hostile congressional panels for dubious reasons. She’s had to hide her ambitions while she ran for office, then turn around and give a gracious concession speech after a man (who won on sexist and racist tropes) got to be president despite earning fewer votes.
Through all the indignities that come with being a woman in politics, she’s put her principles and her party first. It’s understandable that Clinton might have had enough, that she might think she has nothing left to give to the cause of women’s rights as human rights, or that she can’t help but take one more whack at the highest glass ceiling left for women in America.
But if she believes what she’s been saying about Sen. Bernie Sanders, she needs to convince herself she’s wrong. Instead of attacking Sanders, as personally satisfying as that might be, she needs to be bigger. She needs to stand with Sen. Amy Klobuchar.
Hillary Clinton doesn’t like Bernie Sanders
It’s no secret: Clinton is not a Bernie fan.
“Nobody likes him, nobody wants to work with him, he got nothing done. He was a career politician,” Clinton said in an interview for a documentary that aired in January. “It’s all just baloney, and I feel so bad that people got sucked into it.”
Clinton also declined to say in the interview if she’d endorse Sanders if he were to win the nomination. Some Democrats criticized Clinton for the broadside during primary season, which isn’t the best time to hit someone on your own team.
Nonetheless, Clinton expanded on her points a few weeks later, explaining how she doesn’t approve of Sanders’s approach to policy — talking big but offering few details on how to make his ideas real.
“You’ve got to be responsible for what you say, and what you say you’re going to do,” Clinton said recently on The Ellen DeGeneres Show, digging into her previous comments. “We need to rebuild trust in our fellow Americans and in our institutions, and if you promise the moon and you can’t deliver the moon, then that’s going to be one more indicator of how, you know, we just can’t trust each other.”
Clinton criticized Sanders in 2016 for promising broad reforms without offering much to back up how he’d do it. Meanwhile, she put out exhaustive, detailed policy plans that didn’t garner the same type of headlines as “Medicare-for-all” or “free college.” It bothered her in 2016, and it still bothers her in 2020.
But pointing out that she doesn’t like Sanders or his approach to politics is not an effective use of her influence. Anyone considering voting for Sanders knows where she stands on him. Voters who are looking for more moderate, establishment choices, however, might be interested in who she does like. On the internet, Clinton has the reputation for being unpopular and she is broadly, but 77 percent of Democratic adults viewed her favorably as of a 2018 Gallup poll.
The establishment lane needs a frontrunner
Clinton’s record suggests she would prefer a more moderate, establishment candidate than Sanders, someone who is more likely to put forward incremental plans to reach progressive goals — someone who believes that working inside the existing system is how to get results (not through political revolution).
Klobuchar is the most obvious choice for Clinton. (To be clear: Klobuchar has not asked for her endorsement publicly.) Klobuchar, Minnesota’s first female senator, has been called “the senator of small things,” a backhanded compliment, given to her for her work on tangible reforms like a bipartisan bill to ban lead in toys and another to make swimming pools safer for children. Her presidential platform focuses on incremental reforms that would add up to real improvements in people’s lives. This is Clinton’s style.
And as Clinton knows, incremental plans don’t get the biggest headlines. Klobuchar could use Clinton’s help getting some.
Klobuchar is in a battle with former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg, and former Vice President Joe Biden for the moderate mantle. Sanders won in New Hampshire by consolidating the progressive vote, but no one has emerged as his clear challenger. Unless one of them knocks out the rest, Sanders could run away with the nomination. (Sen. Elizabeth Warren had been Sanders’s fiercest competition, but her weak showings in Iowa and New Hampshire suggest she’ll have a tough time surpassing him.)
Biden is the closest candidate to an heir apparent as the former vice president. And while he’s picked up a lot of Democratic endorsements, he hasn’t been backed by any big guns like Barack Obama — or any Clinton, for that matter. Biden’s dismal performance in Iowa and New Hampshire has put him in a weak position heading into the next contests.
This is where Clinton’s opinion could, in fact, make a difference. If she announced she was endorsing Klobuchar, it would give a clear signal to voters — millions and millions of voters who supported her — which candidate to consider. Even in a moment when the power of party leaders has waned, her voice is a rare one that is so big, it would matter, both to voters and to the media hungry for fresh narratives in a long contest.
Klobuchar would be a strong candidate, if people knew her
Klobuchar struggles with name recognition. She came in third place in New Hampshire, but nationally she comes in seventh place in Morning Consult’s name recognition tracker. The good news for her: When people do know her, they vote for her. She wins in places that other Democrats don’t, or she wins by bigger margins than those who do.
According to the Star Tribune, Donald Trump won about 3,000 of the state’s 4,120 election precincts in 2016. Two years later, Klobuchar won about 1,250 of those precincts in different regions, including suburbs and rural areas.
She also way outperformed other Democrats in the state in 2018:
- Keith Ellison won the attorney general race by 4 points.
- Tim Walz won the gubernatorial race by 11 points.
- Tina Smith won the Senate special election by 10.5 points.
- Klobuchar won her Senate race by 24 points.
This isn’t new for her. As my Vox colleague Matt Yglesias writes, “in 2012, Obama won 53 percent of the vote in Minnesota. Klobuchar won 65 percent. Back in 2006, Tim Pawlenty narrowly defeated his Democratic opponent for governor in a race that also saw a significant third-party vote. Klobuchar won 58 percent of the vote in a landslide win that was also the narrowest of her three statewide runs.”
Overall, she is one of the most popular Democratic senators in the Senate.
Any Democratic nominee would need to outperform Clinton in the Midwest. Klobuchar’s winning record in Minnesota certainly suggests she could do well across the border in Wisconsin and likely in nearby Michigan. She would have a real shot at beating Trump on his own turf; her problem is the ability to get the attention she needs to do it.
If Clinton backed her, it would be a story. There’d be articles about the first woman to run passing the baton to the next woman. Klobuchar could end up with cover stories asking “Could she be the first?” There’d be takes. There’d be think pieces. There’d be photos. Klobuchar needs this buzz to propel her, especially as the race nationalizes ahead of Super Tuesday, just two weeks and change away.
Clinton can solve Klobuchar’s ambition problem
Since 2016, Hillary Clinton and her team have spoken about the role of sexism in the campaign, returning repeatedly to a key theme: Voters are skeptical of ambitious women.
One prominent study found that people are less likely to vote for a woman if they see her as “power-seeking,” while male politicians pay no price for similar behavior. The same study found that power-seeking female politicians induced “feelings of moral outrage (i.e., contempt, anger, and/or disgust)” among voters. These attitudes were the same among male and female voters.
In her book, Dear Madam President, Clinton’s former communications director, Jennifer Palmieri, recounted how the campaign considered this problem. Their research found that voters are put off by women who appear to have the ambition “to want to be in charge.”
In Clinton’s case, polls showed that when she was working for the public as secretary of state, her approval ratings soared. When she was running for office, they tanked. In response, the campaign framed Clinton’s ambition as her “desire to serve others,” a formula other female politicians have also embraced.
In the 2018 midterm elections, this was a common theme. More women ran for Congress and won than at any time in history. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez earned big headlines (rightly) for her bold challenge to Nancy Pelosi’s No. 2, Joe Crowley, unseating the longtime Democrat in New York City. But her incredible upset didn’t change the balance of power in the House. The many women who ran on platforms of service and common sense did. They told voters they felt compelled to run to protect health insurance and restore a sense of normalcy and stability. (Democrats who ran on Medicare-for-all performed worse than those who ran on more moderate platforms.)
Klobuchar has also embraced similar themes. Her closing statement during the last Democratic debate — a performance that buoyed her in Iowa — was all about her interest in serving others at a human level:
And I will tell you this, there is a complete lack of empathy in this guy in the White House right now.
And I will bring that to you. If you have trouble stretching your paycheck to pay for that rent, I know you, and I will fight for you. If you have trouble deciding if you’re going pay for your child care or your long-term care, I know you, and I will fight for you. If you have trouble figuring out if you’re going to fill your refrigerator or fill your prescription drug, I know you, and I will fight for you.
Klobuchar has also dealt with the same criticisms many women in power face. Palmieri wrote about a controversy last year that erupted around Klobuchar when anonymous former staffers criticized her style as a boss in press reports. Palmieri wrote for Politico magazine how the qualities that are celebrated in male politicians are liabilities for women:
Stories about intimidating male bosses are typically not presented as disqualifying, but as evidence of these men as formidable leaders. These are men who should not be underestimated. These are men who should be respected.
Clinton has paved the way for women behind her, from her groundbreaking speech in China on women’s rights as human rights in 1995 to her presidential runs in 2008 and 2016. It’s no coincidence that 2018 became the “Year of the Woman.” Research shows that when women step forward, more women step forward, creating an environment for more and more women to succeed. The same is true in politics. When a woman sees another woman run, she’s more likely to run. And when women run, the research shows they win. (In 2018, women outperformed male candidates.)
Still, American politics is nowhere close to gender parity. Women know it’s not easy to be in politics. Palmieri put it this way: “Nothing draws fire like a woman moving forward.”
If Clinton endorsed Klobuchar, she could offer her some cover from that fire.
Correction: Hillary Clinton is viewed favorably by 77 percent of Democrats not all Americans.