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Why Klobuchar and Buttigieg fought over the Mexican president’s name

Klobuchar says forgetting his name doesn’t reflect what she actually knows. Buttigieg found it disqualifying.

Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Amy Klobuchar participate in the ninth Democratic primary debate in Las Vegas, Nevada, on February 19, 2020.
Mark Ralston/AFP via Getty Images
Nicole Narea covers politics and society for Vox. She first joined Vox in 2019, and her work has also appeared in Politico, Washington Monthly, and the New Republic.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar admitted during Wednesday night’s Democratic debate that she couldn’t name the Mexican president when pressed by a reporter from Telemundo last week — a slip-up that former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg used to question her overall qualifications for office.

On February 13, Telemundo reporter Guadalupe Venegas asked Klobuchar, “Who is the president of Mexico?” after a candidate forum ahead of the Nevada caucuses.

It was a timely question given that about 78 percent of Nevada’s almost 800,000 Latinos are of Mexican origin. But a flustered Klobuchar, who sits on the Senate committees that oversee trade with Mexico and border security, couldn’t come up with his name even after Venegas pressed her twice more.

For the record, his name is President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, otherwise known as AMLO. And since he’s taken office in December 2018, he’s become one of Mexico’s most popular presidents in recent memory, despite a record-high homicide rate and bowing to President Donald Trump’s demands that he step up immigration enforcement on the country’s southern border with Guatemala.

When asked about the interview again on Wednesday night, Klobuchar chalked it up to a lapse of memory.

“I don’t think that that momentary forgetfulness actually reflects what I know about Mexico and how much I care about it,” Klobuchar said. “I said that I made an error. I think having a president that maybe is humble and is able to admit that here and there maybe wouldn’t be a bad thing.”

But Buttigieg said that the name of the leader of America’s southern neighbor is a piece of knowledge any candidate should know, especially one who touts their “Washington experience.” (Venegas asked the same question of Buttigieg, and he named AMLO.)

“You’re staking your candidacy on your Washington experience,” Buttigieg told Klobuchar on the debate stage. “You’re on the committee that oversees border security. You’re on the committee that does trade. You’re literally part of the committee that’s overseeing these things. And you were not able to speak to literally the first thing about the politics of the country to our south?”

Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren came to Klobuchar’s defense, claiming that it’s understandable she might momentarily forget a name, but that if she can’t answer questions about US trade policy with Mexico, she “ought to be held accountable.”

In an effort to show just how much she knows about Mexican foreign policy, Klobuchar tried to pivot to how she and Buttigieg actually differ: He would classify Mexican drug cartels as terrorist organizations, as Trump has previously suggested, whereas she wouldn’t.

The US government has already designated some cartels as “transnational criminal organizations.” Reclassifying them as terrorist organizations would give the US additional authority to issue sanctions against those who support the groups, prevent their members from entering the US, and deport those who have already reached American soil. It would also pave the way for the US to send active-duty troops to Mexico to engage in counterterrorism operations.

But it could also undermine cooperation with Mexican forces in combating the cartels and escalate tensions between the two governments.

“That is a very valid debate to have,” Klobuchar said to Buttigieg. “I don’t think that would be good for our security coordination with Mexico, and I think you got that wrong.”

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