Politics & Government

In Democratic debate, Amy Klobuchar steered to the middle — except when she took on Trump

Amy Klobuchar came to the first Democratic presidential debate Wednesday night positioned as a moderate in a field of liberals and, perched near the middle of the stage, she delivered cautious answers, consistent attacks on Donald Trump and a couple of zinger quotes.

The opportunity didn’t provide her with all she had hoped, the Minnesota senator said after the debate, but “I knew there will be other debates.”

Klobuchar delivered one of the few jabs of the night at another candidate when Washington Gov. Jay Inslee claimed that he was “the only candidate here who has passed a law protecting a woman’s right of reproductive health in health insurance.”

She raised her voice and interrupted: “I just want to say there are three women up here who have fought pretty hard for a woman’s right to choose.” The audience applauded.

Klobluchar used nearly every answer to direct fire at Trump.

“This president every single day is 10 minutes away from going to war, one tweet away from going to war,’’ she said, after saying she would renegotiate the Iran nuclear agreement. “I don’t think we should conduct foreign policy in our bathrobe at five in the morning.”

She called the Iranian nuclear deal negotiated by former President Barack Obama “imperfect, but it was a good deal for that moment.”

She said she would get back in the deal and negotiate “longer sunset periods, but the point is Donald Trump told us when he got out of it that he was going to give us a better deal — those were his words. Now we are a month away from the Iranians who right now are about to blow the caps on enriching uranium. ... He has made us less safe than we were when he became president.”

Klobuchar said she would return to negotiations to revive the agreement and work with U.S. allies “and not give unlimited leverage to China and Russia, which is what he has done.”

She said she believes that Trump’s handling of the nuclear tensions with Iran is the biggest threat facing the nation, and he should be required to get congressional approval before he authorizes any military force.

Klobuchar, 58, is in her second term as Minnesota senator. She has tried to distinguish herself as a moderate who can beat Trump.

Klobuchar’s first question was from MSNBC host Savannah Guthrie, who referred to Klobuchar’s suggestion that some of her rivals’ ideas, like the proposal to offer free college tuition, was “a magic genie.”

“Are the government programs and benefits that some of your rivals are offering giving your voters, people, a false sense of what’s actually achievable?” Guthrie asked.

Instead of critiquing her fellow Democrats, Klobuchar pivoted to Trump, responding that when it comes to the economy, the president “just sits in the White House and gloats.”

She added that she “does get concerned about paying for college for rich kids.” She said her plan would make only community college free and she mentioned that her dad and sister got their first degrees from community colleges.

She said she would double the maximum amount for a Pell Grant from $6,000 to $12,000 and make it “easier to pay off student loans.”

Klobuchar continued to get licks into Trump, chastising his promise to lower pharmaceutical costs.

“The president literally went on TV, on Fox, and said that people’s heads would spin when they see how much he would bring down pharmaceutical prices,’’ she said. “Instead, 2,500 drugs have gone up in double-digits since he came into office. ... He gave $100 billion in giveaways to the pharma companies.”

“That’s what we call at home all foam and no beer,’’ she said. “We got nothing out of it.”

Klobuchar is among the second-tier candidates who have struggled to pull ahead of the pack, trailing Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, the highest polling candidate on the Wednesday debate stage with a 14 percent average, according to the Real Clear Politics average. Candidates were chosen for each of the two nights of debates based on a random draw.

Warren is virtually tied for second in recent polls with Vermont Sen Bernie Sanders, who is behind former Vice President Joe Biden, both of whom debate on Thursday night.

MSNBC host Lester Holt asked who on the stage would abolish private health insurance and replace it with government insurance. Only Warren and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio raised their hands. Holt then asked Klobuchar why she didn’t support the existing proposals known as universal healthcare.

“I am simply concerned about kicking half of America off of their health insurance in four years — which is what the bill would do,’’ she said, then she steered the question to pharmaceuticals and attacked Trump’s promise to lower the costs.

Klobuchar later clarified her position on healthcare, noting that all the candidates “share the goal of universal healthcare” but it can be done with a public option, using Medicare or Medicaid without involving insurance companies, and “estimates are 13 million would see reductions in their premiums and 12 more million people would get covered.”

Guthrie asked if Klobuchar would support a suggestion by rival Julián Castro, the former housing secretary under Obama, to no longer have it be a crime to illegally cross the border. “Do you worry about potentially incentivizing people to come here?’’ Guthrie asked.

“Immigrants, they do not diminish America,’’ Klobuchar responded. “They are America. And I am happy to look at his proposal. But I do think you want to make sure that you have provisions in place that allow you to go after traffickers and allow you to go after people who are violating the law.”

She suggested the focus needs to be on the fact that “70 of our Fortune 500 companies are headed by people that came from other countries” and “25 percent of our U.S. Nobel laureates were born in other countries.”

“We need workers in our fields and in our factories,’’ she said. “We need them to start small businesses. We need their ideas.”

She has proposed a comprehensive immigration reform plan that includes a pathway to citizenship, the DREAM Act and border security — changes she says would reduce the national deficit by $158 billion.

Earlier Wednesday, Klobuchar went to Homestead to visit the largest, for-profit migrant detention facility in the nation.

The immigration proposal was one of 136 things Klobuchar said she will do in her first 100 days, many of which are executive actions.

Among her proposals, on healthcare, she would immediately suspend the Trump administration’s efforts to eliminate the Affordable Care Act’s protections for people with pre-existing conditions, end anti-competitive practices employed by pharmaceutical companies that increase the price of prescription drugs, and expand the Medicaid reimbursement for people receiving mental health or substance use treatment.

Klobuchar’s 100-day plan also includes an attempt to lower the cost of prescription drugs by allowing for the importation of prescription drugs from countries like Canada,

Klobuchar, the first woman from Minnesota to be elected to the U.S. Senate, closed the debate pointing to her record as evidence that she could beat Trump.

“I have won in the reddest states, ones that Donald Trump won by 20 points,’’ she said, referring to her 2018 Senate victory when she won 42 counties that Trump won in 2016 — a feat that her campaign notes was more than any other Democrat in the country.

“I have a track record of passing over 100 bills because I listened and I acted,’’ she said. “I think that is important in a president.”

Klobuchar invited five guests to watch the debate: Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan, the first native American elected to the executive branch in Minnesota; Minnesota state Sen. Melisa Franzen, who is Puerto Rican; Nicole Smith-Holt, a woman who lost her diabetic son after his insurance forced him to ration his insulin; Fran Parr, an Iowa woman whose home was submerged in nine feet of water in April because of flooding, and Shelly Elkington, whose daugther died of opioid addiction after being over-prescribed pain medication.

Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@miamiherald.com and @MaryEllenKlas