She had absolutely had it with the mayor, the one who speaks so many languages and puts “Rhodes scholar” on his resume and delivers so many rehearsed sound bites on stage that pundits can’t help but quote him on air.
Surely, Minnesota’s senior senator was annoyed that the 38-year-old former mayor of an Indiana city not much bigger than Duluth was still occupying prime position in the Midwestern moderate lane. She wanted it. She hasn’t gotten it. She let her frustration show.
“You know,” Amy Klobuchar snapped after Pete Buttigieg broke out his Spanish on the debate stage in Las Vegas, “I wish everyone was as perfect as you, Pete.”
It was the moment “Minnesota Nice” went passive aggressive and then openly aggressive. He challenged her. She shot back. They had opened a side show where the moderates fight for prominence as the progressive champion, Bernie Sanders, runs left … and away from the pack of Democratic presidential contenders.
In truth, it was the boyish-looking “Mayor Pete” who smilingly stuck the knife in first. When one of the moderators, Telemundo correspondent Vanessa Hauc, ambushed Klobuchar over her failure to recall the name of Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, she admitted to a momentary lapse in knowledge. No, she had not known the name of Mexico’s president off the top of her head during an interview with Telemundo. Asked about it Wednesday night, the three-term senator admitted she made an error before adding that it wouldn’t be a bad thing if the United States had a president who “is humble.”
Buttigieg wasn’t having it.
He is running as an outsider, and she is “staking your candidacy on your Washington experience.” Isn’t she on the committee responsible for both border security, he asked, and international trade? “You’re literally on the committee that’s overseeing these things,” Buttigieg continued, “and were not able to speak to literally the first thing about the politics of the country to our south.”
Klobuchar wasn’t having it, either.
“Are you trying to say that I’m dumb?” she said. “Or are you mocking me here, Pete?” He said that, no, she wasn’t dumb but was “trivializing” things. And that didn’t sit well either — Klobuchar proceeded to dress down her competitor in the most forthright dressing down he has received this campaign cycle.
“I am the one, not you, that has won statewide in congressional district after congressional district,” she said. And besides, she asked, “when you tried in Indiana, Pete, to run [statewide] — what happened to you? You lost by over 20 points to someone who later lost to my friend, Joe Donnelly.”
Buttigieg finished second in Iowa and again in New Hampshire, and he was not impressed with her line of reasoning. “If winning a race for Senate in Minnesota translated directly to becoming president, I would have grown up under the presidency of Walter Mondale,” he said, referring to the last Minnesotan to win the Democratic nomination. “This is different.”
And that is when Elizabeth Warren got involved. Perhaps feeling a twinge of guilt over inaccurately characterizing Klobuchar’s health care plan as something that could fit on a Post-it note a few minutes earlier, Warren weighed in. “Can I just defend Sen. Klobuchar for a minute? This is not right,” the Massachusetts senator said before following up that “missing a name all by itself does not indicate that you do not understand what’s going on. I just think this is unfair.”
This wasn’t the end of hostilities. Buttigieg also brought up how Klobuchar had voted to confirm President Trump’s nominee to head U.S. Customs and Border Protection. That’s when she sneered about his air of perfection.
Moderates outside the ThunderDome were distraught. Fratricide only benefits Sanders, they groaned. Why couldn’t the two go after the democratic socialist? “Wrong target gang!” — that was how Matt Bennett, founder of the centrist group Third Way, characterized the exchanges. “That was bananas,” the longtime campaign veteran told RealClearPolitics. “And only Pete is hitting Bernie, who’s the goddamn front-runner.”
This is true. The other candidates’ preferred target of the night was Michael Bloomberg. The former mayor of New York enacted racist policies, some of them argued. The billionaire was trying to buy the 2020 race, others insisted. All of it, moderate observers complained, missed the point. If Sanders, the democratic socialist, keeps on rolling, there will be no stopping him before the nominating convention in Milwaukee. They tore their hair out as Klobuchar and Buttigieg instead tore into one another.
As the two knocked heads, progressives cheered how Warren played moderator. “Her defense of Amy Klobuchar for not knowing the name of Mexico’s president showed that she picks her fights strategically,” Stephanie Taylor, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, told RCP. “And it made all her other critiques of candidates more impactful.”
The Klobuchar campaign did not respond to RCP requests for comment. A senior Buttigieg aide declared victory.
“He showed he was the one alternative to Bernie,” the aide told RCP, sidestepping the Buttigieg-Klobuchar game of chicken in Sin City. “He’s the only candidate in this race who has proven — first in Iowa, then in New Hampshire, and now on the debate stage — who has what it takes to take on Bernie Sanders, whose polarizing policies are too big a risk to go up against Trump.”
Outsiders such as David Axelrod, who managed the campaigns of Barack Obama, were more to the point. “Moving up in politics is exhilarating. When you get to upper tiers, it gets harder,” he tweeted. “Amy Klobuchar’s performance has been as bad tonight as she was good in New Hampshire.”
That performance included what happened when the curtain fell Wednesday night. Other candidates stuck around to shake some hands. Klobuchar did not. Buttigieg seemed to turn her way. She walked off the stage.