At a CNN town hall in New Hampshire on Monday, Democratic presidential candidate and Minnesota senator Amy Klobuchar threw cold water on progressive articles of faith like Medicare for All and the Green New Deal, and declared her opposition to plans pushed by rivals like Sen. Bernie Sanders to provide free four-year college tuition to everyone.
“If I was a magic genie and could give that to everyone and we could afford it, I would,” Klobuchar said. “I’ve got to tell the truth.”
Her performance reminded Paul Kane, a longtime congressional reporter at The Washington Post, of another presidential candidate who pitched himself as a straight-talking pragmatist to widespread popularity in the first-in-the-nation primary state: John McCain.
Klobuchar, who has often talked up her friendship with the late Arizona senator and two-time presidential candidate, invoked McCain by name on Monday night.
“I will never forget that dark day with the clouds coming in,” Klobuchar said as she recalled Donald Trump’s inauguration day, “where I sat actually in between Senator McCain, who I miss very much, as well as Senator Sanders. It was the three of us that day. And we were just shocked as the language and the rhetoric got darker and darker.”
It was good politics for the bipartisan-minded Democrat to befriend one of the Senate’s most prominent Republicans. As she enters a Democratic primary in which a close political relationship with a Republican could be a liability, Klobuchar isn’t exactly shying away from her work with McCain.
Accounts from both sides of the aisle suggest that the Minnesota Democrat and the Arizona Republican did have a warm personal relationship and a good working rapport in the Senate. Klobuchar said that McCain personally gave her a heads-up before his vote to sink the GOP’s bill to repeal Obamacare; months later, she was one of a few lawmakers to visit McCain at his Arizona ranch shortly before he died in August 2018 at the age of 81.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), well known as McCain’s best friend in Congress, was a travel partner to both senators for several congressional trips overseas, including a 2009 junket through Asia and a post-2016 election swing through Eastern Europe to reassure U.S. allies anxious over Trump’s friendliness toward Moscow.
Klobuchar, Graham told The Daily Beast, “had a great sense of humor, and John liked that. She very much admired John and I always thought very highly of her in terms of being prepared on the subject matter.”
“She has a really good sense of humor. The more John liked you the more he would pick at you, and she would give as much as she took.” (In a Senate floor speech giving tribute to McCain after his death, Klobuchar recalled how McCain would jokingly call her a “communist” when complimenting her TV appearances.)
John Weaver, McCain’s former top strategist, said the late senator considered Klobuchar his equal. “McCain enjoyed her company, appreciated her intellect, cherished her integrity and knew she was preparing the presidential timber we see today,” he said in an email to The Daily Beast.
The two were frequent legislative partners: McCain backed up Klobuchar in 2017 when he became the only Republican co-sponsor of her bill to establish stricter transparency rules around online political ads following the 2016 election. Klobuchar, meanwhile, worked with McCain’s wife, Cindy, in her campaign against sex trafficking.
The good feelings that endure from some in McCain’s orbit toward Klobuchar have been on display as the senator kicks off her presidential bid: his daughter Meghan, a co-host of The View, remarked that Klobuchar was a “bad bitch” in response to reports from HuffPost and BuzzFeed detailing the senator’s mistreatment of her staff.
If Klobuchar makes a McCain-like play for New Hampshire’s moderates and independents–who can vote in the state’s Democratic primary next February–Granite State political experts say it could cut both ways.
“Invoking McCain is, I think, a way to message to those voters that this is someone who we could live with,” said Dante Scala, a professor of political science at the University of New Hampshire.
But, Scala cautioned, “McCain in 2000 wound up winning New Hampshire, but burning his bridges with primary voters in other states. She’s not gonna want to do that… I’d be surprised to see her go the full McCain.”
“I think,” he said, “a little McCain goes a long way.”
-- With reporting by Sam Stein