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TAMARA KEITH, HOST:
Hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Tamara Keith. Throughout the summer, we are taking you on the road to meet the 2020 presidential candidates.
UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: Amy, Amy, Amy.
AMY KLOBUCHAR: Hey, that's me on your sticker. I'm a cool person.
KEITH: We are currently walking alongside a parade in Franconia, N.H.
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KEITH: And the we is Josh Rogers. Hey, Josh.
JOSH ROGERS, BYLINE: Good to be here, Tam.
KEITH: Josh is New Hampshire Public Radio's lead political reporter. And we were in Franconia to see Tulsi Gabbard, but just happened to run into Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar, too.
KLOBUCHAR: Thanks, guys. Have fun hanging out here.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Thank you.
KEITH: She was zipping down the main street followed by volunteers holding big red, white and blue letters spelling A-M-Y - Amy.
KLOBUCHAR: Look what they can do with my name. Have you seen this? Let's make yam.
KLOBUCHAR: OK. OK. And then we could do May. It just shows a kind of broad support. We have the yam vote. OK, let's see.
KEITH: Afterwards, we drove a little bit further north to catch Klobuchar speaking at the Polish Princess Bakery. The small shop smelled of sweet rolls and was packed with locals who hadn't made up their minds on who to vote for.
How is she pitching herself? What's her background?
ROGERS: Well, she's pitching herself as somebody who's moderate, as somebody who can get things done, as somebody who knows how to work across the aisle. And in some ways, she's not dissimilar from a model that has worked for New Hampshire Democrats.
KEITH: Senator Klobuchar is in the single-digits club, low single digits in terms of the polls.
ROGERS: Her campaign wants her to pick up momentum. That's one reason why she's making the rounds as aggressively as she has been. I mean, we're in a small town. And this is also a part of the state which, you know, can swing, but, you know, Donald Trump did pretty well up here in the last election, and, you know, Amy Klobuchar has the background that she believes can make her effective in winning votes here.
KEITH: And that humor she showed out on the parade route made an appearance here in the bakery, too, even as she talked about President Trump's response to Russian election interference.
KLOBUCHAR: And they use the word meddling. I don't use that 'cause that's what I do when I call our daughter on a Saturday night...
KLOBUCHAR: ...And ask her what she's doing. This was an invasion.
KEITH: The next morning, we sat down with Senator Klobuchar in the library of a resort overlooking Mount Washington and wondered if she had any more jokes up her sleeves.
ROGERS: So, Senator, your stump speech is leavened with jokes. There's no joke genre more widely known than the knock-knock joke.
ROGERS: Do you have a preferred knock-knock joke?
KLOBUCHAR: No, I'm really not a knock-knock type person. I have a lot of humor in my speeches because I think that you've got to be able to use a bit of humor against the president. For instance, when he went after me after I announced - 'cause I talked about climate change while I was in the middle of a blizzard - I wrote back and I said, the science is on my side. And he called me the snow woman, which I thought was pretty good. And I said, I'd like to see how your hair would fare in a blizzard.
So I have really tried to use humor some, including in the debates because people don't realize that you may not think what he says is funny, but he is using humor. And you've got to be able to, in the moment, respond to him as well as, of course, have your own economic agenda and as well as ignore him because he wants to control the agenda every single day. And I think it's something that we have learned the hard way since 2016.
KEITH: You made a joke at the Polish Princess Bakery about election interference. And then you went on to call it an invasion by the Russians, not just an interference...
KEITH: ...But an invasion. Does that invasion, as you call it, cast doubt on the legitimacy of President Trump's presidency?
KLOBUCHAR: Well, that is behind us right now in terms of the - he became president. It was an Electoral College situation. And as of now, we are just moving forward into the next election. But I do think that what scares me the most is what he might do going forward. He has, every step of the way, tried to stop efforts to protect our elections. Most significantly, the Secure Elections Act - that's a bill I have with James Lankford, who is not exactly a liberal, the Republican from Oklahoma - that says if you're going to take federal money to help you with your election state, you should have backup paper ballots, and you should have audits.
And we were ready to move that bill to the floor. We have Richard Burr, the head of the Intelligence Committee, on it, Mark Warner. We had support - I would think about 75 votes for that thing. And what happened? The White House started making calls to stop it. That happened late last year. That happened. We know it because Republican senators told me they received calls. Also, Mitch McConnell tried to stop it.
So there was an effort to protect our elections in case the Russians or any other foreign country hack into maybe even two counties in a swing state. If it's a close election, then our election's in chaos when we have 14 states that have no backup paper ballots or partial backup paper ballots.
So that's what I've seen. What I have seen is, regardless of what happened in the past - the Mueller report, and we're soon to hear from Director Mueller on this, which I think is going to be very important - demonstrated that Russia, in a systematic and sweeping fashion - that's their words, his words - tried to interfere in our election. And Trump's own intelligence people have said they're emboldened, and they're going to do it again.
So one of the things I'm talking about out on the campaign trail, like I did in New Hampshire, is - No. 1, our democracy is sacred. We have to do everything to protect it. Why did hundreds of thousands of people lose their lives on the battlefields? It was to protect our very freedoms and the right to vote and be part of a free democracy.
KEITH: Going back to the Mueller report, you are a former prosecutor. Did you see obstruction of justice in there?
KLOBUCHAR: Yes, I did. And it was laid out with those 10 instances of obstruction, including the president basically putting out information and threats about Michael Cohen's family members and things like that. And as I asked Attorney General Barr, you know, there's a concept in the law called totality of the evidence. And that is that you look at everything together. You look at this pattern. And when you look at it as a pattern, to me, it's very clear it's obstruction.
KEITH: Imagine you are president of the United States. You have picked an attorney general. The attorney general is confirmed. Do you want - would you want your Justice Department to pursue obstruction of justice or other charges against now former, not-constrained-by-the-rules-of-the-Justice-Department President Trump?
KLOBUCHAR: I never - as a former prosecutor, I'm very careful about what saying I'm going to do until you look at the evidence. First of all, I would let my Justice Department make those decisions. Those are decisions that shouldn't be made with political involvement. Secondly, we don't know where we're going to be at this point. And there are other investigations going on in New York, state investigations in other places that have to play out as well.
So I would never say definitively what I'm going to do because you want to allow the lawyers and the people who are supposed to do that work do it without political influence. This is one of the problems of Donald Trump, who's going after companies and selecting people that he thinks should be prosecuted. That's not how we want the American justice system to work.
ROGERS: Sticking with the justice system, you're obviously on the Judiciary Committee. If you become the nominee, will you list the judges you'd hoped to nominate?
KEITH: Why not?
KLOBUCHAR: Because I think that...
KEITH: I mean, President Trump did it to great effect.
KLOBUCHAR: I guess so, but that's just not what I'm going to do. So I think that you interview people, you make decisions. You can't do that as a candidate. You can't vet them like you should as a candidate. You don't have the FBI. I think we learned from my role in the Justice Kavanaugh hearings of a nominee. There's a lot of stuff you don't know unless you push and get the answers. So that is what I would do.
ROGERS: So one problem here in New Hampshire that actually predates President Trump is the problem of college debt. It's a big issue here. Some other Democrats running - Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders - are talking about wiping out college debt, free public college. That's not where you are. What's wrong with that?
KLOBUCHAR: I am in favor of bold action when it comes to student debt. And actually, New Hampshire has the highest rate per student. And their kids here and their families are very well with the issue - well aware of the issue. So here's what I would do. I would do something big and that is double the amount of Pell Grants that can be used at any college. It's now 6,000. I would go up to 12,000, and that would help pay for a lot of public colleges' tuition. I would also expand the eligibility of who can get those Pell Grants. Remember, this isn't loans. These are actually grants. I would expand it up to $100,000 per family.
The other thing I would do is make those one-year certifications into your community college free. Part of that is because when you look at a lot of the job openings in New Hampshire and other states, that's the degrees that they require. So let's match the education system with what we have in our own economy in terms of need. That's how I would do it. I am very concerned with these plans that are free college for all. Why? Because when you look at the numbers, about 10% of the kids that are in the public colleges - and that's the only thing they apply to - 10% of those kids are in families that make over $200,000 a year.
And I just don't think that the taxpayer of these - money from these families that are trying to send their kids to get a certification or do a very important job in the trades - that that money should be used to be paying for rich kids going to college. I know it doesn't fit on a bumper sticker. It doesn't say free...
KEITH: No, that was very long - yeah.
KLOBUCHAR: It doesn't say free college for all, but when you say I want to make college more affordable and everyone should be able to get an advanced education, I think that works OK.
KEITH: You talk a lot about things that are - you see as broken with President Trump and things are not working. And you also talk a lot about bipartisanship and working with Republicans. And you say, well, if there was just a president who was willing, then it would be OK. Do you think that things are really going to go back to normal, that, you know, it will just return to a place - and also, were things ever normal? Like, you know, immigration reform...
KLOBUCHAR: You mean back when they were hitting each other with canes on the Senate floor...
KEITH: Well, right. So, like...
KLOBUCHAR: ...In another century? Yeah, no. Things have never been totally normal in that place. And I am not a Pollyanna about this, but this is what I think having worked with a number of Republicans.
And by the way, you don't just work with Republicans - oh, this is fun. We can go out to dinner. That's not the purpose. The purpose is - are you getting results for the people? You know, you get an idea, you hear things from your constituents - and a president can do this just like a senator - and then you get to work on it. And yes, sometimes it's good to build those relationships and find common ground, but it is for a reason.
So what do I think? I think, first of all, that these Republicans right now with Donald Trump, it's like, how high can I jump? And they are afraid of him. And the ones that decide they're going to buck him either retire early or they, just as what happened with the congressman in Michigan, they decide they have to leave their party. All right.
So a new president coming in who understands Congress and understands them will be in a better place to be able to find those common ground points. I'll list a few. My first two things I put out - infrastructure - Republicans want to move on that with Democrats, but Trump was just unwilling to take the risk of how you pay for it.
And then also mental health and addiction - two things I care about. There's a lot of interest in both sides of the aisle on that. I think it's time to move on immigration reform. The Chamber wants it. The AFL-CIO wants it. They're just afraid of Donald Trump.
And we have passed it with Republican votes before. Climate change becoming more and more a problem in red states. And I think there will be a will. I think that's a harder one, but there's things you can do as a president in the first hundred days. That's why I put out my plan - climate change, get into the international climate change agreement, reissue those rules on clean power and also on gas mileage standards that you can do without Congress.
So for me, it's a combination of things. One - what you can do in the first hundred days and in that first year on your own - executive orders. Some of its reversing what Trump has done, like the gag rule. No. 2 - what you can do with them. Make it very clear. And you know where the bodies are buried and how you can get it done.
No. 3 - you pick some of these issues, and you go to the mat with the American people hopefully having just come off an election that you win with great momentum, and you go to work and get it done.
KEITH: We're going to take a quick break. And when we get back, we asked Senator Klobuchar where all her jokes come from. We also asked whether the public should be concerned about her high levels of staff turnover. And then it was time for Can't Let It Go.
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KEITH: And we're back. And if you haven't gotten this point yet, Senator Klobuchar likes to crack a joke, like this one, a not-so-veiled dig at former Texas Congressman Beto O'Rourke, who's also running for president.
KLOBUCHAR: She said, you were my favorite. I don't know why you're up there. I said, well, we don't want to peak too early. Because in this race people, like, get up on the counter and they fall down, you know.
KEITH: If you don't know, O'Rourke's signature campaign move in Iowa for a while there was jumping up on counters to give his stump speech. All those jokes made me wonder.
Where does your humor come from?
KLOBUCHAR: Actually, two sources - one's my dad, who was not just a beautiful columnist - he was actually a newspaper national columnist of the year and wrote so quickly and fast a number of columns. He, for a while, was writing seven days a week for decades on the front of the Metro section - anything he wanted. He was specialized in sports.
But the second, actually, my mom was actually sort of situationally funny about her plight in life. You know, she's the one that - she finally learns to drive after my parents get divorced and takes her first ride out there in her red Comet car and drives right through a plate glass window of the car wash.
KEITH: Oh, my God.
KLOBUCHAR: And so, you know, it's - this could be just a complete tragedy for the family, but instead she makes jokes about it. Anyway, so I think it is a - again, I think if you're just straight-laced the whole time dealing with Donald Trump, no matter how good your policies are, I don't think it's going to work because you've got to show how absurd he is. And you can't just do that with pre-planned lines. You have to know how to use it in the moment.
ROGERS: Is there a moment, Senator, from your childhood or an event that shapes how you view government?
KLOBUCHAR: I would say it is my growing up with a dad who had a lot of problems. He was alcoholic. I love my dad very much. He's now 91. He's in assisted living. And in his words, it's hard to get a drink anyway in the assisted living.
But in fact, he's been sober for years. And he's been sober for years because - I would say government, because public safety, because finally on his third DWI, when the laws had changed and the public sentiment has changed, you know, the judge said to him, you know, you got a choice - you're going to go to jail or you're going to go to treatment. He called it tough love.
It made me see that you sometimes have to have a government that cares about people and cares about public safety. That's part of why I went into being a prosecutor. And it also makes you understand. And I think this is really important for a president that life isn't easy, that the obstacles in life that people encounter, they happen all the time. But for me, those obstacles are the path.
KEITH: You are 1 of 6 women running for president this year. And I have noticed that you do this thing where you sort of elevate all the women, where you say - you know, you did the thing where you're like, well, there are three of us on this stage who have fought for the right to choose - or you say, may the best woman win.
KEITH: Is that a conscious thing?
KEITH: What's up with that?
KLOBUCHAR: What's up with that is that we've never had a woman president. And we have had women like Hillary Clinton try and not quite get there. And I think we have incredibly qualified women that are running right now and that people need to understand that. And we have to break that barrier.
So when I do that, it's to make the point, hey, we're up there. We're strong. And by the way, the women did incredibly well in the debate, I will say. And people are being able to see this instead of deciding based on some kind of thoughts from the past that we can't be in charge and we can't govern.
KEITH: Do you think that the women have had sort of a slower burn in this race in that, you know, the front-runners...
KLOBUCHAR: Oh, yeah. You mean because we don't, like, jump up on the counter and get excitement about various things? Maybe...
KEITH: I wasn't naming any names, but, like, you - the front-runners, the leading people in the polls have been men until now and...
KLOBUCHAR: And they've also been getting more money, a lot more money, OK, even when the women...
KEITH: I mean, like, Pete Buttigieg got $25 million.
KLOBUCHAR: So, you know, I can't explain that except that we are in it for the long haul. I am in it for the long haul. I especially am - a woman from the middle of the country, the only one that's running from the middle that's a woman. I am someone that it takes time sometimes for people to get to know some of the candidates from smaller states.
I'm going to make that debate stage in the fall. I'm ready. I'm just one poll away from doing it to be in those top 10 or whatever it's going to be. And that's going to give me a great opportunity.
ROGERS: So we're asking all the candidates this - to describe a time in their life in which they failed, not losing an election and not necessarily something that is too, too, too personal, but just something that was a failure. And what did you learn from it?
KLOBUCHAR: I would say that, for me, it is - just let me think for a second here. For me, it was when I was growing up and we had all that trouble. My sister actually had a lot of problems. And I was young, so it was hard to know how to deal with it. And then she ended up not graduating from high school. And she ended up on a different path. She went into manufacturing and things like that. And she had a lot of trouble. And sometimes when that happens, you kind of just separate yourself from it. And you just say, I can't deal with this anymore. And I don't know if that was the right thing. And now I see her fairly often, and she somehow got through this time. She got her GED. She ended up at community college - she's the ultimate story in that way - and then got a accounting degree and is now gainfully employed. But when you look back at your life and you think, could I have done that differently even though it was a really hard time - maybe, maybe I could have been more patient about the situation. But she eventually got through it.
KEITH: Wow. So I cover the White House most of the time. And I've done a lot of reporting about record levels of staff turnover in the Trump White House, and there's been a lot of hand-wringing about it and concern about it. You have also had somewhat record levels of staff turnover in your Senate office over time. I guess the question is, if people are worried about President Trump having this kind of turnover, should they be worried about you having that kind of turnover?
KLOBUCHAR: No. I have had the same state director for six years. My chief of staff has been with me for years and years. We have many amazing employees that have been with me almost from the beginning - my campaign manager for 14 years. And when I hear about some of these campaigns having all this turmoil and things like that, that's not ours. What I did have was over 20 people that went to work for President Obama, including in key roles, including as the policy people at the State Department. And I was something of a farm team during those years. So that was a piece of it. And the other piece is I tended to hire people - and there's some other senators like this as well - who are, I would say, incredible stars. And I know they're probably only going to stay maybe two years or something like that or a year even, and then they move on. But I don't regret those decisions. There's a reason that I passed more bills than most other Democrats. I was the lead Democrat on over a hundred bills that passed through the Senate. You can't do that without a great team.
ROGERS: So, Senator, there's a feature of this podcast known as Can't Let It Go, which is something that - outside the realm of politics - that, you know, you're thinking about a lot, something that you've noticed. Something that you've returned to - needn't be too sober.
ROGERS: Anything spring to mind?
KLOBUCHAR: You start this by asking me about why do you use so much humor, and now you're telling me don't be so sober. OK. Yes, there is something I can't let go, and that is doing The New York Times mini puzzle - crossword puzzle every single day. And wait, it gets worse. There's a New Hampshire angle. The other person that does that is one...
KLOBUCHAR: You're not running for president, are you?
KLOBUCHAR: No, listen - Maggie Hassan. She does it. And then sometimes I take a screenshot of how many seconds it took for me to get it done. I send it to her. Or she'll send it to me. And we've had, like, records. Like, we're talking like 18 seconds, 22 seconds. She's beat me now overall for the record. I think it's 18. But it is a nice diversion.
And it's really good if a president knows words and knows what's happening and maybe, for instance, doesn't think that during the Revolutionary War, as our president said at Fourth of July, that they - the revolutionary forces were securing airports. Because last time I checked, Paul Revere came in on a horse and not an F-16.
ROGERS: Senator Amy Klobuchar, thank you so much for joining NPR's POLITICS PODCAST.
KLOBUCHAR: Oh, it's just great to be here on this beautiful day. Thank you.
KEITH: That was the eighth interview in our ongoing series where we're taking you on the road to meet the 2020 Democratic candidates. You can find the previous interviews in your podcast feed, including our chats with Senators Bernie Sanders and Kamala Harris and Mayor Pete Buttigieg. The series is a partnership between the NPR POLITICS PODCAST, New Hampshire Public Radio and Iowa Public Radio.
We'll be back as soon as there's political news you need to know about. I'm Tamara Keith. And thank you for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.
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