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Picture a duck gliding effortlessly across a smooth pond. Take a closer look and notice that just below the surface she's paddling like mad, and keeping to a sheltered cove rather than venturing into the choppy waters of the big lake.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar has been masterful in her first term on Washington's big lake.
By most accounts, Klobuchar is a relentless worker with an exceptional talent for political calculation. She's adept at personal relationships, demanding of her staff and microscopic in her attention to issues important to her state. Those traits have helped her avoid mistakes in her first term and steer clear of the sharp ideological divide that has all but paralyzed Congress.
Some complain about Klobuchar's low profile on core issues, namely economic recovery and the deficit. But Congress is doing nothing about those problems anyway, except to kick the can down the road and lob grenades across the aisle. Indeed, the easiest way for a Washington rookie to get noticed nowadays is to talk trash about the other side, but that's not Klobuchar's style, and it's not necessarily the best tactic for a freshman senator who wants to make a lasting impression.
"One of the best ways is to find a niche and become the go-to person on a number of smaller, specific areas, and Amy has done that very well in a very tough political atmosphere," said Norman Ornstein, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and one of the nation's foremost experts on Congress. "I assume she'll win re-election handily."
That's a good assumption. With top Republicans Michele Bachmann, Tim Pawlenty and Norm Coleman ducking the race, Klobuchar faces token opposition in November and appears to have long-haul potential in the Senate if that's the path she chooses. She seems, after all, to fit neatly into the legacy of her most enduring DFL forebears, Hubert Humphrey and Walter Mondale. Like them, she reflects the bluish leanings of her state while seeming never to forget its pragmatic core. A bubbly personality makes the formula all the more durable.
"Amy wanted to be with us tonight," her DFL Senate colleague Al Franken told an audience last month in downtown Minneapolis. "But she discovered there was one county in Minnesota where her popularity was below 70 percent. So, she's up there pumping gas and cleaning windshields."
Voters are aware of her popularity. She visits all 87 counties every year. Her unusually energetic approach to cultivating media coverage seems to pay off, especially in smaller markets. People like her self-deprecating humor and admire the way she operates at just one speed -- fast-forward. But they're a bit hazy on what she has accomplished in Congress.
What kind of senator is Amy Klobuchar, really?A Minnesota-centric style
Kathryn Pearson, a University of Minnesota political scientist who follows Congress closely, notes that Klobuchar nearly always votes with her party, but not in a way that alienates Republicans or independents. She takes pains to avoid partisan rhetoric, Pearson said, and she's adept at finding Minnesota angles on national issues. "It's the Minnesota connection that she emphasizes rather than the partisan argument," Pearson said. "And she's very attentive to state issues."
The medical-device industry is a good example. Klobuchar generally favors new revenues as part of shrinking the deficit and stimulating the economy. She also favors health care reform, acknowledging the need for sacrifice from all parties -- patients and industry. Yet she continues to plead for tax relief for medical devices, which happen to be among Minnesota's most important products.
"I've always been opposed to this tax," Klobuchar told me last month after she and Republican U.S. Rep. Erik Paulsen met jointly with device manufacturers in Minnetonka to pledge their continuing efforts to further reduce or abolish a device tax enacted as part of President Obama's Affordable Care Act. When her state's jobs and exports are at stake, she adjusts her partisan view, Klobuchar explained, adding that what looks like a special interest to some seems like a Minnesota interest to her.
In describing her legislative work, Klobuchar nearly always stresses her partnership with other lawmakers, often Republicans. It's her way of appealing to a wider set of voters and convincing them that the political system, while badly broken, can continue to work, at least on the margins.
Asked to list her first-term accomplishments, Klobuchar mentioned the passing of consumer-protection bills on swimming pool safety and imported toys and wood products. She also intervened to prevent two dozen Minnesota car dealerships from closing as part of the auto-industry bailout. She helped to bolster tourism, loosen red tape on exports, strengthen laws against online stalking, reduce restrictions on international adoptions, and ease regulations on youth-sized ATVs, snowmobiles and motorcycles. "Believe it or not, I was named motorcycle legislator of the year," she deadpanned.
"Some people may think all of that is boring, but to me it means jobs in our state and across the country," she said. "It's important to have a thriving business community, big and small."Disappointment on the left
Although Klobuchar is plainly in tune with her party on social issues, her keen attention to Minnesota business frustrates conservative critics' attempts to pigeonhole her as a conventional liberal. Indeed, after assessing her voting record, the National Journal last year ranked Klobuchar as only the 34th-most liberal senator, up from 38th the year before.
Her attentiveness and her straightforward manner have earned her grudging respect from the state's corporate leaders, most of them Republicans. When she votes against a local company's wishes, she's been known to call a CEO directly to explain her vote and her views. She has been known also to work with federal agencies behind the scenes to benefit Minnesota companies, as she did to navigate around federal restrictions on advertising sugared cereal to children, which was a concern of General Mills.
"She goes out of her way to establish personal relationships," said Charlie Weaver, director of the Minnesota Business Partnership, a consortium of big-company CEOs. "She's hardworking, smart, funny and doesn't take herself too seriously, and those are attributes that go a long way with people."
If anything, Klobuchar draws sharper criticism from the left. "The last moderate Republican in Minnesota" is how some liberals describe her. Her reluctance to engage in harsh rhetoric causes them to question her commitment. Some of her actions have drawn outright anger.
A case in point was her support for a freeway-scale bridge over the St. Croix River near Stillwater. Environmentalists favoring a smaller bridge saw her as caving in to the construction unions and to Bachmann (then considering a Senate run). The big bridge not only defies federal standards for scenic rivers, it also encourages sprawl, wastes energy, rewards air polluters, robs from other bridge projects and mainly benefits Wisconsin commuters, they argued.
"We were disappointed in her," said Jim Erkel, director of transportation and land use at the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy. "Her decision was shortsighted and politically motivated, and it disregarded state and regional priorities."
Klobuchar is aware of complaints that she plays politics too safely and politely. But she sees herself as a counterpoint, of sorts, to the extreme, no-compromise partisanship that has rendered Congress all but dysfunctional since the 2010 midterm elections.
It's the condition that Ornstein and Thomas Mann describe in their new book, "It's Even Worse than it Looks." The authors say they have no choice but to depart from their impeccably nonpartisan history to blame Republicans for the "tribalism" overtaking American politics. The GOP, they write, has become "an insurgent outlier -- ideologically extreme; contemptuous of the social economic policy regime; scornful of compromise; unpersuaded by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition."
It's a view that Klobuchar would probably love to embrace, but won't. "I tend not to be a spear-thrower," she said. "I believe you have to have a civil way of acting as a senator, because so many people in Washington thrive on yelling and calling people names. I don't do that.
To some people, that means I'm being overly careful. I am careful with how I say things. I'm someone who tends to be optimistic and forward-thinking. I don't complain about the state of things. I don't do it in my speeches, and I don't do it one-on-one. I try to look for solutions."
Steve Berg is a Minneapolis writer and consultant. He covered Congress and national politics for the Star Tribune from 1981 to 1993.