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In some ways, Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota boasts an ideal profile to compete for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination.
She won her third term last November with 60% in a state President Donald Trump nearly captured in 2016. Blending mainstream liberal views, a prosecutor's experience and a plain-folks common touch, she has built a formidable reputation as the "senator next door."
Yet the crowded, chaotic Democratic race presents challenges that Klobuchar, 58, has never faced before. Former Vice President Joe Biden commands strong early support with the moderate primary voters she covets.
Other rivals — including two other Midwesterners, five other senators, five other women and six nonwhite candidates — threaten her ability to make inroads with key Democratic constituencies. Her answer: "I'm running this campaign on grit" — as demonstrated by her February campaign announcement outside in a snowstorm.
Klobuchar sat down to discuss the battle for the White House over calamari and risotto balls at Casa di Amore, an Italian restaurant in Las Vegas where she had earlier addressed a union gathering. What follows is a condensed, edited transcript of the conversation.
John Harwood: A lot of people in the country first got to know you during those Kavanaugh hearings, when you had that confrontation and you kept your cool. Did you interpret that as a gender thing — a powerful man confronting a woman who was questioning him? Or more of a straight-up partisan thing?
Amy Klobuchar: I thought the way he was acting was highly partisan. When he was bringing politics into a Supreme Court confirmation process instead of just making his case, he made it all political. I thought as I sat there, "This isn't just about him. This is going to hurt judges across the country."
Whether they're Republican or Democratic appointed judges, it brings them down. I'm talking about people I know in my own state. That was my first reaction, so when he did it to me I was pretty shocked, because I felt that I had a fairly moderate tone.
John Harwood: You did.
Amy Klobuchar: I was simply trying to mesh up what she had said in the morning, Dr. [Christine] Blasey Ford, with his story. I thought, "Well, maybe he blacked out and that's what happened." Then he snapped back and asked me if I had blacked out before or drank beer, or whatever.
I didn't see it as a gender thing. I just saw it as someone who was really performing for the audience of one, and that was the president of the United States.
As opposed to answering a senator's questions, which was his job. I decided at that split-second moment, "I'm going to do my job," and my job is not to go down in the sewer with him. As I'd thought, many times when I had to deal with my dad when he was drinking, which I brought up at that hearing, I thought, "I'm going to take the keys away here." Because I have an obligation to uphold my own integrity, the integrity for Dr. Blasey Ford, the integrity for the Senate and mostly the integrity for the country, the judiciary.
John Harwood: You think he would've done the same thing if it was a male senator?
Amy Klobuchar: I think it's possible, yes. Yes.
John Harwood: There are a few people in the race — you're one of them — making the argument that they can better attract Republican votes and attract Republican cooperation on some of their priorities when they come in. When Gov. [John] Hickenlooper got in the race, he said, "I'm going to walk down to Mitch McConnell's office and I'm going to sit down and talk to him and persuade him to do things that we believe in." A lot of people watching that had the reaction of, are you kidding? Have you been paying attention the last 10 years? That's ridiculous. Why is that view wrong?
Amy Klobuchar: I do think you have to work across the aisle to get things done. But as we've learned over the years with how Senator McConnell runs the Senate, you have to stand your ground. You have to make clear where you are not going to budge, where you're going to stand up for the people of this country. I would have a good understanding of that because I have worked with him and worked in the Senate for years.
John Harwood: You really think that, where President Obama could not get Republican cooperation on almost any of the major things that he was doing, you could?
Amy Klobuchar: I know those senators well. I've been in that Senate for a number of years now. When I look at the priorities I've laid out, including the pharmaceutical issue to bring the prices down, I know where the bodies are buried. I know, despite the fact that you've got two lobbyists for every member of Congress, which senators are willing to work like Sen. Grassley on bringing down the prices of pharmaceuticals and which ones I think could be pushed to do something out of just sheer political reasons because they're going to lose in their state if they don't do something about it.
But you need a president that's willing to make it an issue. Or infrastructure — there's no such thing as a Republican bridge or a Democratic bridge. There's bridges in every state. There's transit and roads and schools that are crumbling. I also know which senators want to work on that.
This doesn't mean you're a pansy. It just means you're a realist. That if you're going to get things done, you've got to look to where you have friends, and where you have enemies, and move ahead and get it done. You have to set those priorities from day one when you get into the White House.
John Harwood: If a Democratic voter believes that that's possible, and you don't have to get rid of the filibuster and get all Democratic votes to get anything through, why shouldn't they go with Joe Biden, who was there decades before you got there and knows more people for a longer period?
Amy Klobuchar: Vice President Biden is a good person and was a great vice president. I believe that I'm a candidate for our times.
That is because I am, first of all, from the heartland. I know how to win in purple districts and red congressional districts like I don't think we've seen in a lot of the other candidates. I have won every single congressional district in the rural areas and in every area in my state, including Michele Bachmann's three times in a row. I won 40 of the counties that Donald Trump won.
John Harwood: And you're 20 years younger than him.
Amy Klobuchar: OK. I did it by not selling out on democratic values. I did it by getting votes of people that didn't agree with me on everything, but knew I was telling them the truth. They listen because they know, "You know what? She was honest with us about agriculture. She stood by our side. She was honest with us when that bridge fell down that she'd get that done and that she couldn't get it done in a month, but she'd get it done in a year." You get a track record where people believe you, even if they aren't of the same party or even if they don't agree with everything you say.
John Harwood: The age is also part of it. You said, "A candidate for our time."
Amy Klobuchar: Well, for me, that's part of my argument, but it doesn't mean you couldn't be older and do the job. I'm not being ageist here. It's just that my story is different than everyone else's.
John Harwood: You, on things like the Green New Deal, "Medicare for All," free college, have embraced the aspiration but not the specifics of those proposals. Is that because you think all those things are desirable but not achievable? Or are they not even desirable if you could achieve them because say, in the case of free college, you're giving aid to people who don't need aid, benefiting high income parents?
Amy Klobuchar: On the Green New Deal, I'm a co-sponsor because to me, it's aspirational. What do I support there? I support immediately getting back in the climate change agreement. I support immediately bringing back the clean power rules that are on the cutting room floor. Doing sweeping legislation, when you see the world heating up more and more and more in places like the one we're in right now.
Secondly, on "Medicare for All," I think it is something we should look at, but I want to get there quicker and I don't want to do any harm. There, I actually am not on that bill because I support a public option and improving the Affordable Care Act and keeping those protections in place and doing something about pharmaceuticals. On college, I have long supported making college more affordable. Allowing students to refinance. making sure we have free two-year community college, something President Obama had wanted to get done but wasn't able to get it done at the end. And then making sure that we have expanded Pell Grants and making it easier for more families to get access who need it to go to college. On that one, no. I don't agree with some of the proposals that are out there to simply wipe out all of the debt.
I want to target. I don't want to saddle this generation and the ones after it with even more debt, but I want to respect the dignity of work by making sure the money goes to where we need it the most.
John Harwood: When President Obama approached health care reform, he basically had said that if we were building a house from scratch, we'd build a different kind of house. But we're not. We've got a system, and so better to rehab and put an addition on the house rather than build a whole new house. Is that your basic philosophy of change?
Amy Klobuchar: You have to do both. There are things that I would fundamentally change in this country, like the way our election laws are working right now. I would love to have matching funds like we have for candidates to make sure everyone can run and not just wealthy people. I would want to get rid of Citizens United and make sure we don't have dark money and make this a much fairer process. It would be great to start from scratch there.
Some of these things like health care, where we have had a major change in the system with these protections for workers, we don't want to suddenly do something that is going to make it worse for a significant number of people. I look at each thing on a case by case basis.
John Harwood: Part of this goes to your fundamental view of how our economy and modern capitalism is working. Do you think that it is in many respects, working well, but it needs to be rebalanced to distribute rewards more evenly? Or do you think we need a much different capitalist system than we have?
Amy Klobuchar: America has always thrived on entrepreneurships, and new ideas, and also, by the way, people coming in from other countries with new ideas. That has been what's made our country so strong. I do support capitalism, but not unbridled capitalism. You've always had checks and balances.
If you want to make our economy work, everyone has to be able to participate in it. If you can't afford health care or your pharmaceuticals, you've got to do something.
My grandpa was a miner. My dad still remembers those bodies lined up in the Catholic church because there weren't enough safety regulations in place. Every time the whistle would blow, my grandma would tell me how she'd run to the mine because you didn't know if it was her husband that was killed. Those worker safety rules and unions have made a big difference. We have always had a check and balance. And right now, to me, we're out of kilter. We're out of kilter on antitrust laws, out of kilter on minimum wage.
John Harwood: So it sounds like rebalancing …
Amy Klobuchar: It is rebalancing.
John Harwood: … rather than turning the table over.
Amy Klobuchar: Right. It is looking at the stakeholders so that, who are the stakeholders? Well, if we're just putting in incentives in for companies to buy new equipment. Great. Well, maybe we should also have incentives for companies to train their workers when we know some of these jobs are going away with the changing technology. It is the way the economy works for everyone.
John Harwood: There's a difference in the race in affect and in tone. You are pretty optimistic in your tone, pretty upbeat. Some others have more of an edge to them. I think some of that comes from their belief that we just didn't get this economy, but there's actually some malevolent behavior that people in business, and some in politics, are affirmatively trying to screw people at the bottom of the system for their benefit. Do you believe that?
Amy Klobuchar: Yes, I do. I certainly see it with pharmaceuticals. Why do you think we are having this problem with insulin? We're having this problem with insulin because when pharmaceutical companies see a monopoly, they go for it. If there's no one being a check and balance, if we are not as a government as sophisticated as the people that are trying to rip us off, you have problems.
John Harwood: On pharmaceuticals, you just said a few minutes ago that when the president released his plan, their stocks went up.
Amy Klobuchar: That's correct.
John Harwood: You said that's not going to happen when you're there. You want their stocks to go down?
Amy Klobuchar: I want their stocks to be fairly treated on the stock market. But I certainly don't want to have put out a plan where everyone goes, "Oh, that's easy for them, but it's bad for everyone else in America." I want these companies to exist. I want them to be strong, but I want it to be fair for the consumers.
John Harwood: You don't think business needs to be punished?
Amy Klobuchar: I don't see it as punishing. I see it as making sure there's an opportunity for everyone, that we are a country of shared prosperity. You don't have to act like everyone that works at a company is bad, or that we don't want to have business. I don't agree with that at all. But what I see as my job, the number one rule of government, should be protecting people, public safety, improving their lives.
John Harwood: You mentioned being a prosecutor. In this moment, do you feel defensive about that given how people within your party are approaching issues of mass incarceration? Is that something you have to explain?
Amy Klobuchar: No. I feel like it's something where I have learned a lot. I protected people — that was my job. I was glad we put some really bad people behind bars. But at the same time, you learn that the justice system has to be improved. Our job is not to be like a business in one way: We don't want to see repeat customers. Your job is to administer justice.
How do you do that? Well, you do things to try to get people to not commit crimes again — things like drug court, things like treatment. That is why that experience has helped me to be a really good senator when it comes to advocating for drug courts, when it comes to advocating for treatment for meth and opioids, and giving people a second chance, as well as my own experience in my life with my dad.
He got one chance, two chance, three chance. He got three DWIs. It was only on the third DWI where our laws had changed. He had jail time hanging over his head. It pushed him to go into treatment. I think your life experiences can help you to be a better senator and now to be a better president.
John Harwood: When you think about how to rebalance the capitalist system, you've got a bunch of levers that you can pull. You have tax policy. You've got spending. You got regulatory policy, antitrust that you mentioned. What are the most important ones from your point of view?
Amy Klobuchar: Well, the first one is to make sure that we have fairness for workers so they can afford things. That means the tax code. I think the Republican tax bill went way too far. You look at the corporate tax rate — I supported bringing it down some, but it went way too far down to 21%. If you just go up to 25%, you get $100 billion for every point that could be used to pay for people's roads and bridges.
John Harwood: But you want to get to 25% for your infrastructure bill?
Amy Klobuchar: Yeah, right.
John Harwood: And then two more points for your retirement bill?
Amy Klobuchar: You could look at part of that for that. You could also look at doing it with things like the Buffett rule. Closing the carried interest loophole would bring in $14 billion. Capital gains changes would bring in hundreds of billions of dollars.
John Harwood: What would you do, tax it like ordinary income?
Amy Klobuchar: You could, yes. And you might want to make some dispensation if people hold it for longer periods of time. But you've got to do something because that's hundreds of billions right there. When you do something about monopolies, you bring money in.
John Harwood: Your retirement bill takes the top personal rate from 37 to 39.6. Is that high enough? You think that's where it should stay?
Amy Klobuchar: I would look at what the rate is, but that is an example. Obviously, I would want to go back to where we were, at least where we were before Trump came in, yes.
John Harwood: Donald Trump has instituted a regulatory budget to make it much more difficult for the government to enact new regulations. Would you get rid of that?
Amy Klobuchar: I wouldn't do it that way, no. But I would be willing to look at regulations. If you think one really isn't working, you change it. You've got to be willing to do that. Otherwise, you just keep things the same in this country. At the same time, when you look at overall what he's doing, he is trying to dismantle things that would protect our environment. I strongly oppose when he got rid of the Clean Power Rules, which had been worked out as a compromise over time, or the Gas Mileage Standard Rules.
John Harwood: You've got a lot of people, especially older workers, especially in rural areas, who have been displaced by technological change. It's difficult for them, the older they are, to get retrained. What do you do for those people?
Amy Klobuchar: You make sure that you are looking out for them. The way you do it is, where they are right now, those jobs, you try to create more incentives for employers to train them for the jobs that are going to be available. They have some incentive to do because we don't have people for some of the jobs we have right now and then there are other jobs that we know are going to go away. I would do that. I would do more and more when it comes to workforce training. I would make sure that they have the safety net in place of Social Security, that they have the safety place of Medicare and those remain solvent; that's going to be very important.
John Harwood: A lot of them are on Social Security disability. We do have a long-term fiscal challenge with Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, Social Security disability. Do you think that should be dealt with only on the tax side? Does it require some adjustment to benefits? Or, do you think the current-day concern about deficits is exaggerated, and we can just ride with that a while longer?
Amy Klobuchar: I think we always have to be aware of where we are on the deficit and the debt. But when it comes to Social Security, I don't think we should be balancing this debt on the backs of the people that need it the most.
What I would like to do is see the cap lifted for when you pay into Social Security; that would keep it solvent for decades and decades to come. When I comes to Medicare, I think that we could also do more when it comes to encouraging quality care, making our health-care system work; that's why I've suggested a public option.
John Harwood: So, some things on the spending side.
Amy Klobuchar: Also, when it comes to Social Security, we have done with means testing. We can do some more. We just want to make sure that whatever we do isn't on the backs of people that we've made a promise to, to support, who've worked their whole lives, and who deserve to retire with dignity.
John Harwood: Over the last four decades, the rate of unionization in this country has fallen in half. It's now around 10%. That's happened under Democrat and Republican presidents alike. Is it actually realistic in the kind of economy that we're in now, globally and in the United States, that you can reverse that and significantly ramp up the level of unionization?
Amy Klobuchar: Workers right now, because it's so expensive to afford things even though they may have jobs, what they're seeing is this growing income inequality. They are starting, especially young people, this next generation, to say that isn't fair. I think you're going to start seeing, and you have seen in the culinary workers in Nevada and across the country, growing unionization in those fields with more people wanting to join.
John Harwood: Is it about actually increasing the rate of unionization, or protecting workers where they are — un-unionized?
Amy Klobuchar: When unions do well, other workers do well that aren't even in unions. I think it's making sure that you have the ability to organize, to be in a union. I think it helps all workers. I wouldn't be here if it wasn't for unions. My grandpa, those safety rules that the unions got in place, that made a difference. My mom moved to Minnesota from Wisconsin because they had a stronger teacher's union. I literally am the granddaughter of a union worker, and the daughter of a union teacher and a union newspaper man, and the first woman elected to Senate from the state of Minnesota, and the candidate for president of the United States.
John Harwood: When you got into the race, you had all these stories about your staff. You said you have high standards, sometimes too high. Somebody in The Atlantic wrote a piece called "The Anger of Amy Klobuchar." It said, using some stuff that you had written in your book, that it looked like you are really angry about stuff related to your childhood. Is that true? Are you angry?
Amy Klobuchar: No. No, I'm not. I am someone who sets high standards. I have standards for my own family, ask my daughter, and she loves me. I have high standards for our country. I think that's very important to have those high standards. I am proud of our team and what we've put together and what so many people have worked for me in government, as well as in this campaign, have accomplished. Look at our announcement. That was a moment of joy, but that moment of joy wouldn't have happened if I didn't have a great staff of people who used to work for me back in old jobs came to help with that, or are on our staff now. That is in our rearview mirror. We are moving forward as a team.
John Harwood: It's not about stuff from your granddad, or your dad?
Amy Klobuchar: If you look at history, and I'm not a pop psychologist here, you've had a number of leaders who've had parents that have been alcoholics. I think, usually, what that means is they try to fix things. That's why you have a lot of people that go into public service that have come up, not through this really easy life, but through harder times. I just was with Harry Reid this week …
John Harwood: He did, as well.
Amy Klobuchar: There's someone that came up through a hard time and then had to work as a police officer when the law school dean said, "I'm sorry, maybe you should just quit law school because you got too much going on and it's too hard for you." He came up with a mining background just like I did.
I think it makes you a stronger person when you understand what it's like when you don't know if your dad's coming home for Christmas. Or people who have to work through high school and college to be able to keep going. I think that's a good background to be president.