The politics of playing nice

Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) (L) took a selfie with Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) and Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-VT) (R) at the inauguration of Donald Trump in 2017. Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images.
There’s little likelihood you’ve heard many male candidates for office examined for their “niceness” but female candidates can’t escape the inspection and a Boston Globe columnist is using Sen. Amy Klobuchar as one example.

One of Stephanie Ebbert’s readers challenged her recently when Ebbert wrote about the “likability challenge” that women running for office face, in this case Sen. Elizabeth Warren. The reader insisted that voters’ reactions to her weren’t sexist but pragmatic, Ebbert writes.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar would do well in the race, the reader suggested, because she’s from the land of Minnesota Nice.

Heck, the New York Times practically handed her the “nice” crown in a November 2018 story, giving critics of female candidates an obvious woman to point to, thus proving their criticism is not sexist.

Just wait, Ebbert told him. “Let’s see if she falls into the same likability trap and whether it changes your view,” she said.

Klobuchar hasn’t even announced yet — she’ll do that on Sunday — and already she’s fallen into the “likability trap,” Ebbert notes. The Huffington Post did the honors with a story on her tenure as the Hennepin County attorney.

Klobuchar, who plans to make an announcement about a potential presidential bid on Sunday in Minneapolis, has spent the past several months positioning herself to run for president. She’s beloved in her state as a smart, funny and personable lawmaker and has gained national attention for her lines of questioning at high-profile hearings.

But some former Klobuchar staffers, all of whom spoke to HuffPost on condition of anonymity, describe Klobuchar as habitually demeaning and prone to bursts of cruelty that make it difficult to work in her office for long.

It is common for staff to wake up to multiple emails from Klobuchar characterizing one’s work as “the worst” briefing or press release she’d seen in her decades of public service, according to two former aides and emails seen by HuffPost.

Not much of a surprise to Ebbert.

Reports of her alleged meanness were served up anonymously by former aides, but the story offered these data points: Klobuchar had the highest staff turnover of any senator for 16 years running. At least three people bowed out of consideration to manage her anticipated presidential campaign because of her reputation of mistreating aides, the story said.

All of that is fair game — and may offer some satisfaction to the men out there who think their careers could now be threatened by workplace interactions they didn’t even recognize as inappropriate. These days, we call out bad behavior — even if it feeds into the familiar trope of the mean girl. Klobuchar supporters “question whether former co-workers who thought she was abusive were falling for sexist stereotypes about female leaders with high standards,” the Huffington Post story acknowledged.

But while we’re at it, let’s consider our own standards for presidential candidates — and whether they differ by gender.

They do. Of course, they do.

Men who aren’t nice get elected all the time. The term itself is gendered.

“The problem is, no matter which end you move to as a woman, you can be discredited on gender grounds,” Katherine Hall Jamieson, the author of “Beyond the Double Bind: Women and Leadership,” tells Ebbert. “If you want to undercut someone, what you basically say is the nice is a façade. The person is actually ruthless.”

Electoral results tend to show that we don’t really want “nice” in politicians. Unless it’s a woman running.