The politics of playing nice


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.

  • Gary F

    She’ll be one of 1,234 people running for the Democratic nominee this year. I presume many factions will be fighting within the party with articles like this.

    • “Choice”, what a concept!

      • Gary F

        My money is on Oprah. No record to run on and anyone who exposes any of her flaws will be bludgeoned.

        All the Republicans beat each other up and eventually the outsider won the nomination. It could happen this year too with the Dems.

        Yep, you got choice this year.

        • All the normal and capable Republicans stayed on the sideline in the last election, which is why we got the clowncar of candidates. That “I don’t want the job” reaction by the most capable is a crisis in the democracy that never got properly inspected.

          • Gary F

            I think that era has passed, unfortunately. Just like the Dems will pull so hard left in the primaries that Howard Schultz makes more sense to more moderate Democrats.

          • Rob

            Booshwah. A tax-avoiding billionaire whose raison d’etre for running is that he doesn’t want anyone in office who might crimp his ability to continue massive tax avoidance and continue amassing more money than god, is not going to make sense to more moderate Democrats.

          • Gary F

            If he gets traction, the media will cover for the Dems and put a hit on him. You already saw the media circle their wagons last week over him.

          • The Resistance

            Which media was that?

          • Gary F
          • Rob

            Give us a cite from a legitimate, fact-based media outlet that supports your claim. Still waiting.

          • The Resistance

            I think making his statement that he prefers to be called a “person of means” rather than a billionaire did him in. No one forced him to say it. The Media didn’t need to ‘put a hit on him’. He did it himself, in front of a camera and microphone with no gun to his head.

            I predict that by next Thursday no one in America will remember who Howard Schultz is. And that’ll be a good thing.

          • Rob

            Are you talking about the same media that helped deep-six Clinton’s campaign by hyperventilating about her emails?

          • Sybil Twilight

            I think at least 75% of the folks I know personally wouldn’t vote for Schultz because his coffee is crap.

          • Left of what? That’s the question.

          • Mike

            There were a dozen high-profile Republicans who ran, including Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, and John Kasich. Trump defeated all of them. It’s simply a counterfactual claim that were a bunch of others who could have beaten him if they had run.

          • Rob

            I agree, yet there was a critical mass of voters who were lured by the incompetence, crudeness and venality of Mr. Bone Spurs.

          • Gary F

            With the help of the late night talk shows and CNN/MSNBC giving him all that free air time. It it wasn’t for them making a big deal of Trump, he wouldn’t be where he is today.

          • Rob

            They were complicit, but when T.Rump continues to hold the loyalty of 90% of the Republican party – despite his demonstrated incompetence, ignorance, racism, misogyny, cruelty and bigotry, the blame has to be laid where it belongs – at the feet of those Republican voters and the media haters that these voters worship.

          • Sonny T

            Or the executive ability, honesty, and… yeah, people liked the crudeness, after a lifetime of polite, photogenic, two-faced politicians.

          • Jay T. Berken

            Like Ronald Reagan…

          • jon

            Jeb and Kasich, stayed on the sidelines even when running, waiting for the clowns to finish beating each other up so they could step in and look like the adults in the room.
            Marco Rubio/Ted Cruz were arguable among the clowns.

            But the side show lasted through enough of the primary season for one of the clowns to win.

          • Sonny T

            Very accurate. These were capable adversaries, as was Hillary, who ran a truly impressive campaign (frankly, I’d run her again. She could win.)

            Hatred of Trump blinds people to the obvious. He just simply can’t be given credit for anything.

          • // who ran a truly impressive campaign

            She ran a horrible campaign. She didn’t campaign in Wisconsin (she lost Wisconsin by .7%). She never stopped by a UAW hall in Michigan and ignored the on-the-ground intel in that state (she lost Michigan by 0.23%), in the last days she went to Arizona, which she was never going to win, instead of Pennsylvania (She lost PA by 1.2%)

            That was the whole election.

            // (frankly, I’d run her again. She could win.)

            This reminds me of the time MPR had a couple of “analysts” (one for each party) who were analyzing upcoming primaries and we noticed that the Republican kept talking up the least-likely-to-win Democrat. And the Democrat kept talking up the least-likely-to-win Republican) and, since we’re not stupid, we got rid of those analysts since you would’ve had to be an idiot not to see wha they were trying to do.

            We’re not stupid here either.

          • Sonny T

            Hindsight will always be 20/20. They did what they thought they could to win.

            The real issue in your post is who can win? I’ll take Klobuchar (or Hillary, for that matter) over Warren. A raving hater goes down in flames. Provided economic conditions remain positive.

          • Rob

            Looking forward to seeing The Raving Hater-In -Chief go down in flames

          • Sonny T

            They’ll still have to deal with Trump’s successes. Pointing up and saying down won’t work.

          • I don’t think that will be difficult since the successes are mostly gymnastic in their rhetorical construction.

          • Sonny T

            Money in your jeans isn’t rhetoric.

          • Rob

            An observation made by one percenters and corporate interests, mos def

          • Sonny T

            There’s a huge change you may not see, depending on where you live, work, etc. His support is strong among lower income earners and small business operators.

          • Jay T. Berken

            I personally think that Trump’s successes will back fire in his face. Especially the tax legislation now taking effect. I don’t think it’ll be “Money in your jeans”.

          • >>Money in your jeans isn’t rhetoric.<<

            Yeah…about that…

          • kevins

            Nope..Hillary ran a truly bad campaign…that’s all. As for “raving haters”, we already have one in office and don’t need another.

          • Sonny T

            That’s your narrative. His base doesn’t see it that way.

          • Rob

            Remember that she didn’t lose the popular vote.

          • // There were a dozen high-profile Republicans

            The Clampetts

          • The sheer awfulness of the Trumped-up GOP’s performance sets the stage for 2020 to be a backlash year. That could mean that once again rational GOP candidates will sit it out rather than face the wrath of the voters.

          • Sonny T

            Seems like it’s sheer awfulness for only one side. The side that doesn’t need low unemployment, higher wages for working stiffs, fair trade, reductions in foreign involvement.

            Trump’s opponent will have to deal with these issues, provided they remain in the positive column. Can Klobuchar do it? Yes. She has an appealing rational demeanor. The haters are going to lose this one.

        • The Resistance

          Not completely true. There are a million hours of TV footage that is her record to run on. Her assistance in spreading the anti-vax message alone should disqualify her. Also angels.

          I’m hopeful that after Trump, both parties have the common sense to avoid Messiah Candidates that have no government experience. I want a competent policy wonk. But I live in America, so I assume The Rock and Kip ‘Buffy’ Wilson will be in the general.

          • Rob

            I’m laughing out loud – but sadly – at your comment.

          • The Resistance

            If the Tom Judge movie Idiocracy were made today it would be a documentary. It should be required watching. I quote it regularly.

          • Rob

            Will check it out

      • Gary F

        Still better than Cuba, North Korea, and Venezuela.

        • wjc

          Wow! High bar.

        • RBHolb

          Aren’t there Republican Parties in some states that are considering not holding a primary at all? The Great Person Born of Heaven is to be nominated by acclaim.

  • Barton

    I can’t find it now, but I was reading an article (link from Facebook, posted by a friend on other side of aisle) yesterday about Senator Bernie Sanders and what a task master he was as a boss, how he was a great leader because he was always pushing his staff to do better, including emailing them at all hours of the night letting them know their work wasn’t up to par.

    The exact same things alleged about Senator K except they were seen as “strengths.” Because he was a man.

    (I’ll keep looking for that article and post link when/if I find it).

    • Mike

      I doubt that many politicians at the national level are very “nice” in the popular sense of that term. I would expect that many, if not most, of them of either gender are preening showboats. It basically comes with the job description.

      That being said, if it’s true that Klobuchar had the highest level of staff turnover for 16 years running, then clearly she’s way outside the norm. Maybe she really is a bad boss.

      • frightwig

        Highest staff turnover for 16 years does tell you something, in itself. If you just heard that fact about “Candidate X,” what would you think? It could tell you something about what to expect of the regular operations of a Klobuchar administration, too.

        Will this affect how voters see her? I doubt it. I’d guess that she may struggle because one of her main selling points is how well she can play nice with the other side, and I don’t think that “let’s work together toward moderate, bipartisan goals” is going to fire up supporters much, once the campaign gets past Iowa.

        • I believe she holds the record for most congressional press releases with the word “bipartisan” in the headline. She sent another one today.

          Democrats aren’t in the mood to be bipartisan.

    • Sonny T

      These issues bring into question executive ability. Being a “task master”, emails in the middle of the night, and nastiness are not acceptable.

      • Jay T. Berken

        You do know that the job of the President is a 24 hour/7 day a week job. I want someone who pushes for better results, as long they are productive.

        • Sonny T

          Ever had a boss like that? Hope you never do.

          You don’t wake people up at night. Unless there’s an emergency. And when everything’s an emergency, that’s the definition of a bad executive.

          • Sybil Twilight

            If I send someone an email in the middle of the night it’s because that’s when I’m awake. Sending an email at night doesn’t imply an immediate reply is expected. If your phone is set to ping you every time you receive an email and it’s waking you up in the middle of the night, that’s on you.

          • Sonny T

            I was referring to the boss (and they are out there, I had a friend with one) that expects you to pick up 24/7. Also, I don’t want an email, text, or call at 2:45 am. Psycho.

          • Seems to me if someone is getting a late night email from a boss, the boss is working late. Maybe he/she wants you to see it when you log on first thing in the morning. Why not just turn off notifications if it’s a bother?

          • Sonny T

            “Why not just turn off notifications if it’s a bother?” Not a bother. Just creepy.

            We’re talking regular business and workday habits. I doubt the people who complain about Amy or Bernie are referring to emergencies.

          • Sybil Twilight

            That’s when it’s time to get a different job.

          • Joseph

            Or just turn your phone off at night. If you need it for it’s alarm function — you can get a bed-stand alarm clock for $10 from Target/Walmart/Amazon.

          • Barton

            My boss emails me in the middle of the night (so did my previous boss). It isn’t to wake me up, it is to give me tasks/actions to do first thing when I get into the office.

          • Sonny T

            Well… as long as you approve. However, if I was you, I’d keep a cross, a clove of garlic, and a mallet and stake with me at all times : )

          • QuietBlue

            It’s also common when you work for global organizations. The Australia office knows I’m not going to be looking at my email in the middle of (my) night, just like I don’t expect an immediate response from them when I send them an email during my workday.

      • I wonder if a famly of a victim ever got justice because of that “executive ability.” Maybe a look at her effectiveness in the office was a tad more important than her likability. That’s the point. Is there room for looking at her personality? Sure. But that people go right for that with female candidates is the point.

        • Sonny T

          I was referring to Sanders, but yes.

  • jon

    There is a certain irony to the microscope that people (boomers in most cases) are being put under when they announce for president (or any other high profile office).

    For years we’ve been told that my generation can never run for public office because facebook documented all of our youthful indiscretions…

    Now we have boomers who can’t run for office because it turns out that facebook wasn’t the only foot print we leave in this world as we pass through it.

    Franken caught in an old photo, Roy Moore caught up in a mall ban from when he was in his 20’s/30’s, Klobuchar on her being mean to people, the entire state of virginia on them wearing black face to parties in the 80’s… the list goes on.

    And of course when you actually get to people in my generation who ware being put under a microscope, well the only one that comes to mind in the political landscape is alexandria ocasio-cortez… and the worst they found on her so far has been a dance party… Not a Dance party in black face, or a Dance party with underage children… just a dance party.

    Ultimately it turns out at the moment my generation isn’t being drug down by 30 years of various jobs or having been around as adults 30 years ago when what was socially acceptable was different… It’s amazing any boomer can even get a job with all of them having a 30 year history full of opportunities to make bad life decisions.
    Kudo’s to the boomers who either realized their life was documented before the internet, or just didn’t make bad life choices for moral/ethical reasons. (I assume running for public office is one of those bad life choices.)

    • I recommend reading”How Ralph Northam and others can repent of America’s original sin” by The Rev. William J. Barber II in the Washington Post opinion section. His argument is persuasive and directly addresses what it really means to be repentant for one’s bad actions.

  • Rob

    Nice is exactly what we don’t need right now; I’m worried that Sen. Klobuchar will not be comfortable meeting – and even more importantly – working as hard as humanly possible to best T.Rump in the trench warfare that taking him on will demand.

    This is not a moment for kumbaya exhortations. I was reading an article in The Guardian earlier today about Brandi Carlile, and this quote really struck me: “Big inlusive sentiments are a salve; they’re inappropriate.”

    If Amy thinks the middle ground and a light touch are gonna oust the White Supremacist-in-Chief and his lickspittles, she is, IMHO, way off the beam.

    • kat

      Sen Klobuchar has the judgement to not jump into pointless ego battles with an opponent. For an example, see the coverage of her responses during the Kavanaugh hearings. We have plenty of people in politics who want to drop down and fight with name-callers. We need people who will get the job done. You can’t draw in the other side by calling them immoral/heartless/deplorable etc. and the candidate needs to draw in more people than Hillary Clinton did.

      • Rob

        Should Klobuchar become the Democratic nominee, playing the nice card against T.Rump will be a recipe for disaster. She needs to think of him like a bug that needs squashin’. She can reinstitute civility once he’s vanquished.

        • kat

          How has that worked for other opponents? I’m thinking Republicans that fought Trump’s name calling, or even Elizabeth Warren trying to defend against his slurs- you don’t beat bullies by “squashin”

          • Rob

            You absolutely do; reasoning with bullies is pointless. Aside from Ted Cruz, I don’t recall many of the Republican candidates pushing back very forcefully on T.Rump; among other things, the candidates were afraid of alienating the base.

    • Laurie K.

      I love that a male who is not in politics [presumably] feels it is appropriate to armchair quarterback the campaign of a successful female politician.

      • Rob

        I was a volunteer on Amy’s first Senate run, and have been a staunch supporter ever since; I just don’t see her as the best candidate to take on T.Rump.

        But thanks for your presumptuous chastening,

        • Laurie K.

          I am sorry, but being one of literally thousands of volunteers on a campaign does not make you uniquely qualified to determine the proper strategy for a presidential campaign.

          My presumptuous chastening was in response to your presumptuous comment that somehow, you know better on how Ms. Klobuchar should run her campaign.

          • Rob

            Gosh, counselor, I never claimed that my being one of a thousand volunteers for Amy made me uniquely qualified to determine her strategy for a presidential campaign. I only mentioned it to show that I’ve been pro-Klobuchar.

            Have a nice day now.

  • AL287

    Someone will make an accusation of harassment and the gig will be up.

    Remember harassment is not only sexual in nature. You can also be accused of creating a hostile workplace which is easier to pin on a female boss than a male one.

    It falls into the stereotype of women being bitchy and emotionally unstable (All those hormones, don’t cha know.) and therefore can’t be effective leaders.

    Margaret Thatcher, Indira Ghandi, Benazir Bhutto to name a few, all disproved the going theory that women can’t be effective leaders.

    At least Klobuchar doesn’t suffer from diarrhea of the mouth like the current resident in the White House. Her toughest task will be convincing the blue collar workers in the Rust Belt states and the Midwest that put him there in the first place.

    • Zachary Mott

      diarrhea of the mouth

      The word you’re looking for is logorrhea.

  • crystals

    Buzzfeed just released their own version of this story, which at least addresses the gender issue head on: “Most staffers who spoke with BuzzFeed News are experienced Congressional employees who say they have worked with difficult lawmakers, male and female, in the past. But as a boss, Klobuchar was uniquely unbearable, most former staffers said — in a way that four staffers said was “worse” than any rumors about her behavior they had heard.”

    I personally struggle with all of this because I don’t think the expectation of being a “nice” boss is the same for men as it is for women, but at the same time I’ve also heard SO much about Klobuchar and her treatment of staff over many years, from people who are close to it, that it’s difficult for me to discount it all because of sexism.

    Here’s Buzzfeed’s take: https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/mollyhensleyclancy/amy-klobuchar-staff-2020-election

    • Eight staffers. None of them on the record.

      • crystals

        I never really know what to make about anonymity in stories like this, but I do try to be mindful of at least being consistent in my own brain as I think about it (i.e., being okay with anonymity when it suits my personal beliefs v. not being okay with it when it doesn’t).

  • The Resistance

    I own that this is unverified gossip, but a year or so ago the kid of a friend of mine who was a staffer for the senator of a neighboring state told me a weirdly specific anecdote about one of his friends who was an intern at AK’s office. It had to do with being made to shave her legs in the back seat of her car while headed to an event, and being yelled at for not doing it right. There was yelling and tears.

    At the time, I thought it was an exagerrated, repeated story that took on a life of its own and didn’t fit with the image I had of AK. But it kind of fits with these recent stories.

    I have mixed feelings about reports like this. On the one hand, it makes me wonder why (un)likeability stories are typically about women and feed into a double standard for them. I think a fairer story would have included comments from the staffers of some of the guys who have high staff turnover rates.

    On the other hand, no matter what position you hold, every employee deserves to be treated with respect and when that doesn’t happen the person in power deserves to be called out when they don’t do that, regardless of gender.

    I also understand why these staffers report this anonymously. Speaking out publicly would be a career killer in the small town that is DC politics, and they know it.

    All that said, my instinct tells me that Amy is setting herself up to be AG in the next Democratic admininstration. And she’d probably be good at it.

    • crystals

      There was a tweet going around earlier today about an intern and leg shaving and I just assumed it was a joke given how ridiculous it sounded. So, wow. That’s wild.

  • Jerry

    There’s a difference between being demanding and being mean and cruel.