Sunday’s announcement of the presidential candidacy of Minnesota senator Amy Klobuchar gives new urgency to a spate of stories in the past week about Senator Klobuchar’s long track record of angry, harsh, and frankly abusive behavior towards her staffers over her twelve years in the Senate. Some of Klobuchar’s defenders argue that discussion of Klobuchar’s mistreatment of her subordinates is sexist, irrelevant, or both. They are wrong. Senator Klobuchar’s treatment of her staff behind closed doors not only raises serious concerns about her temperament to be Chief Executive, but also undermines the core of the image she tries to project in public.
The Devil Wears Parka
The charges against Senator Klobuchar aren’t originating from right-wing media outlets; there have been big recent profiles in BuzzFeed and the Huffington Post. Nor is the story a new one; a LegiStorm survey covering the period from 2001 to 2016 found that Klobuchar had the highest staff turnover in the Senate, garnering her a prominent mention in an early 2018 piece in Politico entitled “The ‘Worst Bosses’ in Congress?” and a skeptical note even in a November 2018 New York Times analysis of her potential candidacy. New York Magazine’s Ed Kilgore quoted Vox writer Matt Yglesias describing the HuffPost piece as “almost hilariously tame compared to the unverified Capitol Hill rumor mill” about Klobuchar.
The tales are pervasive and detailed enough to suggest more than just the usual griping from one or two disgruntled former employees. HuffPost’s Molly Redden and Amanda Terkel reported:
At least three people have withdrawn from consideration to lead Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s nascent 2020 presidential campaign . . . in part because of the Minnesota Democrat’s history of mistreating her staff . . . . 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 . . . . Adding to the humiliation, Klobuchar often cc’d large groups of staffers who weren’t working on the topic at hand . . .
The BuzzFeed story, by Molly Hensley-Clancy, is likewise reliant on anonymous sources, but written in a way to suggest that it is backed by too much sourcing and documentation to just dismiss:
[T]he Minnesota Democrat ran a workplace controlled by fear, anger, and shame, according to interviews with eight former staffers, one that many employees found intolerably cruel. She demeaned and berated her staff almost daily, subjecting them to bouts of explosive rage and regular humiliation within the office, according to interviews and dozens of emails reviewed by BuzzFeed News.
She yelled, threw papers, and sometimes even hurled objects; one aide was accidentally hit with a flying binder, according to someone who saw it happen, though the staffer said the senator did not intend to hit anyone with the binder when she threw it. “I cried. I cried, like, all the time,” said one former staffer.
. . .Anything could set her temper off, they said, and it was often unpredictable . . . [including] minor grammar mistakes, the use of the word “community” in press releases, forgetting to pack the proper coat in her suitcase, failing to charge her iPad, and using staples . . . . Klobuchar’s temper also affected her own ability to do her job, said that staffer . . .
A followup HuffPost story by Redden and Terkel reported that Klobuchar’s abuse of staffers had alarmed even close political allies. Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid had warned her in 2015 to tone down her behavior. When she ran for the Senate in 2006, James Appleby, the head of the AFSCME local that represented her employees as Hennepin County prosecutor urged the union not to endorse her on the grounds of her “shameful treatment of her employees” and that she had “created a hostile work environment” leading to a spike in union grievances. Redden and Terkel also reported that Klobuchar improperly forced employees to perform personal tasks like washing dishes in her house, and quoted a memo from Klobuchar’s 2006 Senate campaign that illustrates her temperament:
“Especially while in the car during a busy day: if she is EXTREMELY upset about something, let her rant through it, DON’T interupt [sic] her unless ABSOLUTELY necessary and be careful when trying to calm her down,” the memo reads. “Often she just needs to talk things out in the open and is not interested in other people’s opinions — this is something that you will become used to and adjust to — its just a note for the first time this happens.”
Both outlets’ reports are worth reading in full; taken together, they paint a picture that crosses the line from “demanding, hard-driving boss” to gratuitous emotional abuse, loss of perspective, and lack of emotional self-control. But is that a sexist criticism?
Double and Triple Standards
As I wrote recently about Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, it’s not unfair or unreasonable to ask the question whether some candidates are getting scrutiny that other candidates would not face, based on the candidate’s race, gender, religion, age, party, or ideology. Women can face different and unfair expectations as leaders than men, and America has never had a female president — no Margaret Thatcher, no Golda Meir, no Angela Merkel — so we don’t yet have an established template for how to assess female presidential candidates as we do for men. And the standards for men have themselves been unforgiving at times: In 1972, Democratic frontrunner Ed Muskie was hurt by the perception that he was crying in an unmanly way when he protested outside a critical New Hampshire newspaper with snowflakes running down his face. That, at least, is a criticism Klobuchar avoided at her snow-drenched announcement on Sunday.
It is, however, unfair and unreasonable to use blanket assertions of sexism or racism as a heat shield to deflect legitimate criticisms, in effect allowing the candidate to avoid criticisms that others would face. If you’re going to ask the question, you ought to be prepared to consider the answer. Worst of all is the persistent tendency to deploy this sort of defense selectively: For example, to argue that criticisms that are legitimate when applied to Republican women are out of bounds when applied to Democratic women. Conservatives are justly skeptical that media outlets that tore Sarah Palin to shreds would accept the same defenses if Nikki Haley was running for president.
In Barack Obama’s case, I proposed in 2008 a “John Edwards test.” Before his marital infidelity scandal broke, Edwards was a good “tester” comparison for Obama: two men of different races, but both relatively youthful, one-term progressive Democratic senators long on eloquence and short on experience or accomplishments. Some of the criticisms of Obama, like the “birther” story, would not have been made against Edwards, and could fairly be said to have an unfair racial overtone. Others, like accusations of inexperience or shallowness, were things that would have been said of Edwards and sometimes were.
Similarly, with a bevy of female candidates in the Democratic field and Donald Trump as their likely opponent, the charges of sexism have been flying from defenders of Elizabeth Warren who argue that “likeability” is a test never applied to men. This would be news to Ted Cruz, who was constantly accused in the Senate of being disliked by his colleagues and was haunted by questions about likeability throughout his 2016 presidential and 2018 Senate reelection campaigns. In reality, analysis of the candidates’ disparities in likeability, warmth, personal charm, and authenticity were a major feature of coverage of the campaigns of Richard Nixon against John F. Kennedy in 1960, Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale against Ronald Reagan in 1980 and 1984, Michael Dukakis against George H.W. Bush in 1988, Bush and Bob Dole against Bill Clinton in 1992 and 1996, Al Gore and John Kerry against George W. Bush in 2000 and 2004, and John McCain and Mitt Romney against Barack Obama in 2008 and 2016. It’s been the rare modern American election where this wasn’t an issue.
In the specific case of Senator Klobuchar’s mistreatment of subordinates, Democrats will be hard pressed to claim that this is a new avenue of criticism. John Bolton, now the national security adviser, was filibustered by Senate Democrats when President Bush nominated him as U.N. ambassador in 2005, in large part on the basis of claims that he was abusive to subordinates (see this contemporary report by Jay Carney, later Obama’s press secretary, for a taste). And of course, reports of Donald Trump’s emotional outbursts and demeaning treatment of the people who work for him have been a daily staple of Trump criticism for the past three and a half years and are expected to be part of the Democrats’ case against Trump in 2020. Tina Nguyen at Vanity Fair draws the parallel explicitly: “Terrified Aides Say Amy Klobuchar Is Just Like Trump.” Clearly, this line of attack is good for the gander.
Indeed, more trivial claims of mistreatment have led to much more extensive press coverage. Mitt Romney was almost universally regarded by his subordinates as a model boss, but a story about Romney driving to a vacation spot with his dog on the roof of his car led to a colossal, years-long media feeding frenzy. Seamus the dog was mentioned more than 80 times just by the New York Times columnist Gail Collins, in near-nightly jokes from David Letterman, and in jibes from the Santorum and Obama campaigns. Seamus was the topic of international media coverage, televised questions for the nominee from Diane Sawyer and Chris Wallace, a New Yorker cover, a “Dogs Against Romney” protest group, a Snopes fact check, even a song by Devo. The Atlantic’s David Graham wrote of “America’s Enduring Seamus Obsession,” and the Boston Globe’s Neil Swidley, who originated the story, ruminated on “What our fascination with Mitt Romney’s dog Seamus says about our culture.”
Ultimately, there are two main reasons why Klobuchar’s treatment of subordinates is particularly newsworthy: because it calls into question her executive temperament, and because it conflicts with the public image she tries to project.
Boss of What?
Senator Klobuchar’s defenders argue that other “bad boss” behavior has been written off, at times, as simply an eccentricity or a byproduct of being a hard-charging get-it-done Pattonesque leader. Trump’s pre-presidential reputation, for example, was helped as much as it was harmed by making “You’re Fired” his TV trademark phrase and by his fans’ sense that Trump was a guy who pushed his employees to deliver.
But there’s an important distinction: It’s easier to justify being hard on your subordinates if you’re running an organization and showing results. Trump had built a big business empire; other presidential candidates had been governors, cabinet secretaries, or generals. Klobuchar is running as a senator whose only executive experience is running a county prosecutor’s office. Her bad behavior raises the same questions that apply to other candidates, but it can’t be offset by a record of managerial accomplishment.
Only three sitting senators have been elected president — Obama, JFK, and Warren Harding — and one of those, Obama, had the advantage of running against sitting senators in the primary and general elections. By contrast, scores of senators have run for the job over the past several decades and lost: five sitting and two former senators in 2016, seven sitting and three former senators in 2008. Senators typically do a lot of talking and not a lot of running things, so voters have to project how they might look as leaders.
Leaders who are abusive to their staff can create toxic organizational cultures full of backbiting, leaks, an undue focus on self-protection, a loss of focus and priorities as the boss’ whims are catered to, and fear of bringing the boss bad news. The Washington Post’s Colby Itkowitz, for example, rounds up quotes from business and organizational experts on how “derision leads to fear leads to conformity but never creativity and ingenuity” and the creation of “a ‘Trumpian bubble’ where staff only relay to their boss what he or she wants to hear to avoid being on the receiving end of their boss’s wrath.”
All of these are, in fact, serious and legitimate criticisms of how the Trump White House has operated. One of the major selling points of the Democrats in 2020 ought to be a reassuring de-escalation of this sort of behavior, and a return to calm, adult management in the Oval Office. If Democrats instead nominate a candidate known as a petty office tyrant prone to rage-filled outbursts over trivia, they will have surrendered the claim to be offering something different from Trump.
The second problem for Klobuchar is that these stories suggest that her public persona is a phony. As Peter Beinart notes in The Atlantic, “since Obama left office, the demands among Democratic activists that Democratic politicians express fury have grown.” In a candidate field full of angry populists, some of whom are very visibly trying to out-Trump Trump, Klobuchar offers instead a distinct brand of “Minnesota Nice”: polite, friendly, even-keeled, mature, more focused on bread-and-butter issues than divisive culture-war battles. That, at least, is the impression she has given to observers of her on the campaign trail and in televised Senate hearings. It’s an image she has deliberately cultivated, as the New York Times’ Sheryl Gay Stolberg details:
[O]utwardly, Ms. Klobuchar is the embodiment of “Minnesota nice” — polite and intent on being able to “disagree without being disagreeable,” as she wrote in her 2015 memoir, “The Senator Next Door.” In an era of Twitter rants and senatorial showboats, she is the worker bee in the background, tallying up how many of her bills get signed into law: 24, she said, since Mr. Trump became president.
It’s an open question how well this Upper Midwest style fits into the mood of the current Democratic primary electorate or translates into national politics: The states of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, and the two Dakotas have produced between them only three major-party presidential nominees (Mondale, George McGovern, and Hubert Humphrey), all of whom got massacred at the polls, and recent candidates like Scott Walker and Tim Pawlenty proved too low-key to stand out on crowded primary debate stages. Paul Ryan’s polite, deferential demeanor got shouted down by a blustering Joe Biden (one of Senator Klobuchar’s potential primary opponents) in their 2012 vice presidential debate.
But to the extent that Senator Klobuchar’s strategy for distinguishing herself both from Trump and her theatrical primary foes relies on being the steady, sane one, voters have every right to be concerned that they are being sold a manufactured image. In road-testing a potential commander in chief, it’s appropriate to pay attention to the man or woman behind the curtain.