The following essay is adapted from an episode of The Gist, a daily podcast from Slate about news, culture, and whatever else you’re discussing with your family and friends. Listen to The Gist for free every day via Apple Podcasts, Overcast, Spotify, Stitcher, or Google Play.
Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar announced her presidential candidacy in a driving snowstorm on Sunday, so driving that our president dubbed her a “Snowman(woman).” (The local news coverage described the scene as “a light but steady snow.”) Why, a fair-minded would-be Klobuchar voter might wonder, do our candidates not just announce their intentions inside? The presidency is almost entirely a job conducted indoors. The current officeholder spends almost all his time not just inside but unstructured. And when President Donald Trump does venture outside, it’s to golf, perform at rallies, or sit in a big truck and honk a horn. One could argue that the presidency and the attaining of it has never been more of an inside job.
But the senator used the speech to brand herself as hearty and resilient. “My family story is like so many of yours,” she said. “On both my mom and my dad’s side, they arrived in this country with nothing but a suitcase. But they made a home here. It was cold. OK, maybe not as cold as this.”
The speech was aspirational and biographical, and it reassured that she was going to operate with compassion and do right by voters. But it was overshadowed by reports that Klobuchar is a tough boss—even a bad boss. BuzzFeed reports, “In Washington, she is known as one of the most difficult bosses on Capitol Hill. According to data from 2001 to 2016, Klobuchar had the highest staff turnover rate in the Senate, with an annual turnover rate of 36%.”
That statistic is incorrect. The number is from a site called LegiStorm, and the 36 percent isn’t the turnover rate—it’s the proprietary turnover index score, which it gets by factoring who left and at what salary, so well-paid staffers’ departures have a greater effect on a legislator’s score. Klobuchar’s chief of staff, which is the highest-paid position, recently departed, greatly hurting Klobuchar’s turnover score.
But that’s more of a contextualization than an excuse. Klobuchar does have high turnover no matter how you calculate it, and reports by Politico, HuffPost, and BuzzFeed detailed numerous accounts of former staffers with complaints of mistreatment. If Mitt Romney got dinged for “binders full of women,” it’s fair to criticize Klobuchar as a binder-throwing woman.
A few of Klobuchar’s defenders (and staffers) have offered the “if she were a man” defense. While a double standard is often a good explanation for criticism of a woman, that doesn’t seem to be the best explanation here. If Politico or HuffPost could get eight of Texas Sen. Ted Cruz’s staffers on the record talking about what a horror he is to work with, you would bet they’d run with it, and you would bet we would read it. What if Chris Christie were being criticized as a rageaholic boss? I would probably conclude that it reflects poorly on him as a person.
However, the reason I like Klobuchar isn’t because of what I think of her as a person. I certainly could discover things about her personality or conduct that disqualify her in my mind, but “tough boss” doesn’t quite rise to the level of monstrousness. I am impressed by Klobuchar’s legislative accomplishments and her comportment in Judiciary Committee hearings, where she asked good questions of Brett Kavanaugh and the best questions of William Barr. She and Sheldon Whitehouse are consistently the gold standard in that committee. And Klobuchar is experienced without being a hidebound creature of Washington. There are only 26 senators who’ve been in the Senate longer than Klobuchar, and she’s very popular in her home state, which is neither deep-red nor deep-blue.
While being awful to staff is a demerit, I don’t believe it gets in the way of the fundamental purpose of the job, which is to serve the people. I take Trump’s awfulness to staff more to heart because it’s an explanation for the awfulness of his leadership. But if the outcome—meaning legislation, constituent services, and conduct in hearings—winds up being more functional than dysfunctional, I do think we should take that into account. Not because the ends justify the means, but because we shouldn’t catastrophize the process if the product is indeed good. And with Klobuchar, it’s good.
I judge politicians by policies and accomplishments. Most people say they do also, but they don’t. Most voters like uplift and inspiration. They like to identify with their candidates and think that their candidates identify with them. I understand why voters would like a candidate who appeals to them emotionally. I simply think that the accomplishment of policy aims should be plenty uplifting.
For the past two years, we’ve come to understand what happens when we elect an ineffective, coldhearted, ill-informed, bigoted, corrupt, temperamental man as president. I would wager that electing an effective, bighearted, intelligent, honest, but temperamental woman as president would not be a perfect replacement, but I think, perfect enough.