Remember how folks despaired that the Democrats had “no bench?” As it turns out, there is significant strength in the cluster of presidential candidates coming forward. I don’t just say that because Donald Trump has lowered the bar on what it takes to be president or because, as the bumper sticker says, “Any Functioning Adult 2020.” I hope the coverage will be as good as the candidates. The media’s treatment of Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar is not a good beginning.
For more than a week Huffington Post, Buzz Feed and the New York Times reported anonymous charges about the Minnesota senator’s allegedly abusive treatment of her staff. Instead of “Minnesota nice,” is she really the acid-tongued “Devil Wears Prada” candidate? Does Amy Klobuchar’s berating a staffer for forgetting a fork for her salad, using her comb to eat her lunch and then asking the staffer who forgot the fork to clean it –disqualify her from being President of the United States?
Such stories have ricocheted around social media sites, on cable television, in the Twitterverse and in chat rooms. Debates about whether such attacks are sexist followed, along with defensive responses from reporters doubling down on their earlier charges. Bernie Sanders screams. The late John McCain had a notoriously short fuse. Barney Frank was no picnic to work either, nor, for that matter, was priest and anti-Vietnam War Congressman Bob Drinan. But their behavior did not become their personal brands or the leads in network coverage.
So what should we make of the reports that claim Klobuchar is one of the worst bosses in Congress? LegiStorm.com annually calculates a “weighted staff turnover index” to compare rates of full-time congressional staff departures. It makes no distinction of why a staffer leaves: moving to a different congressional or campaign payroll or advancing to a better job, all with his or her boss’s support, counts as turnover. So do departures prompted by uncontrolled anger, sexual abuse or unethical behavior. It’s only a gross turnover index. Out of sloth, ignorance or malice, the compilation is treated as a definitive “worst boss” in Congress list. Covering FY 2001-2017, Klobuchar ranked third and in FY 2018 she dropped to fourth- not first as some reports claimed. It’s worth noting that a disproportionate number of the top ten are female.
The New York Times buttressed its misuse of the LegiStorm ranking with an unscientific sampling of complaints from “more than two dozen” former staffers. I don’t countenance abusive behavior, but from years covering national politics up close I do understand how demanding congressional and presidential bosses can be and how difficult it is for their largely young, poorly paid staffs to maintain any semblance of reasonable work-life balance. (It’s why you do it when you’re young.) I wonder how many of Klobuchar’s unnamed outraged critics are millennials, shielded by trigger warnings and helicopter parents. Work on the Hill is a hard-driving environment, not unlike some other sectors (television, for example), where young adults can’t rely on insulation from micro-aggressions.
In last week’s CNN town hall discussion, Klobuchar admitted she was a “tough boss” who “asks too much of my staff sometimes.” On Sunday, 61 of her former staffers, “grateful” for their time in her office, signed an open letter defending her as a “mentor and friend” who “pushed” them to be “better professionals.” They noted that their positive stories, many shared with Times and other media, have not been “fully reported.”
At that same CNN town hall, Klobuchar made clear that while she stands with the Democratic agenda, she sees some of its positions, such as Medicare for All, free college tuition and the Green New Deal as aspirational rather than a pragmatic blueprint for action now. Of the candidates running, she’s more a moderate than progressive, more center left than hard left. Unlikely to raise the rafters with soaring rhetoric, she believes in compromise and incremental practical change.
Polling indicates Democrats want a candidate who can beat Trump more than one who is the purest distillation of their policy ideals. Klobuchar is more likely to do well with general election independents and suburban Republicans, the ones who fueled Democratic success in 2018, than with the true believers who usually dominate primary voting. Hers is a voice that should be heard. No one should try to run her out of the race because of anonymous and possibly exaggerated charges that she was mean to staff.
Klobuchar’s protean challenge will be next year’s Iowa caucuses. The outcome is likely to make or break her candidacy. Her biggest obstacle until then may be a Joe Biden entry to the 2020 race. The media should put the eating-salad-with-a-comb anecdote – which I think could be a clever solution – in the rear view mirror.
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