Last weekend, the New York Times editorial board shocked everyone and endorsed The Ladies 2020—picking both Elizabeth Warren (the “radical”) and Amy Klobuchar (a sort of backup “realist” choice) in the Democratic presidential primary, in which they felt required to offer a multiplatform intervention. It was a farce—a tiresome exercise mainly constructed for the purpose of reminding everyone that the Times has a television show. It is not worth spilling any more ink on the stupidity of picking two candidates at all, let alone two candidates who appear to offer dramatically different visions for how American politics should proceed. But it is worth wondering how the paper of record’s half-endorsement of Amy Klobuchar became necessary. After all, she is a candidate who, as the paper admitted, has “struggled to gain traction on the campaign trail.” Or, as I might put it, is not going to win the primary.
Despite Klobuchar’s consistent position just outside the top tier of candidates, pundits cannot get enough of her. She satisfies every self-evident truth in the pundit bible about what Americans want. Most importantly, she is Midwestern. But she is also this field’s queen of Tellin’ It Like It Is—by which they mean being outspoken about what Beltway elites consider to be objective truths about the limits of political possibility in policymaking.
Pundit after pundit insists that she is funny. Every single debate has led to effusive praise for Klobuchar’s performance, with the December debate sparking stories about her “surge” in polling. (She polls around the high single digits in Iowa and recently scored a shocking 2 percent in a New Hampshire poll.) In January, the Times’ David Leonhardt described Klobuchar as “comfortably electable,” the sort of Democrat who “knows how to persuade voters who are different from her that she respects them,” with “a track record of winning the sorts of swing voters Democrats will likely need this year.” Jennifer Rubin gushed about Klobuchar providing “the Goldilocks solution for many undecided voters,” and previously argued that she “adeptly measures progressivism by results” with an “unmistakably on-target” message. It is always a good sign when such effusive praise for a Democrat comes from a conservative.
Despite all this attention, the Punditworld praise of Amy Klobuchar almost universally fails to reckon with one of the most significant stories of her candidacy: her reported abuse of her Senate staff. Though the Times board wrote that reports about Klobuchar’s treatment of her staff gave them “pause,” they framed the story as merely raising “questions about her ability to attract and hire talented people.” In this telling, treating your staff poorly is acceptable as long as it doesn’t impact your ability to hire the most sought-after consultants and wonks. This problem is simply a management issue, not a moral scandal; it invites no condemnation of the actual behavior, only its potential consequences. Leonhardt referenced it in oblique terms while comparing Klobuchar to Harry Truman, saying the “analogy extends to Klobuchar’s best-known weakness: Truman had a temper, too.”
What does it say about our pundit class that the story of Amy Klobuchar’s abusiveness is relegated to a story of campaign intrigue at best, or goes unmentioned at worst? It can partly be explained by timing: The story was only reported after Klobuchar began running for president. But then we have to wonder why this news was so late in arriving. Washington political reporters undoubtedly knew the rumors of Klobuchar’s behavior for years and failed to report them.
I was introduced to these rumors in 2018, at which point I started trying to report them out. I was, ultimately, unable to land the story (it was eventually broken by The Huffington Post’s Molly Redden and Amanda Terkel), but in the course of my own reporting I came to learn just how widespread these unreported rumors were. It was one of those things that Everyone Knew and yet (or, therefore) had never made it into print. This could be an example of the Beltway press’s characteristic understanding that “everyone” actually means “everyone who attends the same parties as me.” Everyone knows that the Senate is a tough place to work and some bosses are tougher than others; everyone knows that one particularly bad boss isn’t a story until the boss applies for the top job.
The closest we got to any sort of public reporting of the allegations before Klobuchar entered the 2020 presidential race resided within one paragraph in the Times in November 2018—in an article about her prospective presidential run:
“On Capitol Hill, Ms. Klobuchar’s reputation is not all sweetness and light; she is said to be brutal to work for. A survey of senators by the website LegiStorm found that from 2001 to 2016, her office had the highest turnover, which earned her a prominent mention in a Politico article headlined “The ‘Worst Bosses’ in Congress?” (By 2017, two colleagues — John Kennedy of Louisiana and Chris Van Hollen of Maryland — had surpassed her.)
She acknowledged that she is demanding: ‘I have high expectations.’”
It is an indictment of the Capitol Hill press corps’ teeming inadequacies that this was not treated as a story until Klobuchar ran for the nation’s highest office, to say nothing of the way the news was greeted by those journalists when it finally came to the attention of the public—as a story of presidential campaign politics, where the only question was whether it would hamper her electoral prospects. (This is, of course, something that media coverage could only ever reflect, and not shape through its choices of what to cover and how.) Equally disappointing was the facile and reductive argument put up by certain Klobuchar defenders that the criticism was merely a sexist double standard that would never apply to men—and therefore what? The story shouldn’t be reported? We should celebrate Klobuchar allegedly throwing things at her staff because she’s a girlboss?
It seems horribly plausible that for years, the Beltway press simply did not think it was that important if some Hill staffers got office supplies lobbed at their head. This can be explained in several ways.
There is an argument that often bubbles up when anyone talks about unions, paying interns, or generally treating workers better; a sort of grim Boomer mantra: Well, I had to suffer through it, so everyone else should. Most of the elite opinion-forming class are older, or at least further along in their careers; they are closer in professional status to a management figure than they are to a low-level Hill staffer working 60-hour weeks for $33,000 a year. They are more likely to be angry at an intern than under the thumb of an oppressive boss; and if they ever were that intern, nostalgia and the brain damage of years in Washington are likely to color their memories of that experience as The Best Years of their Lives.
Hill staffers, even the lowest paid, also do not present themselves as the most sympathetic assortment of people in the world. Certainly, they are neither the most oppressed nor immiserated people in Washington. Many of them are the shitty bosses of the future. Not a few of them are the children of privilege—though they hate to hear it—with their meager salaries rendered less burdensome by regular infusions of cash from well-to-do parents. But it is hard not to imagine that the staffers most likely to be chewed up and spit out of politics by a toxic work environment might be those whose finances or lack of personal connections make their grip on their place in Washington more tenuous. (This is especially important considering Klobuchar is reported to have sabotaged job offers for those who tried to leave her office.)
Our politics might be a lot better if Congress were not such an awful place to work; there are fewer staff overall, earning lower pay, with not as many years of expertise as in the past. The unpaid internships and years of low-paid service required to get ahead in the congressional staff corps leads to a glut of rich kids. Without making Congress a more decent place to work, it is going to tend to attract only the most ambitious and affluent psychopaths—as opposed to well-meaning strivers who, themselves well-versed in what it’s like to live with the dread of income inequality or the inadequacies of our health care system, are gripped with the urgent need to step in and offer their help.
It is much easier to cope with a terrible boss if you can go home to your own apartment, not a dingy group house with bedbugs, or partake in the occasional nice dinner out, instead of stealing your roommate’s Chipotle leftovers. If members of Congress are abusing their staff, this matters—not just as a campaign issue and not because we should feel especially bad for congressional staff—but because it contributes to the overall decay of our legislative body and is morally wrong. If there are other Amy Klobuchars out there, and there undoubtedly are, they ought to be exposed.
One would hope that Democratic primary voters would want to know if one of their prospective presidential candidates is a bad steward to their underlings. Obviously, this sort of behavior speaks to such a candidate’s temperament and judgment. But the Democratic Party likes to style itself as the “party of the little guy”—the party of voters who are more likely to be able to speak to what it’s like to have done time at a bad job under the thumb of an abusive manager. Moreover, in the Trump era, legacy media organizations, the Times among them, have become particularly consumed with the lives of America’s white working class and plumbing the depths of their attitudes and experiences, when it suits their narrative. If any of this soul-searching is at all sincere, it should at least inspire these gatekeepers to do a little introspection about Washington’s nightmare boss before they proclaim her their dream candidate.