The Democrats Can Do Better than Amy Klobuchar

In May 2010, I wrote a piece about the uninspiring choice Pennsylvania progressives were facing as they tried to decide who they should support as their nominee for U.S. Senate. On one side, there was their longtime nemesis, Arlen Specter, who had defected from the GOP and was endorsed by Barack Obama. On the other side was Rep. Joe Sestak, a retired admiral who embraced the netroots community but who was increasingly known by political insiders to be a tyrannical and abusive boss. In the following excerpt, I explained my personal experiences with Sestak and why I found him so hard to support. I bring this up now to demonstrate that anything I might say about how Sen. Amy Klobuchar treats her staff should not be interpreted as some double standard that I apply to women but would never apply to a man.

This ambivalence is actually a pretty good reflection of how progressives are approaching this race here in Pennsylvania. There’s very little love on the left for Arlen Specter. But nearly half the activists I know are at least considering voting for him (including some of his most vituperative critics). That might be incomprehensible to people who live outside the state, but it has a lot to do with unease people have with Sestak.

Rather than try to characterize a visceral feeling in others, I will describe my own. I first encountered Sestak at the inaugural Yearly Kos¬†convention in Las Vegas. The first thing that struck me was his soft voice and supremely calm demeanor. It was the exact opposite of what I expected from an admiral. It didn’t compute for me, and it made it hard for me trust him. It reminded me of the Serenity Now episode of Seinfeld. You know? Serenity now, insanity later. In other words, Sestak’s calm seemed like a forced effort to hide a volcanic temper. That was back when Sestak was merely a candidate for office. Once in office, he immediately began abusing his staff by making them work ridiculous hours at about the lowest pay-rate on Capitol Hill. It didn’t take me long to hear about it. He went through five press secretaries and a couple of chiefs of staff in his first year. I felt that my first impression of Sestak had been correct. He campaigns like he’s Mr. Rogers but behind the scenes he’s real son-of-a-bitch hard-ass. I don’t trust people like that, and a lot of people here feel the same way.

My first impression of Amy Klobuchar was much different than my first impression of Joe Sestak. I found him odd and disconcerting, whereas Klobuchar struck me as kind, empathetic, and friendly. As I wrote nine years ago, I was not surprised to learn that Sestak was privately much different from the image he projected in public. With Senator Klobuchar, I confess that I was shocked to see the severity of this distinction.

For clarity, I concluded my Specter/Sestak piece by disclosing that I was too much of a Yellow Dog Democrat to seriously consider voting for Arlen Specter in a primary against an actual Democrat. However uncomfortable Sestak’s behavior made me feel, I still saw him as preferable to a person whose whole career had been dedicated to advancing the Republican Party’s priorities. What I really wanted back then was a third choice.

I’ve considered Klobuchar an intriguing politician for many years, and have long considered her as a potentially strong presidential candidate. The revelations about how she treats her staff have changed how I view her and also changed how I assess her prospects of winning the nomination or the presidency.

On a personal level, I care a lot about how powerful people treat their employees. On an analytical level, I think this cuts into Klobuchar’s strength in a fatal way. She was easily the most likable candidate in the field, and we all know that the most likable candidate almost always wins. That advantage is largely obliterated now, which leaves her competing with other candidates whose calling cards remain intact. Maybe she can rebrand as exactly the tough S.O.B the party needs to take on the Republicans, but that’s going to require a total makeover of her image.

That might work in a two-way race against a former Republican, but there are now about thirty Democrats running for the nomination. It’s relatively easy to discard the abusive boss and look for other options.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.