No, Democrats, the Likability Question Isn't Sexist

No, Democrats, the Likability Question Isn't Sexist
AP Photo/Michael Dwyer
No, Democrats, the Likability Question Isn't Sexist
AP Photo/Michael Dwyer
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We’ve learned from President Trump’s intentional weaponization of outrage that if everything is a four-alarm fire, nothing is a four-alarm fire. Democrats must wrestle with this riddle as several women vie for their party’s presidential nomination next year and charges of sexism fly around as frequently as presidential tweetstorms.

Already Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s announcement of her exploratory committee has ignited a discussion about whether it’s worse -- sexist -- to point out that a woman may not be likable enough to win, than it is to say this of men. Pundits took issue with a piece Politico ran titled “Warren Battles the Ghosts of Hillary,” asking whether Warren would be “written off as too unlikable before her campaign gets off the ground.”

Those pushing back insist this is simply blanket discomfort with women leaders, having nothing to do with individual personality or character. “Many of these voters are people who esteem themselves to be feminists or otherwise free of bias, but who will nevertheless find themselves uncomfortable with a woman in power, unable to articulate what it is that bothers them about Elizabeth Warren -- except for a vague sense that they just don't like her,” Moira Donegan wrote in a Guardian piece titled “The issue with Elizabeth Warren isn’t likability. It’s sexism.”

After a loss by Hillary Clinton in 2016 that stunned and devastated Democrats but didn’t surprise others more in touch with Clinton’s severe likability deficit, there is gnawing anxiety in the party revolving around what it takes to beat Donald Trump, whether the ticket must include a female and/or an African-American or Latino, and how female presidential candidates not named Clinton are perceived.

With Rep. Tulsi Gabbard jumping in, then Sens. Kamala Harris and Kirsten Gillibrand -- and possibly Sen. Amy Klobuchar or, who knows, maybe Oprah -- this debate should be settled in short order. The party’s nominating process, according to Democratic Party insiders who acknowledge that significant divisions on trade and internationalism and spending will burst loudly into the open, is expected to go on nearly a year and a half, until May of next year. These dames could -- God forbid -- end up swiping at one another. People screaming “sexist” throughout will make it easy for others to dismiss truly sexist attacks.

And while it’s not nice to describe someone as unlikable, and it’s brutal to be the subject of this debate, that’s too bad. A run for president invites this discussion.  Debating likability itself is one thing -- but calling that debate sexist is another. If President Nixon could weigh in, he might agree that women could be called “sexist” for even raising the issue.  

Now that campaigns have moved off the backs of trains to an entirely different platform -- social media -- the likability question only looms larger. And Democrat seeking the attention of younger voters will have to live there, hang out online and be, you know, human. Senior citizens like Warren, or former Vice President Joe Biden, should he enter the race, aren’t exempt. Thus far the scenes from Warren’s kitchen are quite dull, but who knows if one day some post of her prepping peanut butter popcorn balls doesn’t catch fire.

The truth is Warren isn’t so likable. Her team is trying to poke fun at the issue, labeling a recent fundraising email “likability,” while the candidate ignores the question. Her full-time video team has been working since last year to capture the real Elizabeth and counter her image as a schoolmarm and a scold. But it clearly bothers her campaign. Warren’s biographer was quoted in the Politico story expressing frustration over all Warren has done right, as if that has anything to do with likability. “All of us are scratching our heads over why this is happening. She has a great operation, she’s very smart about it all,” Antonia Felix said. “She’s not just a viable candidate, she’s someone who can actually win. It’s like they’re throwing cold water on that.”

Warren has other problems, namely questions about her political judgment. Reporting from advisers close to Warren revealed late last year that she and her supporters knew her DNA video reveal, designed to counter Trump’s “Pocahontas” attacks, was a major flop. The timing not only angered Democrats, weeks before the midterm elections when they wanted to remain focused on a message about Trump and Republicans, but it angered Native Americans as well -- a debacle that delighted the president and the GOP.

Thus far Warren refuses to talk Trump in her trips through Iowa or in interviews. That’s smart, but it’s unlikely Warren would resist this temptation as a nominee. She jumped all over Trump in 2016 and appears not only to be vulnerable to battle blunders (like the DNA video) but to becoming less likable in war. Take, for example, her recent attack on former Rep. Trey Gowdy. “@TGowdySC foamed at the mouth with power in Congress, then retired because he claimed he didn't enjoy it. Now it’s clear: Trey Gowdy just wanted a fat lobbyist paycheck. That should be illegal,” Warren tweeted the day after he left Congress. Gowdy responded: “@ewarren I’m not lobbying. Not now. Or ever. Perhaps you were cracking open a beer when that was announced. Don’t mind your criticisms. Just be sensitive to facts.” Not well played, Liz.

What Warren clearly has going for here is her own “lane,” in presidential campaign parlance, where she will stand out in the overflow crowd of 2020 Democrats as a distinct populist voice on the issues of rising economic inequality. It’s hard to argue anyone has better consumer protection chops than Warren, even if she is a former Republican who once championed the free market. She brings the credibility of an expert able to break down complex financial issues, telling voters that all of Washington is “beholden” to the large corporations that President Trump is prioritizing over workers.

And no matter how many beers (Michelob Ultra, what she calls “the club soda of beers”) Warren chugs on Instagram it may not matter that no one wants to have a beer with her. Likability doesn’t always make the sale anyway. Trump isn’t likable, and absent her server scandal Clinton may have prevailed despite being roundly disliked. No one has taken more incoming hits in this department than Sen. Ted Cruz, who just won re-election. Sen. Bernie Sanders is a curmudgeon who took off as a candidate anyway. Sen. Mitch McConnell, in public, is one of the least likable politicians in the country and it has never stopped him.

No matter who prevails, the women in the race for the Democratic nomination should make it clear they are tough enough to take the questions the men who came before them always have faced.

A.B. Stoddard is associate editor of RealClearPolitics and a columnist. 

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