Monica Hesse: You like Amy Klobuchar now? Remember that when your inner sexist starts doubting her
Summary: It's an exhausting Mobius strip of election cycles that we like women when they're in office but find them unlikable when they're running for a higher office. Studies have shown that voters exhibit gender bias in presidential elections more than in senatorial or congressional contests.
A gentle warning to Democrats who are newly awakened to the prospect of Amy Klobuchar:
Remember that right now you like her.
The U.S. senator from Minnesota had a surprisingly strong third-place finish in Tuesday's New Hampshire primaries, and suddenly voters and pundits lifted their weary heads and declared that maybe a woman did have a shot at winning the election, after all — just not any of the women they'd been paying attention to.
Amy. Amy was the one they'd been waiting for. Amy was the right mix of tough and empathetic, savvy and fresh. ("She finds a way to care," pundited Chris Matthews on MSNBC.)
A woman but not, you know, the Elizabeth Warren kind of woman everyone had decided they didn't like or couldn't win. ("Her tone/posture isn't presidential," pundited someone on Twitter, referring to Warren.) An electable woman. Acceptable to the assorted Biden castoffs and Buttigieg skeptics. ("Help me choose you," that same Twitter person beseeched Klobuchar, dipping a toe in the wave of Klomentum.)
When Nevada rolls around in a little over a week, followed by South Carolina and the rest of this hideous electoral slog, remember this feeling of liking her.
I mention this because there was a time when Elizabeth Warren's tone and posture were, in fact, widely seen as presidential. It was 2016. It was when liberal voters were saying they'd be happy to vote for a woman, just not Hillary Clinton. Hillary Clinton was too shrill, too conniving. Ugh, her voice. If only Warren was running, they said. They liked Warren. They'd vote for Warren.
There was also a time when liberal voters were saying they'd be happy to vote for Hillary Clinton. She had a 65 percent approval rating as secretary of state. Hillary Clinton checking her BlackBerry in sunglasses, Hillary Clinton unflappably testifying at the Benghazi hearings — if only she could be our next president.
Kamala Harris seemed very presidential to voters when she was grilling Brett Kavanaugh at his Supreme Court confirmation hearings. If only she were on the ballot! But then she put herself on the ballot, and, never mind, it turned out she was also, somehow, deeply flawed. So was Kirsten Gillibrand, whom some had admired for encouraging Sen. Al Franken to resign until it turned out they hated that she'd encouraged Al Franken to resign. "You're seen as pretty likable," a reporter declared on the first day of Gillibrand's campaign, and three months later the Federalist — a right-wing publication, to be fair — ran an an op-ed titled, "No one likes you, Kirsten Gillibrand."
Ugh, her voice.
Remember there was a time, mid-February of 2020, when if you'd decided Bernie Sanders was too radical and Pete Buttigieg was too untested, Amy Klobuchar seemed like a perfectly likable choice to be the Democratic Party nominee.
Remember that you didn't mind her mom jokes, or her trying-too-hard rally refrain of "I have the receipts!" Remember that her bangs had wobbled at a debate once, and that was fine — you'd made a benign joke and then moved on.
Remember that there were stories about her being a hard person to work for, but you knew those stories already when you decided you liked her. You knew that she allegedly once threw a binder, striking a staffer by accident. You knew that she'd allegedly once yelled at a staffer who forgot a salad fork and that she then proceeded to eat the salad with a hair comb. You knew this, and then you made the reasoned, calculated decision that these acts were not disqualifying.
It's an exhausting Mobius strip of election cycles that we like women when they're in office but find them unlikable when they're running for a higher office. Studies have shown that voters exhibit gender bias in presidential elections more than in senatorial or congressional contests. Studies have shown that while likability is optional for male candidates — we'll elect crusty curmudgeons if we believe in their policies — it is a requirement for female candidates. Studies have shown that Americans say they'll vote for a woman, but are still influenced by gender stereotypes even when they think they're not.
It's possible, of course, that Amy Klobuchar is just not your candidate, for reasons that have nothing to do with gender. You find her too moderate, or you have a phobia of the Midwestern hot dish.
But there is also a possibility that sometime in the future, if she appears more on your television screen, if she continues to gain in the polls, you might find yourself thinking negatively about her, in the ways we specifically think negatively about female candidates. For reasons you cannot explain, Amy Klobuchar will suddenly remind you of your mother-in-law or your ex-wife. It will feel like she's lecturing to you. It will feel like she's talking too much.
You'll think it has nothing to do with her being a woman. It will have everything to do with her being a woman.
When and if that happens, remember back to now. Remember that you liked her.
Monica Hesse is a columnist for The Washington Post's Style section and author of "American Fire."