American Idols

“Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio? A nation turns its lonely eyes to you. Woo woo woo.”

In a strong field, that may well be the finest lyric Paul Simon has ever written—and for reasons that have nothing at all to do with the late former Mr. Marilyn Monroe.

Americans need their heroes—be they in sports, entertainment or maybe even politics—and they feel acutely vulnerable and adrift when those idols seem to vanish from the scene. This is particularly true in times of extraordinary distress and upheaval, such as (to pick a random example) a global public health emergency, when inspiring moral leadership is so urgently required.

For liberals who’ve been trapped in an existential funk since November 2016, one such hero is of course Barack Obama, the last U.S. president to exhibit any sort of compassion for his fellow human beings, who, unlike his wife, has made himself relatively scarce since exiting the White House more than three years ago.

That was until last weekend, when Obama made highly-anticipated dual virtual appearances before college and high school graduating classes of 2020—the latter televised in prime time—during which he intoned, “More than anything, this pandemic has fully, finally torn back the curtain on the idea that so many of the folks in charge know what they’re doing. A lot of them aren’t even pretending to be in charge.” The speeches did not include the word “Trump,” but we’re not stupid.

Whether by accident or design, these commencement addresses came on the heels of “leaked” remarks by the former president in a “private” conference call that saw him loudly and explicitly castigating the current administration both for its abysmal response to the coronavirus outbreak and its corrupt handling of the Michael Flynn case—words so forceful that Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, responded, “I think President Obama should have kept his mouth shut.”

As a matter of political timing, Obama’s sort-of reentry into the cultural bloodstream is quite obviously related to the sort-of beginning of the 2020 presidential campaign, and the presumed crowning of Obama’s former wingman, Joe Biden, as the Democratic Party nominee. And certainly the party’s de facto standard-bearer has every right to publicly advocate for his hoped-for inheritor and the values he represents.

Beyond that, however, we, the people, have every reason to question whether McConnell had a point. That is, whether Obama’s broader commentary on the Trump administration is either wise or becoming of a member of the nation’s most exclusive club—namely, those who once had access to the nuclear codes and enjoy Secret Service protection to this day.

Indeed, the question of how ex-presidents should behave in retirement has been a matter of debate since March 1801, when John Adams opted to flee Washington, D.C., on horseback in the dead of night rather than attend the inauguration of Thomas Jefferson the following morning. In our own time—as with virtually everything else—the issue has broken along partisan lines, with Democrats like Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton maintaining high profiles and busy schedules deep into their post-presidential years while Republicans like the Georges Bush have made a point of receding serenely into the background, content to have their records speak for themselves and their successors left to run the country in peace.

Old fogey-at-heart that I am, I’ve long had a soft spot for the latter approach to elder statesmanship, admiring of the discipline it must take not to gloat at everything the new guy is doing wrong.

In fact, Obama himself vowed to mostly adhere to the hands-off approach to ex-presidenting, telling reporters in January 2017 that, once Trump took office, he would refrain from open criticism except for “certain moments where I think our core values may be at stake.” In retrospect, considering the object of his prospective ire, perhaps that was Obama’s dry way of saying he had no intention of keeping his mouth shut and should not be expected to do so.

The real problem, in any case, is that Donald Trump is such a singularly appalling individual that remaining silent on his odious reign could reasonably be seen as a dereliction of duty for any self-respecting public figure—particularly one so devoted to appealing to the so-called “better angels of our nature.” In other words, the sheer awfulness of Trumpism—even compared to that of, say, George W. Bush—is sufficient to override the usual protocols of discretion among past presidents. These are not ordinary times, and it would be disingenuous to pretend otherwise.

But here’s the thing: Part of the job of statesmanship is to be disingenuous every now and again for the sake of preserving the national fabric. Whatever one might think about Donald Trump, he is the duly-elected leader of our country for at least another eight months and maintains unshakable popularity among a not-insignificant chunk of our fellow citizens. As a head of state, he is entitled to a baseline deference that reflects the majesty of the office he holds, which transcends the character of whoever happens to hold it at a given moment in time.

When a retiring president passes the baton to his immediate successor, he is conferring legitimacy upon the most important public job in the United States—a hand-off in a constitutional relay race that has continued uninterrupted since George Washington peacefully ceded power to John Adams on March 4, 1797.

By then turning around and glibly musing to the nation’s schoolchildren that the sitting commander-in-chief has no Earthly idea what he’s doing, he risks ever-so-slightly chipping away at that legitimacy, rhetorically lowering the presidency to just one more partisan player in a vulgar federal political food fight, rather than the figurehead of the greatest republic the world has ever seen.

I say this in the full knowledge that Obama’s characterization of the Trump White House as a raging dumpster fire of incompetence is objectively, obviously correct. Nor am I under any illusion that the courtesy I am asking of Obama for Trump was ever extended to Obama himself at any point during his eight-year stint in the Oval Office. In effect, I am demanding a double standard whereby when the Republicans go low, the Democrats go high—a strategy that never seems to bear much fruit in the long run, however noble it may sound.

The plain truth is that there will be no good answer to this question until we have a new commander-in-chief. That the catchphrase of erstwhile conservative Rick Wilson, “Everything Trump touches dies,” extends to the presidency itself. That Trump is the exception to every rule, but once he’s gone, maybe we can return to life as it used to be, almost as if he never existed in the first place. Maybe.

In the meantime, with a pandemic raging and an economy cratering, the nation must turn its lonely eyes to someone, and while Joe DiMaggio is no longer available, I can think of at least one other Joe who is.

Sloppy Joe

If a sexual assault allegation against Joe Biden falls in the New York Times and no one reads it, will it stop Biden from being elected president in November?

On April 12, while America was understandably preoccupied with other matters, the Times printed the account of a woman named Tara Reade, who claims that in 1993, while working as a staffer in Biden’s Senate office, the future vice president—and now-presumptive Democratic presidential nominee—“pinned [Reade] to a wall in a Senate building, reached under her clothing and penetrated her with his fingers.”

Reade first publicly accused Biden of untoward behavior last year, when more than a half—dozen women recounted a panoply of inappropriate touching, hugging and kissing Biden had engaged in over the course of his career—some of it right out in the open—in anticipation of Biden’s entry into the 2020 Democratic primary. Reade’s own accusation at the time entailed unwelcome physical contact such as neck-stroking and hair-grabbing, but not sexual assault. When asked why she waited until now to lay her most serious charge, Reade said she was afraid following “a wave of criticism and death threats” in response to her initial disclosures.

The Times reporting found that Reade mentioned the alleged assault to several people shortly after it occurred, but also that neither the Senate nor Biden’s office has any record of a formal complaint Reade claims to have filed at the time. Biden himself, through a spokesperson, has denied the incident ever took place.

And so here we are, forced to regard Joe Biden as we have previously regarded the likes of Brett Kavanaugh, Woody Allen, Donald Trump and every other public man whose alleged past sins (i.e., crimes) have been brought to light at a moment when the truth about what happened in the past has a singular power over what happens in the future.

As with Christine Blasey Ford during the Kavanaugh hearings, one of three things must be true. One, Reade is a liar. Two, she has a severely distorted memory. Or three, Joe Biden is a sex offender. And as with so many other chapters of the #MeToo story, with no definitive proof on either side, it’s up to each of us individually to decide which party to believe—him or her—and to act accordingly.

What makes the Biden case different—and arguably the most high-stakes iteration of the #MeToo era to date—is that how Americans judge Reade’s claim may well determine the outcome of the 2020 election—and, by extension, every action by the federal government through at least January 20, 2025. At this point, it would be political malpractice for the Democratic Party to blithely assume otherwise.

The potential trajectory of this electoral powder keg is not difficult to game out: Reade sticks to her story. Trump and/or his backers believe her loudly and unconditionally, seizing on the allegation as a 10,000-ton albatross to sling around Biden’s neck 24 hours a day. A not-insignificant number of left-leaning independents—and maybe even a few Democrats—decide they cannot in good conscience vote for someone credibly accused of sexual assault, and ultimately leave their ballots blank, bequeathing a second term to one Donald J. Trump.

Don’t tell me this can’t happen. Don’t tell me a presidential election cannot be swung by the 27-year-old recollections of a heretofore anonymous former Senate aide. Don’t tell me there isn’t a sizeable chunk of the electorate who might otherwise vote for Biden—despite his known flaws—but will think twice when presented with as explosive an accusation as Reade has now presented. Don’t tell me that, when faced with the ultimate hypothetical—If you knew, for a fact, that Biden had once committed sexual assault, would you vote for him anyway?—even the most loyal Democrats would not give themselves at least a moment or two of pause.

And whatever you do, don’t tell me that because Donald Trump has been accused—indeed, has admitted to—behavior that is demonstrably worse than anything ever said about Biden, there is no moral compromise to be made in choosing the latter over the former.

Sorry, folks. It turns out that, in 2020, life is not going to be that simple.

Barring a sudden confession from Reade that she made the whole thing up, every Biden supporter in America—most of whom, one presumes, have been cheering on the #MeToo movement for the last two-and-a-half years—will be forced to reckon with the fact that on November 3, they will be voting for a man who has been credibly accused of sexual assault, and that the only true rationalization for this decision—the alternative would be worse—is a rationalization all the same.

Liberals have spent the past four years excoriating conservatives for supporting a president whose very existence is an affront to nearly all of their so-called principles—honor, dignity, family values—but whose promises of tax cuts and a right-wing judiciary made the tradeoff both justified and unavoidable in their own minds.

Is that not the moral bargain that today’s liberals will now need to make about Joe Biden? Will the never-Trump crowd not be spending the next six months talking themselves into the idea that one sexual assault is a fair price to pay for universal healthcare and debt-free college education? And given the essentially binary nature of U.S. presidential elections, will they not, in some horrid sense, be correct?

St. Mark asked, For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?  I guess we’re about to find out.

Then There Were Two

I don’t know which candidate is the most electable. I don’t know which one would make the better president. I don’t know which one I like more.

Like Cosmo in “Moonstruck,” I don’t know where I’ve been, and I don’t know where I’m going.

Having spent my Super Tuesday voting for Elizabeth Warren—an act of such earthshattering import that she dropped out 36 hours later—I am now left with Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders as the only remaining contenders for the Democratic Party nomination in 2020. And much to my surprise, I find myself in an uncomfortable state of uncertainty about which of those candidates to root for.

I’ve happily voted for both men before: Biden for vice president in 2008 and 2012, and Sanders in the presidential primary in 2016. While I couldn’t quite bring myself to fill in the oval for either of them last week—not Sanders because of his repulsive cult following, not Biden because of his evident cognitive decline—I nonetheless retain great affection for both and, given the alternative, would be entirely comfortable with either as the next leader of the free world.

Accordingly, like the New York Times editorial board earlier in the year, faced with a stark ideological divide between two equally-pitched factions within the Democratic Party, I have decided to come down firmly on both sides. In the battle of ideas between these two feisty septuagenarians and their most rabid fellow travelers, I will stay neutral between now and the convention in July.

Partly, this is out of sheer exhaustion with the whole process. After more than a year of comparison shopping my way through the dozens of would-be challengers to Donald Trump, I have long resigned myself to the fact that the party’s eventual nominee will be a highly imperfect vessel for the values of the American left (such as they are) and that defeating Trump in November will be a monumentally difficult task regardless of who that nominee is.

To my thinking, any Democratic voter who believes his or her preferred candidate is a sure bet in November is necessarily living in a fantasy world, which makes it all the more striking that the respective cores of the Biden and Sanders campaigns have so fully convinced themselves of their own infallibility. Indeed, if there is one thing about which partisans of both would-be standard-bearers agree (albeit with varying intensity), it’s that their own guy is the republic’s One True Savior, while their counterpart is the second coming of George McGovern, fated not just to lose, but to lose in crushing, spectacular fashion.

On the night of November 3, one of those assertions will be proved correct, while the other will remain a mystery forever. Until then, this whole “electability” argument will function as the parlor game that it has always been—unknown and unknowable until it’s too late.

As for the real argument in this contest—the one that asks, “How far to the left is the Democratic Party prepared to go?”—well, that exhausts me, too. While there is simply no way around the fact that Biden and Sanders represent two distinct visions of liberalism and the role of government in our highly unequal and disjointed society, I am as wary as ever that the upcoming three-month intraparty war to resolve that question will ultimately drive a portion of Sanders loyalists into the arms of Donald Trump—or some third party candidate-to-be-named-later—believing, as many of them already do, that in the grand scheme of things, Biden is a fate worse than Trump.

My own view is that Sanders is correct in believing that the wealthiest nation on Earth should be providing more services to (and collecting higher taxes from) its citizens than it currently does, but that Biden—whose own philosophy is similar, if watered-down—better understands how to wield the levers of power to bring that kind of bright, equitable future about.

While it would be nice for Sanders to possess more executive experience and for Biden to harbor more socialistic views, you can’t have everything you want all of the time. Someday Democratic Party voters will understand that. Until they do, they will continue to tear themselves apart, ensuring a photo-finish result on Election Night 2020.

But not to worry: Only the fate of the House, the Senate, the Supreme Court and all of Western civilization hangs in the balance.

The Professor

The first time I ever saw Elizabeth Warren—or at least the first time she ever made a real impression on me—was in a two-minute amateur YouTube video from 2011, recorded at a Massachusetts house party in anticipation of Warren’s first run for the Senate.

In the clip, the then-Harvard Law professor and architect of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau railed against the national debt accrued during the Bush administration through such unnecessary expenditures as tax cuts and the Iraq War, before offering up her own vision for how the American economy should function.

“There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own,” Warren intoned. “You built a factory out there—good for you. But I want to be clear: You moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate. You were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn’t have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory […] because of the work the rest of us did.”

“Now look,” she concluded, as only she could, “You built a factory and it turned into something terrific […] God bless. Keep a big hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is, you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.”

Here, in embryonic form, was the Warren Doctrine in a nutshell. Here, indeed, was the entirety of Democratic Party economic orthodoxy distilled to its purest essence—namely, that American society is an ongoing give-and-take between individual enterprise and collective responsibility. That everyone must pay his or her fair share to participate in our capitalist system. That even in a nation as large, diverse and complicated as ours—however powerful and enduring the myth of the rugged individual might be—we are nonetheless bound by common ideals and a commonweal. In the words of David McCullough—biographer of no less than Teddy Roosevelt—“There is no such thing as a self-made man or woman.”

For all the ideological firepower baked into this worldview, Warren’s 2012 challenge to Senator Scott Brown was no sure thing. Having shocked the world in 2010 by winning a special Senate election to succeed the late Ted Kennedy, Brown—a genial, moderate Republican who wore a bomber jacket and drove a pick-up truck—remained a popular figure in this supposed bastion of liberalism, while Warren had attracted a fair share of notoriety for her harsh rhetorical treatment of Wall Street executives in the aftermath of the 2008 meltdown and subsequent bailout.

Indeed, I briefly entertained the possibility of voting for Brown myself—largely out of gratitude for his vote to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” which Warren also praised—until it became plain just how much of an intellectual dynamo Warren truly was.

Throughout that race, Senator Brown made a point of referring to Warren as “Professor,” which many viewed as a subtle skewering of his challenger as an elitist, egg-headed know-it-all. I must say, I never quite got that impression myself. Considering that she was teaching law at Harvard at the time, the “Professor” moniker made perfect sense and, if anything, conferred more respect than merely addressing her as “Ms. Warren” or “my opponent.”

In any case, now-Senator Warren is very much an elitist, egg-headed know-it-all, and has never made the slightest effort to hide it. Prior to entering the public arena in the late 2000s, she spent virtually her entire adult life in academia, from which she accumulated an almost dizzying amount of expertise on matters highly relevant to both the Senate and the presidency—perhaps none more so than the ability to mount a sophisticated argument and express it in the form of a story that ordinary people can appreciate and understand.

In Warren’s case, those arguments almost invariably relate to how big banks, multinational corporations and the like are able to fleece millions of Americans of their hard-earned money without giving them any realistic means of fighting back. Hence the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which was specifically designed to empower citizens to assume control of their livelihoods without drowning in lawyers’ fees, exhaustion or despair.

Since joining the Senate and the presidential race, of course, Warren’s portfolio of policy proposals has expanded exponentially, and while the sheer volume of ideas she has offered on the trail over the past year is enough to give even the most diligent Democratic primary voter a migraine, in her telling they all flow organically from the lived experience of those—like her, at one point—who are teetering on the cusp of economic ruin and are in desperate need of relief from the only entity equipped to provide it: the federal government.

As such, her plan to soak the rich—specifically, to tax all wealth above $50 million—is a moral crusade as much as a means of generating revenue and balancing the budget. As she expressed in that video nearly a decade ago—and at regular intervals ever since—Americans have a shared stake in how this whole experiment in self-government shakes out, and it is to no one’s long-term benefit for 99 percent of the nation’s wealth to be held by just a handful of people, however industrious they might be. Non-billionaires ought to be able to buy a house, raise a family and occasionally eat out at a nice restaurant without going bankrupt, and the government has every incentive to ensure that this is so.

Elizabeth Warren believes in her bones that a more equitable society is both desirable and achievable, and while she is under no illusions that redistributing that wealth will be simple or without profound institutional friction, she will fight like hell to bring that society about. For all her faults, when faced with an enormous bureaucratic challenge, she does not—and will not—give up.

Speaking of her faults, they are manifold. Like so many high-profile academics before her, she is a little too sure of her own theories for how to solve the world’s problems and a little too dismissive of those who think differently. She is too quick to react to trolling by the likes of Donald Trump, as when she felt compelled to submit to a DNA test to establish her Native American bona fides following the whole “Pocahontas” kerfuffle last year. In her zeal to level the proverbial playing field, she is more openly contemptuous of the world’s financial fat cats than is strictly necessary, as though picking fights and making enemies were an end in and of itself. There is a fine line between a brawler and a bully, however just one’s cause might be.

But Warren’s cause is just—exuberantly so. It’s the cause of the common man and woman. It’s the cause of the underdog who’s been screwed over by the system for decades and is just looking for a square deal. It’s the cause of reforming institutions from within rather than blowing them up from without. It’s the cause of ensuring that every American has a fair shot at happiness and success, that his or her fate is not sealed at birth, and that not every outcome in life is determined by who has the most money.

With her tireless fervor, unmatched intelligence and uncompromising resolve in agitating for that cause, Elizabeth Warren has earned my vote. On Super Tuesday, she will get it.

I Don’t Like Mike

In a radio interview a few days before the New Hampshire primary, the conservative satirist P.J. O’Rourke—himself a Granite State resident—revealed that in 2016, after a lifetime of supporting Republicans, he walked into a voting booth and marked a ballot for Hillary Clinton. He did this neither happily nor particularly willingly, explaining, “I went in, I held my nose, I closed my eyes, I stuffed my ears with cotton and marked [Clinton] off because New Hampshire is a swing state and I just couldn’t do it.”

By “it,” O’Rourke meant voting for the nominee of his own party, on the grounds that that candidate, Donald Trump, was simply too beyond the pale as a human being to justify installing in the Oval Office and passing a bunch of Republican-friendly legislation.

In other words, faced with a pair of evils, O’Rourke chose the lesser of the two—even as the very thought of Hillary as the nation’s chief executive filled O’Rourke with a bottomless supply of nausea, dread and general ennui.

Now that Mike Bloomberg has ascended to the top ranks of the 2020 Democratic presidential primary field, I understand exactly how he felt.

From the very beginning of the 2020 campaign—really, since November 9, 2016—I have been in complete concordance with the majority of my fellow liberals in vowing to vote for the eventual Democratic nominee come hell or high water, on the grounds that the imperative of de-Trumpifying the executive branch must take precedence over every other consideration. More than ever, the perfect cannot be made the enemy of the not-completely-terrible.

And for virtually all of 2019, this tacit agreement went more or less without saying, insomuch as every last Democratic hopeful seemed, to varying degrees, like a perfectly palatable representative of the anti-Trump resistance in matters of both policy and character. While it was inevitable that not every liberal voter would be entirely satisfied with how the primary process ultimately shook out, there was real confidence—much more so than in 2016—that the sheer horror of four additional years of President Trump would shock the party electorate into putting their differences aside and falling in line behind a single candidate for the greater good of the republic.

If that nominee is Mike Bloomberg, all bets are off.

To be clear: Should the two names on the ballot on November 3 be Trump and Bloomberg, I will side with Bloomberg without a moment’s hesitation. Having lived in the New York metro area for a chunk of Bloomberg’s tenure as mayor, I have long admired and appreciated his relentless efforts to make America’s largest city greener, healthier and safer than ever before, even when questioning his means of doing so.

That said, in the years since he relinquished the reigns from the Second Hardest Job in America, Bloomberg’s personal and professional shortcomings have come into dramatically sharper focus—particularly the horrific impact of his baldly race-based approach to crime fighting known as “stop and frisk.”

Following Bloomberg’s debut performance at last week’s debate in Las Vegas—during which he pooh-poohed the myriad sexual harassment suits against him as bawdy jokes gone awry—it has become quite clear that the ninth richest man in the world is a fundamentally nasty and empathy-free windbag who regards the American presidency not as a prize to be won but as a commodity to be purchased. Elections? Strictly optional.

It begs the question: Even in a lesser-of-two-evils context, what exactly would we left-wingers be voting for here? With a President Bloomberg, which of Trump’s many vices would we actually be ridding ourselves of, and what new benefits would we be getting in return?

Sure, Trump is a racist pig, but is the architect and lead cheerleader of “stop and frisk” really that much of an improvement? Yes, Trump is a would-be authoritarian who delights in delegitimizing the free press, but is it any less troubling that Bloomberg literally owns a major news organization and has forbidden it from investigating him for as long as his campaign—and, in theory, his presidency—lasts? (As Bloomberg charmingly explained, “I don’t want the reporters I’m paying to write a bad story about me.”) And certainly, Trump’s record of mistreating women is singularly revolting, but Bloomberg’s binders of NDAs with female underlings doesn’t quite cry “change we can believe in,” does it?

I know, I know: Having ruled over a city of eight million people for 12 years constitutes an infinitely more appropriate dry run for the presidency than hosting a TV show or bankrupting multiple casinos. And when push comes to shove, Bloomberg really does take major crises like climate change and gun control seriously and presumably has the gumption to ram legislation through even the most obstinate Congress.

The question is: How many moral compromises are liberals prepared to make in the mere hope that, if elected, Bloomberg will deliver the goods on a handful of pet issues, transformative though they might be? How much rationalizing and whataboutism will be required to convince ourselves that an arrogant, sexist, aristocratic robber baron should be the face of both the Democratic Party and the nation at this particular moment in history?

Whatever the answer is, the calculation is eerily reminiscent of that made four years ago by conservatives, who were forced to ponder just how much Trumpian nonsense they were willing to endure for the sake of tax cuts and a right-wing judiciary. Some, like P.J. O’Rourke, decided the tradeoff simply wasn’t worth it. Most—then and now—looked the devil in the eye and signed on the dotted line.

Even against the devil himself, is this a road Democrats want any business walking down? After cycling through some two dozen possible alternatives over the past year, do we find that the anti-Trump party’s one true savior is a pompous, plutocratic misogynist who has contempt for the First Amendment and believes all problems can be solved with money?

Seems like a bad look to me, but then I’m not a Democrat, so what do I know?

The Lady of 10,000 Lakes

This week marks the one-year anniversary of the moment I knew I would never vote for Amy Klobuchar for president. To mark the occasion, I am—for the first time—entertaining the possibility that I should reconsider.

It was, indeed, late February 2019 when the New York Times published a story, “How Amy Klobuchar Treats Her Staff,” that featured an alarming number of horror stories by former minions of the senior senator from Minnesota—some named, some unnamed—portraying her as something of a petty tyrant in her Senate office, complete with a hot temper and a tendency to embarrass and demean those whom she feels are not living up to her harsh, exacting standards.

While the most memorable and amusing nugget from that article involved Klobuchar ordering an assistant to wash her comb after she used it to eat a salad on an airplane (the assistant had apparently misplaced the fork), the truly disturbing details concerned Klobuchar’s penchant for hurling office supplies in the general direction of aides who had pissed her off, as well as her obsessive preoccupation with her public image, for which she seemed to take little personal responsibility (“We are becoming a joke!”).

Whether these anecdotes are representative or exaggerated—the Times reporting included a fair share of compliments and warm memories as well—Klobuchar has, in fact, presided over one of the highest staff turnover rates in the Senate throughout her dozen-plus-year tenure. By definition, she is firing or otherwise driving out employees at a record clip relative to her colleagues, and it would be downright negligent for voters not to take this into account when ascertaining whether she is a proper fit for the highest office in the land.

When these whisperings first came to light—and the pundit pontificating that naturally followed—many questioned whether Klobuchar was the victim of a sexist double standard. That is, whether a male politician with a comparable personnel record would be treated more forgivingly, as though treating one’s employees like crap is attractive in a man but unseemly in a woman.

Personally, I find abuse of one’s subordinates repulsive in any context—particularly by someone running for president—and I fully subscribe to the behavioral rule of thumb that, as Dave Barry put it, “If someone is nice to you but rude to the waiter, they are not a nice person.”

Hence my previous skepticism toward Klobuchar, an outwardly genial and nonthreatening figure—her 2015 memoir is titled “The Senator Next Door”—whose affable exterior apparently conceals much rougher edges that only surface offstage and after hours.

Why, then, am I now mulling the prospect (however remote) of voting for her anyway? Why, for that matter, did the good people of New Hampshire rank her their third-favorite candidate in last week’s primary, well ahead of so-called frontrunners Elizabeth Warren and Joe Biden?

Partly, I suspect, it’s due to Klobuchar’s sheer doggedness in the face of long odds. Among other things, her ability to stick to her centrist talking points through thick and thin; to repeat her cheesy mom jokes endlessly and without embarrassment; to cut her opponents down to size without resorting to rudeness or infantility.

Her secret sauce, in short, is to be the very embodiment of friendly midwestern passive-aggressiveness coupled with steely D.C. competence and resolve. As a third-term senator, she has earned her reputation as an old-fashioned senatorial workhorse and dealmaker whom one underestimates at one’s peril. If these achievements have sometimes come at the expense of overworked underlings—well, you know what they say about making an omelet.

In truth, the list of exceptional leaders who have also been extremely unpleasant bosses is longer than we might care to admit, and that correlation is not always accidental. As seen in “The Devil Wears Prada” or “Whiplash”—not to mention in virtually every college football coach in the history of sport—sometimes driving one’s charges to physical and/or mental extremes is the way to bring out the best in them and generate excellence for the whole team. If tough love is purposeful and strategic, the payoff can be revelatory.

Of course, for every Miranda Priestly there is a Selina Meyer, and commentators weren’t wrong in having a little “Veep” déjà vu upon reading that Klobuchar once quipped to an aide, “I would trade three of you for a bottle of water.” There is no contradiction in being both an effective lawmaker and a poor manager of people, and it’s possible Klobuchar’s compassion and empathy—such as they are—simply don’t extend inside her own office.

That said, in a universe where the sitting commander-in-chief is both an inept lawmaker and so emotionally insecure as to fire Cabinet-level officials via tweet, even the worst possible version of Amy Klobuchar would seem to be a more-than-acceptable risk for the republic to take on November 3, particularly in light of her many obvious strengths.

More than anything, Klobuchar’s appeal lies in her personal and ideological inoffensiveness—her Goldilocks-like lack of polarities—which, while not particularly inspiring, seems tailor-made to put the maximal number of voters at ease in an age of never-ending hysteria and existential dread.

The Klobuchar proposition, then, is a variation of what her fellow senator (and former fellow candidate) Michael Bennet once tweeted about himself: “If you elect me president, I promise you won’t have to think about me for two weeks at a time. I’ll do my job […] so you can go raise your kids and live your lives.”

For a solid chunk of the American public, I imagine that sounds like a pretty good deal.

Gray Lady Splits the Baby

Lest you think I am in any way a well-adjusted individual, last Sunday night—when I could’ve tuned in to the season premiere of “Curb Your Enthusiasm”—I found myself spending an hour with “The Weekly” on FX, in which the New York Times editorial board met with seven of the leading Democratic presidential candidates, one by one, as it decided which one to formally endorse. (Two others were interviewed but not included in the show.) In the end, the Times opted for a choose-your-own-adventure approach to field-winnowing, selecting both Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar as its preferred nominees, leaving it to readers to figure it out from there.

Given both the import and weirdness of the Times’ verdict, this would seem the ideal moment to reflect on the broader question of how much impact endorsements of office seekers actually have in this third decade of the 21st century: Whether the recommendations of media outlets—newspapers in particular—directly influence people’s votes and, if so, how many.

The premise is sound enough: While ordinary citizens may be too busy or ill-informed to fully understand weighty matters of state and determine which candidates for office are best-equipped to handle them, newspapermen and women devote their lives to exactly that and are presumably experts in their field. Like movie critics, their judgement is theoretically deeper and more informed than yours or mine, and their recommendations—while hardly etched in marble—can serve as a useful exercise in edifying those who wish to be edified.

As to whether this works in practice, the honest answer is that we’ll never know for sure. The act of voting is complicated—the result of a million small considerations congealing into a particular shape at a specific moment in time—and generally not attributable to any one thing. This is especially true for the country’s impressionable swing voters, whose ultimate decision at the ballot box may well be determined by the last TV ad they see or the last tweet they read. To the extent that endorsements play a major—or even ancillary—role in some cases, few voters will explicitly tell a pollster, “I voted for Amy Klobuchar because the New York Times told me to.”

Recalling my own voting history in high-stakes races—which, if you count primaries, include four votes for president, four for governor, five for senator, and two for mayor—I can identify exactly one instance in which a newspaper endorsement actually swayed me from one candidate to the other. It was during the Massachusetts gubernatorial race in 2014, when the Boston Globe—an otherwise left-wing outfit—sided with the Republican, Charlie Baker, over his Democratic opponent, Martha Coakley, on the grounds that Baker, a former healthcare CEO, had proved himself a competent and effective chief executive, while Coakley’s most notable accomplishment was to have lost a U.S. Senate race—in Massachusetts!—to a conservative Republican who wore denim jackets and drove a pick-up truck.

Liberal that I am, it would’ve been the default move to vote for Coakley anyway; her Senate loss notwithstanding, she had served two perfectly respectable terms as the state’s attorney general. However, once the Globe made its case for Baker, I felt as if I had been given permission—and cover—to cross the aisle in favor of the guy who I suspected was, in fact, the stronger choice of the two. Had the Globe gone with Coakley, I doubt I would’ve had the nerve.

Of course, this was all predicated on the aforementioned idea that editorial boards are these faceless, all-knowing philosopher kings, smarter and more dispassionate than us mere mortals, endowed with the wisdom of the ages and concerned solely with the well-being of the republic.

Deep down, we know this isn’t entirely true—indeed, one of the delights of “The Weekly” is to see the Times editorial writers in all their quirky, bumbling glory—and I would be remiss not to mention that only two of the 100 largest American newspapers endorsed Donald Trump in 2016, and look how well that went.  Undoubtedly, the influence of the op-ed section of major publications has been on the wane for quite some time, and the pattern is likely to continue as such.

Nonetheless, for those of us who still read the paper every morning and believe a free press is all that stands between the United States and tyranny, news publications will remain a beacon in the search for truth and justice in the world and a bulwark against the corruptions and obfuscations of public men. If their views on presidential candidates don’t come directly from God and no longer count as the proverbial last word on the matter—if, indeed, they ever did—they should nonetheless be taken seriously and with the deference owed to an institution whose core mission—guaranteed by the First Amendment—is to ensure the survival of liberty and freedom in our society, now more than ever.

In the future, though, it would perhaps be most prudent to endorse only one candidate at a time.