The National Review | Elections | February 15, 2019
Apparently, it’s not politically correct to mention likability when discussing female candidates.
Pantsuit nation is already crying foul. Fresh off the “Hillary lost because of sexism” tour, many purveyors of female victimhood are gearing up for a do-over.
With at least five women running for president (Senators Kirsten Gillibrand, Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar, and Elizabeth Warren have all announced their candidacies, as has Representative Tulsi Gabbard), the 2020 election cycle promises to be historic.
But rather than celebrate the rise of female politicians, many on the left are already excusing defeat by blaming sexism.
The latest culprit? “Likability” — that intangible constellation of personality traits that help candidates connect with voters on a personal level.
Bill Clinton had it. Hillary Clinton? Not so much.
Everyone knows this is true. And, yet, in the current zeitgeist, those who dare say so aloud are branded as sexist.
A column in the Daily Beast claims that anyone who questions Elizabeth Warren’s likability is telling all women to “sit down and shut up.”
Another in the Guardian insists that the term “unlikable” is “code for saying [that Warren] defies our shared cultural understanding that power and authority are implicitly male.”
And yet, in the category of damned-if-you-do-and-damned-if-you-don’t, a recent story in the New York Times suggests that positive references to Kirsten Gillibrand as “likable” are equally sexist. You see, according to the self-appointed arbiters of virtue, it is not politically correct to discuss likability at all.
This, of course, is an absurd statement. To be successful, leaders need to forge working relationships with other players on the political stage. So personality is not irrelevant. And, while policy positions and party affiliation are still the most important factors in voter decision-making, likability plays a role at the margins (where, in fact, most elections are won).
This has been true since the dawn of the television age — at least on a national level, where the voters’ only opportunity to get to “know” a candidate is through his or her media image.
Does anyone doubt that Americans viewed John F. Kennedy as more personable than Richard Nixon? Or that they considered Ronald Reagan more likable than Jimmy Carter?
Michael Dukakis and Al Gore, both regarded as policy wonks, struggled to connect with regular voters and appear likable on a national stage. Did personality ultimately doom the presidential aspirations of these men? That’s impossible to say for sure. But being dull certainly did not help.
To be sure, Donald Trump is regarded as highly unlikable by a large swath of voters, with a significant minority reporting that they are “disgusted” by him and how he has performed his job. But elections are binary choices, and likability is relative. So while we might not consider some of our modern presidents among the most likable people in the world, they were almost always more telegenic, personable, and optimistic than their general-election opponents.
Although it is hard for Democrats to comprehend, in the contest between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, many voters found it easier to connect with Trump, which made him (you guessed it) more likable.
Would voters have found Ted Cruz more appealing than Hillary Clinton in a general-election matchup? Unlikely. “[N]obody likes [Ted],” quipped former GOP standard-bearer Bob Dole in 2016, expressing concern that nominating the Texas senator would cost the GOP not only the White House but Congress as well. Dole, who struggled with his own unlikability in his losing campaign against President Bill Clinton in 1996, originally supported Jeb Bush for president. But so concerned about Cruz’s unlikability was Dole that he ultimately endorsed Donald Trump.
This is not to say that our politics are free of all sexism. It may be that we hold female politicians to higher standards than some of their male counterparts. (Just ask Amy Klobuchar, who has been criticized recently for being “difficult to work for” in a chamber of notoriously demanding male bosses.)
But in presidential elections, personality matters. Ability to connect with voters matters. In short, likability matters — for male and female candidates alike. And try as they might to shame us into voting solely on the basis of resumes, the new thought police have not yet discovered a way to prevent intangibles from influencing our decision-making.
We’ll know we have achieved true equality when female candidates can be criticized as “unlikable” without someone crying sexism.
Jennifer C. Braceras is the director of the Independent Women’s Law Center.