Jon K. Rust

Jon K. Rust is publisher of the Southeast Missourian and co-president of Rust Communications.

Should Americans elect presidents according to likability?

Associated Press

Two prominent stories in the New York Times over the weekend returned to a theme that is never far from presidential politics, especially since Hillary Clinton first ran: Is likability a bad metric for leadership? (My answer is, Yes, but not for the gender-specific reason of the NYT stories.) One piece was a front-page article. The second: "The Likability Trap," an editorial column.

An online search for the term "presidential likability" reveals dozens of stories since January 2019 mostly by prominent, largely liberal publications, most making the point that likability is an unfair term when evaluating women candidates. In her NYT opinion piece, historian Claire Bond Potter makes the relevancy of the topic clear, especially to those gunning to replace President Donald Trump: "Six women are competing for the Democratic nomination today. But guess what? We don't seem to like them either."

The reference "either," of course, is to Hillary Clinton, famously derided by candidate Barack Obama in 2008 as "likable enough" after a debate moderator questioned her ability to connect with voters.

Potter writes: "That Mrs. Clinton lost the nomination in 2008, to a political virtuoso but still a virtual novice, seemed for some illustrative of the troubled relationship between gender and likability in politics. But then she lost in 2016. That voters could see Donald Trump's rambling and bullying as authenticity seemed proof for many that the likability game was permanently rigged in favor of men."

Potter believes that "likability" was originally an invention by Madison Avenue to sell products, and as male-created, what's needed is a reinvention. "What would it mean if we could reinvent what it is that makes a candidate 'likable'? What if women no longer tried to fit a standard that was never meant for them and instead, we focused on redefining what likability might look like: not someone you want to get a beer with, but, say, someone you can trust to do the work?"

I'm all for putting "trust" above "beer," but I wonder if Potter and others aren't simply trying to find a tactic to advance a particular (women candidates) -- and partisan (Democratic) -- cause. "Having a beer with a candidate", after all, is a clumsy proxy for likability: it's not the definition. Nor is any likability metric using Hillary Clinton as a central data point reliable because of Clinton's complicated history, which we were reminded of recently by her touting how great her campaign was and claiming the election was "stolen" from her. For a candidate who failed to focus on some of the most important states (Wisconsin among them), there was much more at play than her "likability."

Moreover, Potter may dismiss the perception of Trump being "authentic" to many of his voters -- because he's a lying bully -- but what progressive writers usually fail to capture is that Trump supporters believe many of his prominent opponents -- and part of the media -- are lying bullies, too. Trustworthiness (a component of likability), unfortunately, is in short supply in today's politics, a condition made worse by a take-sides media.

The second Times story touched upon the same topic from a different angle. Written by Astead W. Herndon and Lisa Lerer, the headline is: "Asked if a Woman Can Win, 2020 Candidates Offer an Easy Answer: 'I Have'." The article points out that several women campaigning for the Democratic nomination have already scored victories in Trump-majority counties. For example, "In her 2018 Senate re-election campaign, [Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand] flipped 18 counties that had voted for Mr. Trump just two years earlier, and in 2012 she received a higher share of the vote in New York than any statewide candidate before or since -- better than Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, better than former Senator Hillary Clinton, better than former President Barack Obama."

The writers underline a frustration that surveys of Democratic voters indicate concerns whether these women are electable.

"As they now campaign for president, they are encountering some of the same misogyny that Mrs. Clinton faced when she ran in 2016. They are running up against assumptions voters and pundits have about what presidential leadership looks like, battling a presidential archetype where men are the only touchstones."

Among the complaints is that unproven men like Beto O'Rourke and Peter Buttigieg get much more media attention and have more success raising money, even though their resumes are considerably thinner. And the septuagenarian frontrunners, former vice-president Joe Biden, who flamed out ingloriously in previous presidential campaigns, and Sen. Bernie Sanders, are leading in large part simply because they're white males.

Here's my suggestion. It's early. The American public is just beginning to meet most of the candidates. Instead of members of the media trying to frame the race in terms they desperately hope will beat Donald Trump, how about letting the candidates make their arguments directly to the electorate? Seek to understand and explore political positions, character and experience -- authentically and without agenda -- not just the identity politics. That's the best chance to having a woman president some day.

Jon K. Rust is publisher of the Southeast Missourian.