Elizabeth Warren owes her dismal fourth-place finish in New Hampshire at least in part to the other woman in the primary’s top tier. College-educated voters broke off for Amy Klobuchar, who managed to distinguish herself during the last debate. Klobuchar not only led voters with college degrees; she “drew 3 in 10 white college-educated women, the most of any candidate in the field,” CNN reported on Tuesday. Voters who once seemed like Warren’s natural constituency are exploring other, aggressively midwestern options.
Klobuchar’s creeping momentum doesn’t just threaten Warren. The Minnesota senator also siphoned some support from Pete Buttigieg, the upstart challenger to the Pragmatic Heartland throne. But the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, has more delegates than Warren. Though there’s time for the Warren campaign to regain some of the territory it’s lost, Klobuchar’s unexpected success in New Hampshire sets up a quandary that will be difficult for Warren to solve. Warren’s pitch — her plans, and her trajectory from struggling young mother to Harvard Law School professor — ought to appeal to college-educated women in particular. Why, then, did these voters shift to Klobuchar?
There probably isn’t a single unifying theory to explain Klobuchar’s recent strength with college-educated women. Several entries in Klobuchar’s professional record should be obvious detractors. As a prosecutor, Klobuchar jailed a teenager for life despite obvious flaws in the case; the Associated Press described the senator as an especially zealous proponent of harsher sentencing for juveniles. Once in office, Klobuchar developed a vicious reputation for the consistent and extreme abuse of her staff. Her rages “regularly left employees in tears,” BuzzFeed News reported last February. Former staffers say she screamed at them, demeaned them, threw objects at them. Before she revised it, her parental-leave policy forced new parents to “remain with the office for three times as many weeks as they had been gone,” sources told the New York Times. Rumors of her mistreatment had proliferated for so long, and were so well-sourced, that some people initially declined to work for her presidential campaign.
But since Klobuchar’s workplace abuses originally became public, the details have almost entirely disappeared from coverage of her campaign. No moderator has asked her about the reports at any of the Democratic debates, a silence that may help explain why some voters consider her a worthy alternative to Warren. But there’s another, even more pernicious possibility. For some college-educated women, Klobuchar’s alleged brutality might actually be part of her appeal. Not only is it proof that she can take on a brawler like Donald Trump, it affirms a pervasive vision of female achievement. Klobuchar is the ultimate #GirlBoss.
There’s a certain steadiness to Klobuchar, and a distinctive steely disdain. Her irritation with Buttigieg — his inexperience and his platitudes — is palpable and pure and it appeals, perhaps, to women beset by male mediocrity at work. Viewed from the cubicle, or the corner office, or the conference room, Klobuchar’s seeming unflappability could resemble the capacity to govern well. She’s intelligent and competent; if she’s a difficult boss, well, isn’t that always what people say about women in power?
Even before Sheryl Sandberg published Lean In, the trope of the bad-tempered lady boss permeated American culture. She is Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada, all sharp edges and putdowns. More egregiously, she is Maya, the taciturn CIA analyst who tortures her way through the plot of Zero Dark Thirty. The girlboss has other, real-life avatars as well. She might be CIA director Gina Haspel, who is rumored to be an inspiration for Maya, and whose confirmation was celebrated by Trump as evidence of his commitment to women. She is Miki Agrawal, the former CEO of Thinx, who allegedly matched a passion for period-proof underwear with a penchant for sexually harassing her staff. Politically, she is analogous to Hillary Clinton, who boasted of her time as secretary of State while ignoring some of the gorier details of her tenure. Examples abound; Klobuchar has lots of company.
As a stereotype, the girlboss can cut two ways. It undermines women in power by suggesting they’re prone to abuse, but for bosses themselves, it can become a useful shield. An authoritarian female manager behaves the way that men in her position have always behaved. To criticize her for her excesses is to hold her to standards that men are allowed to flout. “Women shouldn’t be expected to nurture their employees or colleagues more than men, and they should be no less entitled to challenge them,” Asal Sayas, a former Klobuchar staffer, told BuzzFeed. For the nation’s middle managers, Klobuchar’s qualities are aspirational. Her behavior to staff, and her record as a prosecutor, prove her toughness, and toughness is a virtue. The view that a woman need not be likable in order to earn our respect shifts easily to the celebration of cruelty. Bad behavior by women is just bad behavior. It doesn’t become feminist because of the perpetrator’s gender.
If Klobuchar continues to perform well with college-educated women, it’s because she represents their interests. She does so better than Warren, and far better than Bernie Sanders, who is beloved by lower-income voters with less higher education. Klobuchar wastes no time railing about billionaires or rigged systems, and why should she? The system worked for her, and it worked, mostly, for the professional-class women who are curious about her candidacy. They want Trump gone, they agree that things, defined as loosely as possible, could be better — but radical change is unnecessary. The case for Klobuchar is a defense of comfort.