Why you should care

Because it’s time to can the faux apologies.

The long-awaited Democratic processional has finally hit the national stage. Yet rather than sharing their visions for a different America, these wannabe presidents are telling us mostly about how they’ve failed to live up to their own lofty expectations. 

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand says her own positions on immigration and gun rights were neither empathetic nor kind when she held them as a congresswoman a decade ago. Uncle Joe Biden’s harsh treatment of Anita Hill and support for racially targeted drug laws cracking down on crack users in the ’90s now has him apologizing for “White America.” None is worse off than Elizabeth Warren, who has somehow managed to spend months eating crow — long before even announcing her candidacy last month — after a pre-launch video in October to prove her Native American ancestry backfired disastrously. 

In an age where Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Donald Trump are the faces of their respective parties, voters value authenticity more than apologetics. 

The list of mea culpas runs on, so much so that The New York Times called it a “spate of sorrys” in an article with the headline “2020 Democrats Agree: They’re Very, Very Sorry.” Clearly, the contenders feel that in order to lead the country, they must show contrition. But here’s another idea: Spare us the drama of your come-to-Jesus moment and sudden wokehood and instead tell us how your past makes you qualified to lead us into the future.

Look, there are times where apologies are necessary, particularly in response to criticism that strikes to the “actual mission message of the candidate,” says Arun Chaudhary, the former digital creative director for Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign and current digital creative director at progressive firm Revolution Messaging.

 

The Warren example demands so much attention because her claims of Native American heritage appear to have given her an unfair professional advantage, and yet “fairness is at the heart of what she’s arguing for,” Chaudhary explains. That’s the same reason why Sanders had to come out and forcefully apologize in January for the way his female staffers suffered harassment during his 2016 campaign, a complaint made worse by the “Bernie Bros” stigma that already surrounded his supporter base. 

In many cases, though, the apologies feel contrived. Perhaps they are an attempt to own their mistakes. Yet in an age where Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Donald Trump are the faces of their respective parties, voters value authenticity more than apologetics. Why can’t Gillibrand simply admit that she held pro-gun and anti-immigrant views when she represented more-conservative voters who valued those things, and that she shifted those views once she had a broader base? And an apologetic non-apology could be worse. See Kamala Harris, who borrows her campaign tagline “for the people” from the de facto prosecutorial oath, who has offered nothing more than vague mishmash about how she “takes responsibility” for her tough-on-crime policies as California’s top cop

Some Democrats are already showing the merits of a no-apologies approach. Ocasio-Cortez recently flat-out denied responsibility for controversial Green New Deal documents, despite the fact that they had been circulated by her own office. Her base seems happy to excuse her truthiness. When Amy Klobuchar was presented with accusations that she mistreated her staff, the Minnesota senator simply said: “Yes, I can be tough,” and played it into her narrative as a no-nonsense doer. “I have high expectations for myself, I have high expectations for the people that work for me, but I have high expectations for this country,” she told reporters. Those complaints are melting as quickly as the Minnesota blizzard Klobuchar had to wade through to address them.

The avalanche of apologies hasn’t gone unnoticed by the other side either. Sarah Dolan, executive director of the Republican oppositional research firm America Rising PAC, says the organization has gotten far more requests from a hungry press than last election cycle. While presidential candidates may have gotten an early pass in the past, they are facing pressure from activists much sooner than before. While candidates may very well need to apologize to keep their progressive base, Dolan sees a clear negative: “If you’re apologizing, now the first thing some voters in Iowa or New Hampshire may read about you are these perceived mistakes you’ve made in the past.” 

All it takes to see the value of an unapologetic approach is looking across the aisle at the last man to win the presidency. Perhaps nobody is more loath to say sorry than Donald Trump. And if Democrats are going to beat him, perhaps they’ll need the same level of shamelessness. After all, if you apologize for everything, do you actually stand for anything?

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