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The Democratic Apology Tour We Need

Democratic presidential candidate and former Texas congressman Beto O'Rourke wipes sweat from his brow as he speaks at a campaign stop at a coffee shop Sunday, March 24, 2019, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)

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Democratic presidential candidate and former Texas congressman Beto O'Rourke wipes sweat from his brow as he speaks at a campaign stop at a coffee shop Sunday, March 24, 2019, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)

A historically large group of candidates is running for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, and in today’s media environment, that means they are going to be apologizing.

Social media increasingly serves as the public’s primary news source and drives coverage across other news platforms, which gives voters access to an unprecedented volume of unscripted and unfiltered content. Savvy, mostly-younger politicians like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Stacey Abrams, and Beto O’Rourke have seized that opportunity to transform what would normally be obscure candidacies into national sensations.

But unscripted moments are double-edged swords—each an opportunity to misspeak, misstate a fact, or say something tone deaf or inappropriate. And just as inspirational moments can go viral instantly, people get mad online in a hurry.

When O’Rourke finally made his 2020 campaign official he found himself apologizing within 36 hours. On his announcement tour, O’Rourke “joked” about his wife raising his kids while he has been off legislating and campaigning. Not funny, bro. The Twitterverse erupted, and Beto apologized:

I think the criticism is right on. My ham-handed attempt to try to highlight the fact that Amy has the lion’s share of the burden in our family—that she actually works but is the primary parent in our family, especially when I served in Congress, especially when I was on the campaign trail—should have also been a moment for me to acknowledge that that is far too often the case, not just in politics, but just in life in general.

This misstep neatly encapsulated what drives many Beto skeptics nuts. But his apology was also a reminder of what drew many people to him in the first place; it was plainspoken, authentic, and self-reflective.

O’Rourke was hardly the first contender to begin his candidacy with an apology. Elizabeth Warren stumbled badly when she released a DNA test in response to President Donald Trump’s racist taunts about her claim of Native American ancestry. That decision both played into Trump’s hands and offended tribal nations. Last month, though, she issued a clear, straightforward apology, saying, “I can’t go back. But I am sorry for furthering confusion on tribal sovereignty and tribal citizenship.” She took responsibility and explained why it was wrong. Since then she has been able to move on, and has driven the Democratic primary debate by introducing structural reform ideas that are the heart of her campaign.

American politics is full of stale, old truisms; the kind of banal advice that consultants sometimes spit out before even considering the real question at hand. (I’m sure I have been guilty of this myself.) O’Rourke and Warren’s apologies run counter to one of the oldest and stalest: never admit you’re wrong.

Instead of looking inward and committing to do better, candidates often offer defensive spin. The instinct to avoid acknowledging error is understandable. Nobody wants to give their opponents and the gaffe-obsessed media an admission to latch onto. But at a time when voters have tired of scripted, insincere politicians and crave political leaders who appear genuine, the tactic is self-defeating. In addition to being the right thing to do, showcasing humanness, fallibility, and introspection is good politics. The public doesn’t expect politicians to be right all the time or  need to agree with them about everything. They just want to know they have the right values, they’re trying to get it right, and—most of all—they’re not full of shit.

Yet politicians—especially those of an older generation—cannot seem to give up the almost-apology.

Earlier this year, Bernie Sanders apologized (or—responded—as NPR more accurately characterized it) to alumni of his 2016 campaign who reported rampant sexual harassment and gender discrimination. Here’s what he told CNN:

“I certainly apologize to any woman who felt that she was not treated appropriately, and of course, if I run, we will do better next time,” Sanders said on CNN, stressing the steps that his 2018 senate re-election campaign had taken.

Pressed by host Anderson Cooper about whether he was aware of the allegations during the 2016 campaign, the U.S. senator from Vermont said he was not.

“I was a little bit busy running around the country, trying to make the case,” Sanders responded.

That’s an almost-sorry trifecta:

  1. Sorry you felt that way. (Your feeling probably wasn’t real!)
  2. We’ll do better next time. (But don’t ask how or why!)
  3. I was too busy to pay attention. (Whose fault? Not mine!)

By the time he launched his campaign the following month, Sanders had introduced new protocols to prevent and appropriately respond to sexual harassment, but his initial instinct was telling.

Kamala Harris’ “for the people” slogan alludes to her days as a district attorney and attorney general in California. Critics, though, argue that her decisions in those jobs belie the “progressive prosecutor” mantle she claims. In response, Harris has said “I really regret that we were not able to charge somebody that molested a child but the evidence wasn’t there. There are cases…where there were folks who made a decision in my office who did not consult with me and I wish they had. But again, I take full responsibility for those decisions.”

Harris clearly does not feel she owes anyone an apology, a position she has every right to take. Still, it would be illuminating to hear her explain why she thinks her critics are wrong, or else to speak candidly about all that has—and hasn’t—changed in criminal justice since she first stepped into the spotlight; what, if anything, she would do differently today; even about the powerful forces of racism and sexism that undoubtedly factored in her decision making as a trailblazing woman of color holding public office.

Former Vice President Joe Biden is not even running for president yet, and has already struggled to apologize twice. Most recently, Biden offered his regret that he “could not come up with a way to get [Anita Hill] the kind of hearing she deserved,” as though he were little more than a passive observer of the process, rather than the chairman of the committee where Hill testified.

Amy Klobuchar was similarly defensive when confronted with questions about her history of mistreating of staff.  

Some people might say that I can be too tough, and I push things too hard. And, and you know, that’s a fair criticism. But I do it for a reason. And I do it because I want to have high expectations for myself and the people around me and for our country.

It’s a fair criticism that you’re too tough and you work too hard? If you’re not sorry, just say as much. But If it’s a fair criticism, then treat it with some respect.

Candidates should consider what makes for satisfying apologies in their personal relationships. Those almost always involve acknowledgment of errors and believable commitments not to repeat them. Real apologies don’t include the words “anyone who felt” or “some might say.” Real apologies aren’t excuses or deflections.

Klobuchar’s answer reminded me of one of my favorite memories from a different Democratic presidential primary campaign:

At a debate in Las Vegas in 2008, the candidates were asked to name their biggest weaknesses. Barack Obama quickly allowed that he is not always well organized. John Edwards responded that he’s just too damned empathetic: “I sometimes have a very powerful emotional response to pain that I see around me.” Hillary Clinton offered that she gets “impatient…when people don’t seem to understand that we can do so much more to help each other.” Then she knocked Obama over whether he would “be able to manage and run the bureaucracy.”

Clinton and Edwards had won the exchange, but at a town hall two days later, Obama had the last laugh:

Obama poked fun at John Edwards and Hillary Clinton for their response to the “what is your weakness” question at the MSNBC debate. Obama said that he answered the question as an “ordinary person.”

“Folks, they don’t tell you what they mean!” exclaimed Obama.

“I thought that they meant ‘what’s your biggest weakness?!’ So I said ‘well you know I don’t handle paper that well, you know, my desk is a mess, I need somebody to help me file and stuff all the time.'”

“So the other two they say well my biggest weakness is ‘I’m just too passionate about helping poor people.’ I am just too impatient to bring about change in America.'”

Obama joked, “If I had gone last I would have known what the game was. I could have said ‘well you know I like to help old ladies across the street. Sometimes they don’t want to be helped. It’s terrible.'”

What Obama understood in that moment—and throughout his career—was that voters don’t expect perfection. A winning campaign is not about winning every exchange or about every news cycle. It’s about showing voters who you are, what you believe in, and why they should believe in you. Sometimes that means having the confidence to say you’re sorry like you mean it.

Matt Lehrich is a founding partner at Be Clear, a progressive communications firm. He previously served as a campaign aide, White House spokesman, and Communications Director for the U.S. Department of Education under President Barack Obama.