It’s not entirely clear when “having a beer with” became America’s go-to barometer for which presidential candidates are “likable.” It definitely was a thing in the 2016 primaries, when a plurality of voters told an NBC poll that the contender they would most enjoy drinking beer with was Donald Trump, who doesn’t even drink. It was certainly a factor in 2004, as an explanation for how George W. Bush — who also doesn’t drink — beat John Kerry.
And it’s definitely a preoccupation now, when microbreweries have become must-stops for campaigns, and when a long-shot candidate like former Colorado governor John Hickenlooper is seeking a viability boost from the fact that he owned a brewpub.
Wanting to have a beer with someone is praise. Not wanting to is a dire insult. This came up the other day because I had an exchange with someone about which of the current female candidates he liked the best. Elizabeth Warren? Kamala Harris? Amy Klobuchar or Kirsten Gillibrand?
“Harris is okay,” he wrote back. “But Warren’s husband won’t even have a beer with her.”
He wasn’t the only person to diagnose Warren as an undesirable bar companion: A few months ago, she drank a beer on Instagram and was roundly mocked because the entire scenario, skeptics insisted, seemed “inauthentic.”
Wading through questions of authenticity and likability has become exhausting even this early in the election cycle. We have visceral reactions to individual politicians. We can’t help it; we’re human.
But I have a novel proposition: The female presidential candidates are not “inauthentic.” The female candidates are actually very “likable.” It’s just that our criteria for measuring the word are total crap.
As soon as you move the conversation off a bar stool — or out of a barber shop, where Beto O’Rourke recently live-streamed his haircut — it turns out there are plenty of ways we’d be eager to hang out with the women running for president. I took an informal poll: acquaintances, and their friends, and their friends’ friends.
We are interested in having the female candidates join our book clubs or our movie clubs. We are interested in meeting them at Zumba. We are interested in taking cooking lessons with Harris and inviting Warren to our friend’s bachelorette party.
“Warren has a fun aunt energy,” assessed Amanda, a dogwalker in Maryland. “She seems like she’d sing karaoke if you invited her out, but that she’d also be a really good listener.”
Amy Klobuchar “might not have a fun auntie vibe,” countered a college instructor in California. “But if you were in the hospital she’d be the first one there.”
Tulsi Gabbard? “I would 1,000 percent kick it with Tulsi Gabbard,” said a writer, also in California.
Nikki Haley is not running, at least not yet, but a Republican friend of mine wanted to give her a plug: “I would love hanging out with Nikki Haley!”
A government worker envisioned having the female candidates over for cocktails; a commercial real estate agent said that her preferred scenario involved boxed wine on a stoop. Only a handful of responders listed beer-drinking as a fun night with the female candidates. Which I totally get. Do I want to have a beer with Elizabeth Warren? No. But I hate bars. What I’m interested in is flipping between HGTV and reruns of “The Office” while eating nachos and playing Settlers of Catan.
Of course, who cares if you want to hang out with a president? We should focus entirely on politics and ideas, not on personality.
That’s a great goal. But that’s not where we’re at. We’re at a place where, whether consciously or subconsciously, likability still matters. So let’s at least figure out how to evaluate it better. Let’s acknowledge the inherent subjectivity in the question. Whether you find someone likable will depend, after all, on what you personally like. Whether someone seems “authentic” will depend on their comfort with the setting.
Claire Bond Potter, a history professor at the New School, has studied the insertion of likability into politics — such as the “I Like Ike” cartoons for Dwight D. Eisenhower in the 1950s, ginned up by professional admen. They were selling a fantasy of down-to-earth cool, Potter writes. But it was a version envisioned by men, specifically for other men.
We’re still judging candidates by that fantasy — by how likable they’d appear while doing traditionally “manly” activities. It’s why O’Rourke’s public haircut is seen as relatable, while the same gesture by Klobuchar or Gillibrand would be seen as frivolous. We’re still filtering women’s likability through decades-old Cool Guy standards.
Plenty of women drink beer and hang out in bars. That’s not the point here. The point is that certain questions seemed rigged to set up certain candidates to fail. The point is that women can be likable on entirely different terms, and that those terms are equally valid.
So, with whom would I have a beer? Maybe Beto. He used to be in a band; I bet he has good bar stories.
Who gets invited to my HGTV-a-thon? Elizabeth Warren reminds me of my smartest college professors, of my most energetic bosses, of my irrepressible and sometimes overwhelming female relatives back in the Midwest. I bet she’d destroy me at Settlers of Catan. I bet she’d show up on time and bring homemade seven-layer dip. I bet she’d even stay late to help with the dishes. Maybe she has a schoolmarm quality, sure. But some of us — we actually really like that.
Monica Hesse is a columnist writing about gender and its impact on society. For more visit wapo.st/hesse.