Ruben Navarrette Jr.
To borrow a phrase from an earlier campaign: “It’s the empathy, stupid!”
That could well be the overarching theme of the 2020 election. And if the Democratic nominee for president is Amy Klobuchar, you can bet it will be.
The Minnesota senator, who began this race last February in a Midwestern snow storm and then went on to position herself as a moderate in a field of Democrats that took a hard left, has seized on the “e-word.”
As a former prosecutor who knows how to grab and hold the attention of a jury, Klobuchar is good at telling stories. The story she is now telling America is about how empathy is one of the most important qualities separating her from President Donald Trump.
The lawyer is making the case that America is suffering through a crisis of empathy, and that it starts with the occupant of the White House.
Trump exploited our empathy drought
Respectfully, I disagree with Klobuchar on that point. We’ve been a quart short on empathy for a few decades now, at least as long we’ve had a homelessness crisis in many U.S. cities. Americans just don’t think much about the plight of the less fortunate.
Trump exploited our empathy drought, but he didn’t cause it.
Unlike its cousin “sympathy,” which people display by feeling compassion, sadness or pity for the struggles and hardships that another person has to deal with, “empathy” is when you’re able to understand how another person feels, sometimes because you’ve been there.
Empathy is a sign of good character, and it contributes to one’s level of emotional intelligence. It makes it easier to relate to another person, and for that person to relate to you. And it enhances one’s authenticity.
It can also be the natural enemy of elitism. After all, it’s tough to feel superior to someone if you’ve gone through what they’re going through now.
And when a society is running low on empathy, as ours is at the moment, the national dialogue breaks down, differences harden, and divisions deepen. We get short-tempered with one another, question motives and refuse to consider alternative views.
So there you have it. Empathy. Trump doesn’t put much stock in it. The country is in desperate need of it. And the Democrat who has the most of it might just win the party’s presidential nomination and give Trump a run for his money.
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That’s how Klobuchar sees it, based on her speech to supporters Tuesday night after a respectable third place finish in the New Hampshire primary.
The core was a story she told during her excellent closing statement at last week’s Democratic debate. It’s about the funeral train of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and how a “regular guy” was standing by the tracks sobbing with his hat across his chest, and how a reporter asked that man if he had known Roosevelt. “No,” responded the man. “I didn’t know President Roosevelt, but he knew me.”
She senses what Americans need from their president
Klobuchar argues that this ability to relate to ordinary Americans is the special sauce that is absent from what passes for leadership these days.
“That is what’s lacking right now in the White House,” she told cheering supporters after her strong showing in New Hampshire. “That empathy, that ability of a president to put himself or herself in the shoes of the people of this country..”
It’s obvious that Trump prefers his own custom-made loafers, and that he has no interest in trying on anyone else’s shoes.
Klobuchar thinks there is a “sacred trust” that exists — or rather, should exist — between Americans and their president. She doesn’t believe it is there now, and again she blames Trump for that. She promises to restore trust if she is elected.
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Look, I’m old school journo. I’ve been writing about politics and covering politicians for 30 years. I’ve been lied to, tricked, manipulated, scapegoated, neglected and spun around. I hate both parties, and I’m as cynical as they come. In fact, as I often tell groups I speak to, it’s a wonder I still vote at all.
But I don’t mind telling you, when I first heard Klobuchar recite that story about Roosevelt during last week’s debate, I got chills. When she retold the story Tuesday night after finishing in the money in New Hampshire, my eyes welled with tears.
The president of the United States “knew” me. What a beautiful and powerful idea! And, I’m proud to say, what a uniquely American concept.
I don’t know where that went, or where along the trail we lost it. But, as is likely the case with many other Americans, I’d sure like to get it back.
Ruben Navarrette Jr., a member of the USA TODAY Board of Contributors, is a syndicated columnist with The Washington Post Writers Group and host of the podcast, “Navarrette Nation.” Follow him on Twitter: @RubenNavarrette