Elections

The Opportunism of Kirsten Gillibrand

Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D, N.Y.) makes an appearance on the Late Show with Stephen Colbert in New York City, January 15, 2019. (Scott Kowalchyk/CBS via Reuters)
She’s nothing if not a shrewd, calculating politician. Witness her approach to Al Franken’s #MeToo moment.

In an uncomfortable late-night segment on Stephen Colbert’s show yesterday evening, New York senator Kirsten Gillibrand, a Democrat, announced her intention to explore a run for president. Her announcement came as little surprise, though her decision to inaugurate the campaign by calling herself “a young mom” caused some confusion.

Gillibrand’s launch immediately stirred up renewed controversy over what had happened in the winter of 2017, when she was the first prominent Democrat to insist that then-senator Al Franken (D., Minn.) should be called upon to resign over allegations of sexual harassment.

Some on the left remain suspicious of Gillibrand over this stand, calling her “opportunistic.” Billionaire Democratic bankroller George Soros has already said he would never support Gillibrand for president, accusing her of going after Franken, whom he admires, to improve her electoral chances. Other progressives, meanwhile, have hailed Gillibrand for pushing Franken out and insist that she remains a real contender for 2020.

Those who think of her as an opportunist are closest to the mark. What has been largely ignored in this latest rehash is precisely the calculation with which Gillibrand approached Franken’s #MeToo moment.

The first allegations of sexual misconduct against Franken became public on November 16, 2017. As much as two weeks later, Gillibrand told the press, when asked whether Franken should resign: “It’s his decision.” For more than two weeks, she and her Democratic colleagues in the Senate equivocated on the issue, paying lip service to the evils of sexual assault, watching and waiting as more than half a dozen allegations against Franken slowly trickled out.

It wasn’t until December 6, 20 days after the first claim had surfaced, that Gillibrand leapt out ahead of her fellow Democrats to call for Franken’s resignation. Her statement was followed, within minutes, by similar calls from other Democratic senators.

To join the Democratic donor class in blaming Gillibrand for Franken’s demise, then, is wholly unfair. But so too is it unfair to celebrate her as a #MeToo hero who put her popularity on the line for the greater good. She was merely holding up a finger in the wind and drifting wherever the ethos of the moment dictated.

This tendency has defined her career. Consider just one example: When she ran for the Senate in 2010, she held an A rating from the NRA. That rating was immediately downgraded to an F after she won the election and, following her party’s trend, completely reversed her stance on the Second Amendment.

And the debacle with Franken wasn’t Gillibrand’s only opportunistic use of the #MeToo movement. On The View last January, Meghan McCain asked the Democratic senator for comment on Hillary Clinton’s mishandling of sexual-harassment allegations within her own campaign.

“You need transparency and accountability, and no one is above criticism. But, in that case, I don’t know all the details,” Gillibrand hedged, before pivoting to the generic evils of workplace harassment. The rest of their exchange is even more revealing:

McCain: Senator, you have dedicated your political career to this fight, obviously. That’s why a lot of people were really surprised that it took you 20 years to say that Bill Clinton should’ve resigned over the Lewinsky scandal. So what do you say to that?

Gillibrand: I think this moment of time we’re in is very different. I don’t think we had the same conversation back then, the same lens. We didn’t hold people accountable in the same way that this moment is demanding today. And I think all of us, many of us, did not have that same lens, myself included. But today, we are having a very different conversation, and there is a moment in time where we can actually do the right thing or fixate on one president.

McCain: Can I ask you, do you regret campaigning with him, though?

Gillibrand: It’s not about any one president, and it’s not about any one industry. And if we reduce it to that, we are missing the opportunity to allow women to be heard, to allow women to have accountability and transparency, and to allow women to have justice.

This from Gillibrand, who had opened the interview intoning, “The near-silence is deafening coming from the Republicans. I really believe this should not be about any one party. It should not be partisan.”

But for Gillibrand, it’s always partisan. Perhaps more than any Democrat yet in contention for the 2020 nod, Gillibrand has revealed herself to be all platitudes and pragmatism — but no principle.

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