The Morning Jolt


Kirsten Gillibrand’s Chameleonic Ability

Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D, N.Y.) during a press conference calling for an end to forced arbitration on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., December 6, 2017. (Aaron P. Bernstein/Reuters)

Happy Valentine’s Day! Making the click-through worthwhile: How New York senator Kirsten Gillibrand reminds me of the Marvel comics villain, the Super-Adaptoid; the budget deal is small but doesn’t look that bad; and wondering how that implausible story from Chicago will be resolved.

Kirsten Gillibrand, New York’s Super-Adaptoid

Here’s what I find fascinating about New York senator Kirsten Gillibrand, having compiled the latest “Twenty Things” list about her: Gillibrand’s family wasn’t quite as wealthy and connected as the Kennedys or the Bushes, but that’s a high bar to clear. Her grandmother, Polly Noonan, more or less ran the Democratic Machine in Albany politics for about four decades. When this comes up in profiles, it’s usually presented as a sweet story of a grandmother taking her granddaughter to hand out bumper stickers and stir an early interest in politics. Her father Douglas Rutnik was a well-connected lobbyist, close to Republican governor George Pataki and Senator Alphonse D’Amato.

(It’s extremely revealing that to the extent folks on the Right know anything about Rutnik, it’s his brief connection to the sex cult NXIVM. He did legal work for them for four months back in 2004, and there’s no evidence he knew about their activities. Many seem to want to believe that this is, somehow by osmosis, a major scandal for Senator Gillibrand; meanwhile, everyone’s ignoring the fact that Gillibrand’s family was one of the best-situated in the state if you wanted to rise in New York Democratic politics.)

Gillibrand describes herself as having “the stereotypical 1970s middle-class experience” and the Washington Post described her upbringing as that of a “middle-class Roman Catholic Albany schoolgirl.” Come on. Most middle-class families don’t have the city’s “mayor for life” coming over to their house most nights. Gillibrand attended one of, if not the most, prestigious private high schools in the state, got into Dartmouth, studied abroad in China and Taiwan, got into UCLA law, and interned for D’Amato and the U.S. Attorney’s office, and, from September to December 1990, the United Nations over in Vienna, Austria. (The U.N. does not pay interns, so Gillibrand’s family could afford to cover the costs of her taking an unpaid internship over in Europe for four months.) The Rutnik family may not have been fabulously wealthy, but they were not “stereotypical middle class.”

There’s nothing inherently wrong with any of this. Gillibrand’s life shows that she was bright and driven. Philip Morris doesn’t keep you as one of its main attorneys in fighting the tobacco lawsuit wars if you’re not smart. Gillibrand wrote in her autobiography that she found it hard to find a job in government — although it’s much more likely that she found it hard to find a job in government that would not represent a huge drop in pay from her work at a top-shelf Manhattan law firm. She talks about Andrew Cuomo offering her first job in government . . .  but never quite acknowledges that her grandmother and his father were friends and allies.

She writes about her first fundraising campaign:

True to his reputation, Rahm [Emanuel] was a hard-ass and a skeptic. He kept giving me outrageous fundraising goals, assuming I’d fall short and thus give him an excuse to bar me from his Red to Blue program, aimed at turning Republican districts Democratic. But I jumped through every hoop, rang every bell, called every number of every contact, and eventually Rahm ran out of reasons not to support me.

Again, this is a woman whose grandmother ran the Albany Democratic machine, whose father was a well-connected lobbyist, and who worked in two of Manhattan’s top law firms, and who had been a big donor and party fundraiser herself the previous cycles. If any potential candidate was ever perfectly situated to be a great fundraiser, it was Gillibrand.

There’s a strange false modesty at work in Gillibrand’s nascent campaign. When she announced her bid on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, she declared, “I’m going to run for president of the United States because as a young mom, I’m going to fight for other people’s kids as hard as I would fight for my own.” But America has a lot of wonderful young moms, and very few of them get elected to the House or Senate or get invited to sit on Colbert’s couch. “Vote for me because I’m a mom like you” is an argument that hand-waves away everything that makes Gillibrand unique.

What makes her unique is that year by year, she became exactly what is required to succeed in New York politics, which is basically a synonym for New York Democratic politics. This meant dramatic flip-flops on issues like guns and illegal immigration when she moved from the House to the Senate. When she was appointed to fill out Hillary Clinton’s term, both Democratic rivals and New York Republicans thought she would be beatable. No one’s ever cracked more than 36 percent against her in a statewide primary or general election. She can schmooze both farmers and Wall Street, charm reporters from Vogue and Politico, laugh with Jon Stewart, and hit it off with Charlie Rose. She defends abortion on demand, then attends Bible studies with her GOP Senate colleagues. She calls for bipartisanship and boasts that she’s voted against every one of President Trump’s cabinet appointees. She boasts about voting against the TARP bailout twice, but is now courting Wall Street executives to help out her campaign.

Marvel comics used to feature a villain called the “Super-Adaptoid,” a robot that could adopt or mimic the powers of anyone it encountered. Gillibrand evolves to fit her environment quickly — and her foes would be foolish to underestimate her.

The Budget Bill Is a Small Deal . . .  But a Pretty Good One

The conventional wisdom is that President Trump is about to cave and sign a funding bill that includes a paltry $1.375 billion in funding for 55 miles of fencing along the U.S. border with Mexico. But Shikha Dalmia may be closer to the mark. Trump’s not getting a lot, but he’s also not giving up much. This deal doesn’t include a path to citizenship or legalization for the Dreamers or those under rescinded Temporary Protected Status, which many figured would be part of a larger deal.

On paper, the number of beds in Immigration and Custom Enforcement detention facilities is dropping by about 9,000, to 40,520. But that’s about the amount authorized by Congress last year, and the Trump administration actually exceeded the allocated number by a considerable amount by shifting funds from other programs. Democrats wanted to reduce it to 35,000 beds, but ultimately agreed to keep the status quo.

The deal also provides a separate $900 million for “enhanced inspections at ports of entry, new technology, opioid detection and customs officers.” Again, more border enforcement, separate from the 55 miles of new fencing.

Three weeks ago, when Trump agreed to reopen the government, he had none of this, and he was getting blamed for the shutdown. Speaker Nancy Pelosi called the wall “an immorality” and wanted to provide zero funding. Now a significant number of House Democrats are going to vote to provide for $1.37 billion for this policy she deemed immoral, and in exchange, Democrats got . . . what?

We’re Just Going to Forget About This Story, Huh?

We’re all just going to pretend that everything that Empire star Jussie Smollett told the police about being attacked in the middle of the night in Chicago’s coldest night in 30 years was accurate, huh? He recently declared in an interview that he’s “pissed off” that people don’t believe him.

Who’s giving him advice these days, Ralph Northam? Very little about his initial account made sense, he later changed his story and described fighting them off, none of the closed-circuit security cameras saw the attack but noted that it had to happen in a 60-second window, he somehow managed to keep his cell phone and Subway sandwich during the attack, and when police asked for his phone records — he had claimed he was on the phone when it happened —  the police said the submitted records did “not meet the burden for a criminal investigation as they were limited and heavily redacted.”

Smollett doesn’t get to turn the skeptics into the villains in this story.

ADDENDUM: Katherine Timpf urges men to stop complaining about Valentine’s Day because women spend way more time and effort on their appearances than men do. I’d concur, and just add that even if the roses, chocolates, meals out, etc. are silly and often overpriced and a giant national effort to ensure the financial health of the greeting-card industry, it’s a small price to pay for the joy the women in our lives bring us the other 364 days of the year.

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