Kirsten Gillibrand's biggest weakness
Another day, another Democrat announces a bid for the presidency.
Last night it was Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.) who took the leap. Appearing on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, Gillibrand declared she was filing an exploratory committee — the first public step toward running for president. She did so in the bland, cliché-ridden consultant-speak that leads so many Democratic politicians at the national level to sound like they were mass produced in some antiseptic lab inside the Washington beltway. "I'm going to run for president of the United States, because as a young mom I am gonna fight for other people's kids as hard as I fight for my own, which is why I believe health care is a right and not a privilege."
It will be many months before she and the couple dozen other Democrats likely to test the presidential waters will hit their stride and settle on a message and rhythm for delivering it that works on the campaign trail — and many months beyond that before anyone besides political junkies begin paying attention.
But that doesn't mean it's too early to note that Gillibrand's announcement did nothing at all to dispel what are bound to be her biggest weaknesses in vying for the Democratic nomination and taking on the Republican Party: her close ties to Wall Street, her fondness for the social liberalism of well-off urban hipsters, and her status as a leading representative of the entrenched establishment of her own party.
Democrats need to run a fiery populist in 2020, and there's no sign yet that Gillibrand is interested in or capable of transforming herself into one. That she isn't one by background or disposition is obvious to everyone who's followed her career. Born in conservative upstate New York and married to a venture capitalist and banker, Gillibrand started out representing a conservative district in the House of Representatives. In doing so, she joined the conservative Blue Dog Coalition and took right-leaning stands on guns and immigration.
That chapter in her career ended 10 years ago, when New York Sen. Hillary Clinton was tapped by Barack Obama to serve as secretary of state, and Gov. David Patterson appointed Gillibrand to Clinton's vacated seat. Over the intervening decade, Gillibrand has migrated leftward. It was a gradual shift prior to the 2016 presidential election. Since President Trump's inauguration, she has made a point of becoming one of the Senate's loudest and most consistent critics of the administration.
Yet as my colleague Ryan Cooper noted in the spring of 2017, the change has been more subtle when it comes to Wall Street. That places Gillibrand firmly in the Democratic mainstream for New York State. Despite its deep-blue complexion, the state is home to the financial industry, which tends to inspire deference in its most ambitious politicians. There is simply too much money at stake for pols to risk making enemies of the many investment banks and hedge funds that make their home in lower Manhattan. The result is the distinctive character of New York liberalism: hard left on social issues but relatively hands-off when it comes to financial regulations.
That describes Gillibrand to a T.
The senator was widely mocked in early December for a tweet in which she described "Our future" as "Female" and "Intersectional," apparently unconcerned about alienating the male half of the electorate and befuddling the 95 percent of it that has never heard of intersectionality, the trendy preoccupation of left-wing activists of a certain age. Yet at the same time that she has been proving her bona fides as a social liberal, Gillibrand has been wooing Wall Street, hoping they'll overlook her post-2016 support for several items on the democratic-socialist wishlist (including Medicare-for-all) and throw gobs of money at her campaign.
That's a potent mix for downstate New York politics. But whether this distinctive combination of economic neoliberalism and left-wing identity politics will travel outside of cities and inner-ring suburbs, let alone throughout the Midwest, remains to be seen. When it's combined with vague, poll-tested jabs at "corruption and greed," "special interests that write legislation in the dead of night," and praise for her own "compassion, courage, and fearless determination" — the same bromides that have emerged from the mouths of every Democrat who's run for president since Walter Mondale — we have reason to worry the Gillibrand campaign could end up as a clearinghouse for political clichés instead of lighting the country on fire.
That's what the Democratic Party, and the country, needs most of all: someone who acknowledges the injustices that plague so many of our communities, who recognizes the complicity of both parties in creating those injustices and allowing them to persist, who can legitimize the anger they have understandably bred, and who isn't afraid to channel and direct at least some of that anger against the forces in American life that have led us here — even if some of those forces can be found within the Democratic Party itself.
If Kirsten Gillibrand doesn't show that she's ready and willing to lead that fight, her campaign for president will be over before it begins.