Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand ... ready to lead the way?
So I wrote a column saying that Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand has been beautifully positioned -- by a combination of Donald Trump’s fear of self-confident women, the rapid emergence of sexual misconduct by prominent men as a social issue, the newly demonstrated political power of women of color, and her own intelligence, commitment and ambition -- to run for president in 2020.
Here’s a sampling of comments I received:
-- “She’'s done, as far as I'm concerned, and I voted for her. What she did to Al Franken for her own benefit is a disgrace. She needs to be primaried, and voted out.”
-- “Never vote for her.”
-- “Another Democratic hypocrite just like the rest of the party.”
-- “Just another Schumer loser and certainly a disgrace for NY.”
-- “I think almost every single politicians in New York is corrupt. For example, was she part of Hillary Clinton's 100 member leadership team? If so, that kills it for me right there. … I mean Bernie Sanders ended up supporting Hillary, but he had to, I think. He has my vote in 2020, and my undying allegiance.”
Of course there were the usual trolls who can’t spell or comment without being vulgar -- the world the Internet has legitimized. There were also some positive comments about Gillibrand, but that response was markedly muted, with Democrats in my and Gillibrand’s home state of New York apparently sharing the uncertainty of Democrats nationally as to what to make of this outspoken junior senator who had just called on the groper-in-chief to resign.
The reaction of David Axelrod, one of Barack Obama’s chief advisers, was typical: “There should be rigorous pursuit of these kinds of charges, but right now there are no rules. She’s been a leader on the issue [of sexual assault]. But the danger for her is looking so craven and opportunistic it actually hurts her.”
Someone identified as a top Democratic operative was quoted thusly: “If you cared about the Democrats and 2018, you would be calling for hearings [for Trump]. When you call for resignation, you’re jumping the gun. I’d rather have congressional candidates being asked, ‘Do you support hearings?’ Calling for resignation is not really what’s best for the party, but it’s good for her.”
So, bad for her or good for her? Gillibrand isn’t waiting for Democratic “operatives” to decide.
In an interview with Vanity Fair, the senator provided some insight into her thinking: “I take calculated risks. I measure. I assess risk very intensely. And then I make a judgment. When you play tennis as a kid, you’re going to win sometimes and lose sometimes, and you learn how to behave well under both circumstances. Such a great life lesson because if you’re not afraid of losing, you’ll take a risk -- like running for office.”
My impression is that Democrats typically have difficulty recognizing opportunities that offer themselves and even more difficulty uniting behind a candidate, whether they agree with all her views or not. It’s almost as if winning elections is not that important. Republicans, of course, have demonstrated that they are capable to a fault of standing behind a candidate regardless of his lack of character, intelligence, knowledge of government, or emotional stability, perhaps even to the eventual demise of their own party.
But that’s the Republicans’ problem. Many Democrats seem to be inclined to try to make a problem of Gillibrand’s synchronistic moment. I think it has a lot to do with the fact that she’s a woman and she’s talking about a subject many people find difficult to talk about frankly and publicly -- sexual harassment in all its forms, from subtle to blatant.
That the numerous allegations of sexual misconduct against Trump did not prevent him from becoming the Republican presidential candidate, never mind winning the campaign for the White House over a clearly more-qualified female opponent, may well be due in large part to unspoken attitudes about gender and sex and politics and how to behave when they all come together.
Hillary Clinton lost the 2016 popular vote among white women, running against a card-carrying misogynist. The usual complaints voiced about her were that she was too ambitious or not trustworthy. But Trump was all ambition and a congenital liar. He was also an admitted sexual predator. But so was Bill Clinton, although it took some time and an impeachment for his admissions to come forth. And through it all, Hillary stood by her man. You could almost hear Tammy Wynette singing it: “You’ll have bad times; he’ll have good times; Doin' things that you don't understand …”
As a man occasionally guilty of sexist remarks, I nonetheless venture to say that I have noticed that women have a way of remembering things. “She attacked all those women who were used by Bill and now she wants to be president? I don’t think so.” The women voters stood by their man, just like the song says, “ ‘Cause after all he's just a man” ... allowed to be ambitious and untrustworthy.
That time is no more. #MeToo and the Women’s March and generations of women who have grown up liberated beneficiaries of other women’s struggles -- women not trying to behave like men or needing to be silent about sexual abuse in order to succeed -- have changed the political landscape. Gillibrand, 51, is one of them and she understands the changing dynamic.
One of the trickier challenges in talking or writing about the recent flood of sexual misconduct allegations is how to differentiate among the various behaviors -- Harassment? Groping? Unwanted touching? Suggestive talk? Sex for a promotion? Assault? Rape?
Gillibrand makes it simple: “Let’s say the line is here, and it’s all bad,” she said at a women’s conference, to cheers. She is someone willing and able to lead the much-needed discussion. Indeed, she has led a bipartisan effort to rewrite the rules in Congress on dealing with sexual harassment charges. The current system relies heavily on delay and legal hush money.
Democrats need to take Gillibrand and women’s issues -- including Bernie Sanders’ key issue, economic equality -- seriously. They are all connected to the issue of men in power using and abusing their positions to get sex in exchange for “helping” a woman’s career or at least not hurting it. In essence, of using power to “keep women in their place.”
I understand that a lot of Democrats feel that Sanders was robbed of the Democratic nomination and that he would have beaten Trump. I agree. But Bernie in 2020? Look, I think he would be a good president. Heck, with all modesty, I think I would be a better president than Trump. But I’m four months older than the Vermont senator, who will be 80 in 2020. I hate ageism, but I’m also a realist. If Sanders runs, I’ll vote for him, but I think being president of the United States is a younger person’s game. In today’s world, perhaps a younger woman’s game.
(The author has been a registered independent voter for more than 50 years.)