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What Is Kirsten Gillibrand Up To?

During her decade in national politics, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand has been profiled, ad nauseam, by any number of very important publications: The New Yorker, New York Magazine (a couple times), Vogue, The New York Times.

But her 2012 interview with Self magazine, three years into her Senate tenure, is among the most compelling and useful texts for the Gillibrand close-reader. In a span of 599 words, the senator manages to ruminate on fitness tips (her 40-pound postpartum weight loss being the ostensible reason for the story), touch on the difficulties of being a working mother, name-drop several across-the-aisle friendships, and plug, in the most deft of humblebrags, her tireless spirit: “I approached losing weight the same way I’ve approached any other challenge throughout my life: I figured out exactly what I needed to do to succeed and dove in. I was determined.” Through Self, Gillibrand was cleverly reaching beyond snoozy news stories to a voting public that would perhaps remember a young senator who talked food-journaling and breastfeeding.

But the interview also offers an oblique insight into Gillibrand’s ever so determined and calculating rise in Democratic politics: At the time, Gillibrand had a standing weekly squash date with Sen. Al Franken. Yet five years later, she was the first Democratic senator to call for Franken to resign, and became, by no accident, the face of a movement to clean House (as it were) of harassers in public office.

No one was off the table, including — or perhaps especially — political patrons. Gillibrand said Bill Clinton, husband of the woman whose Senate seat she inherited, should have resigned from office. That led Clintonworld capo Philippe Reines to tweet, among other things, “Over 20 yrs you took the Clintons’ endorsements, money, and seat. Hypocrite. Interesting strategy for 2020 primaries. Best of luck.”

But Gillibrand’s appetite for biting the hands that feed her might actually be just what brings her success in the Democrats’ all-but-free-for-all scramble for leadership. She sniffed out the direction of the party months, even years ago, and has been tacking hard to the left ever since. She is attuned to the base, fluent in the new mediums of activism and, perhaps most importantly, knows how to spin. Who is Kirsten Gillibrand and what does she want? The latter is easy to answer: She likely wants to be president.1 But the former — who exactly is this woman whose moment it is we’re all living through — takes a bit more to parse.

The Gillibrand biography has, at this point in her career, reached a calcified, rote state that is particularly advantageous to politicians: maximum schmaltz, minimum actual insight. Generally, what you’re meant to take away from a Gillibrand bio paragraph in a profile is this: raised in regular old America; strong female role models growing up (including a grandmother who seemed to be Albany’s own LBJ); driven; Dartmouth; fancy lawyer (but let’s not linger on that too long); loves her kids; loves God; loves working across the aisle.

She has been charged in print on not one, but two occasions with being less-than-reflective.

The New Yorker called her “not given to soul-searching,” while New York called her “not inclined toward introspection.” FiveThirtyEight is neither given nor inclined to say much more than that Gillibrand might just be well media-trained, or perhaps she’s the kind of person who really does just plunge ahead. Just a political animal with a goal in mind, as she told the good people of Self.

She’s sensed the identity politics vehicle of the era, and has settled into the driver’s seat for a long haul.

At her essence, Gillibrand would seem to be not an ideologue, but an operator. In order to win she has evolved her positions, changed her mind … flip-flopped, in less polite terms. She used to have an “A” grade from the NRA, when she represented a conservative upstate district in the House, and she was against protections for sanctuary cities. One New York immigration group, incensed by her 2009 appointment to the Senate, issued a press release noting “she strongly supported throwing more resources toward ineffective border enforcement but appeared to oppose any path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.” Progressive members of New York’s congressional delegation were so incensed by her appointment, they threatened to run against her.

In 2017, things are different. Gillibrand supports a path to citizenship, and has called Trump’s border wall a “hurtful, terrible policy that will never work.” In 2016, she wept in an interview while discussing her former stance on guns. She has voted against Trump’s positions more often than any other senator and is the sole member to vote against every one of the president’s Cabinet nominees. Gillibrand is a co-sponsor of Bernie Sanders’s single-payer health care bill, widely seen as a new Democratic presidential litmus test. In the House, where she served from 2007 to 2009, she was among the least liberal members of the Democratic caucus, ranking 209th out of 241. But in the Senate, she has skewed left. In the last Congress, she was the seventh most liberal member of the 46-person Democratic caucus.

So what to make of this impressive litany of flip-flops, her ease in changing her mind? It would appear that Gillibrand is a Democrat above all else. As the party has shifted left, so has she.

In other words, she is good at politics, if by politics we mean sensing the direction of the populace, capturing their sentiments in rhetoric, turning that rhetoric into votes, fundraising off those votes, gaining power and popularity, running for re-election, winning, and doing it all over again.

And the membership of the Democratic Party has, after all, gotten a whole lot more liberal during Gillibrand’s time in office, a trend that is only likely to continue. In 2008, according to Pew, 41 percent of Democrats called themselves “moderate” and 33 percent said they were “liberal.” By 2015, the ideological balance had flipped in the party, with 42 percent of Democrats calling themselves “liberal” and 38 percent “moderate.”

As of 2015, 49 percent of millennial Democrats identified as “liberal,” meaning that it’s smart politics to evolve left. Gillibrand is on to something. When people write that it is Gillibrand’s moment, it largely has to do with her capitalizing on the #MeToo movement to call out harassers. (After Trump’s taunting tweet, for instance, her office sent out a fundraising email.) But Gillibrand has been at the political fore of feminism’s resurgence for years. Well before this year, she made waves advocating for changes to the way the military prosecutes sexual assault, and she has introduced a paid family leave bill every year for the past five years.

She’s sensed the identity politics vehicle of the era, and has settled into the driver’s seat for a long haul. A recent poll showed that 64 percent of Democrats thought that sexual harassment was a very serious problem in the country, and 86 percent of women college graduates thought it represented a serious problem in society. Should Gillibrand run for president, that group, which continues to lean ever more Democratic, would be an important constituency.

And while many public figures are tone deaf on Twitter or have fallen victim to equivocating on behalf of allies (as Nancy Pelosi has), Gillibrand understands the moral absolutism required to survive in the Twitter age. “I think when we start having to talk about the differences between sexual assault and sexual harassment and unwanted groping, you are having the wrong conversation,” she said at a press conference calling for Franken to resign. “You need to draw a line in the sand and say none of it is OK. None of it is acceptable.” Polls showed that about half of Democrats thought Franken should leave.

So if her 2020 viability as a candidate is attached to the cultural reckoning over harassment and women’s empowerment, would Gillibrand still face the challenges Hillary Clinton had as a female candidate?

Any election she’s in will feature gendered lines of attack, but Gillibrand’s advantages go back to the kind of assured wielding of soft power she showed in that Self magazine interview. A generation younger than Clinton, Gillibrand has had the luxury of refining her power, allowing it to reside not just in the Senate chamber, but also in the facts of her womanhood. Iron ladies aren’t entirely in vogue; relatability is. And the senator from New York has made her empathy something central to her persona — it might have even helped her get her current job. Then-Gov. David Paterson told The New Yorker that she was a great comfort to him after an “SNL” parody centering around his legal blindness. “I’ve never mentioned to her really why I picked her, but that incident played a role,” he said.

Empathy might have helped her rise in politics, but it’s that operator’s sense that has likely helped keep her in it. In the last week of a hard-fought 2006 election to Congress, a police report about a domestic violence incident involving Gillibrand’s Republican opponent surfaced. Gillibrand, New York Magazine later noted, “has never denied that her campaign was the source of the leak despite being asked about it several times. She defeated Sweeney by six points.”

Politics can be a nasty line of work, and Kirsten Gillibrand is good at politics. Maybe that’s all a person needs to make their moment.

Footnotes

  1. When asked about her political future, Gillibrand told New York Magazine, “I am running for the Senate in 2018.”

Clare Malone is a senior political writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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