Back when she had an A rating from the NRA, Kirsten Gillibrand used to brag that she and her family shot their own turkeys for Thanksgiving.
But in her relentless positioning for a possible presidential run in 2020, was she too quick on the trigger when she hit fellow Democrat Al Franken with a blast of buckshot and drove him to resign his Senate seat?
That is a question that could dog the junior senator from New York if she runs, especially after Patrick Leahy of Vermont—one of the most popular Democrats in the Senate—on Dec. 18 expressed remorse that he had not waited for the findings of a Senate Ethics Committee probe before joining Gillibrand’s call for Franken to step down.
On 30dB, a social media opinion site that gauges the sentiments of the crowd (and whose daily news items I edit), “@SenGillibrand + @SenFranken” is pulling 79 percent negatives.
The larger question about Gillibrand, though, is whether she is too transparently opportunistic to be a viable candidate after the rejection of another New York politician criticized for basing her positions on supposedly canny calculations rather than on from-the-gut convictions.
In short, Gillibrand could be running not just against Donald Trump or whoever the GOP candidate might be in 2020—she could be running against the political zeitgeist, too.
If there is one thing to be learned from the excitement and engagement that Trump and Bernie Sanders sparked in some sectors of the electorate last year, it is that the public is done with the tortured political gymnastics of a Mitt Romney or a John Kerry—or a Hillary Clinton.
The word that defines the zeitgeist is “genuine,” and one big reason Trump retains a core of support is that whatever you think of him, what you see is what you get.
For Gillibrand, nearly every move seems to be a self-serving playing of the angles. While it’s not surprising to see a politician behave this way, Gillibrand seems to be an especially egregious practitioner of the finger-in-the-wind politics that so many voters can no longer abide.
In 2009, when she was appointed by Gov. David Paterson to fill the Senate seat left empty after Clinton became secretary of state, Gillibrand was a congresswoman from hunter-heavy upstate New York whose gun votes were 100 percent in line with the positions of the National Rifle Association.
One year later she was a senator with an F rating after a swift gun-vote pivot that put her more in line with the sentiments of downstate Democrats.
As a 2013 profile in The New Yorker pointed out, in the House, Gillibrand was a Blue Dog Democrat who “voted to make English the national language, and vowed to oppose driver’s licenses for ‘illegal aliens.’”
“In the Senate,” The New Yorker piece said, “Gillibrand quickly moved left. She hired the Mirram Group—a consulting firm run by power brokers in the Hispanic political world—to introduce her to editors and activists, and soon she was saying that she favored ‘comprehensive reform that treats immigrants fairly and gives them a path to earned citizenship.’”
More recently, Gillibrand was the lone senator to vote against the appointment of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, a dedicated professional who is arguably the most independent member of the Trump Cabinet.
Did she really think Mattis, a former four-star Marine general known as a strategic thinker as well as a warrior, was unqualified to be the secretary of defense? Or was that part of her strategy of opposing almost every Trump Cabinet nominee, thus positioning herself to be able to go for a cheap applause line at some Democratic debate in the future?
There is no disputing that as a senator, Gillibrand has been out front in the movement against sexual harassment and assault, trying unsuccessfully in 2014 to change the way the military handles such cases by taking them out of the hands of commanders and shifting the authority to prosecutors. That took guts, and she deserves tremendous credit for her effort.
Now she is an energetic voice for the #MeToo movement, which seems like a logical step.
But was taking the first swing at Franken, an occasional opponent on the squash court, driven by outrage? Or was it a political calculation?
The senator denies that by pushing out Franken over allegations of groping and forcible kissing, she and other Democrats are making sure they are on the moral high ground as sexual harassment accusations against Trump resurface.
Gillibrand, who has said Trump should resign because of those charges, told the AP that the ouster of Franken “has nothing to do with politics. This whole debate is, ‘Do we care about women.’”
Tougher for Gillibrand to brush off are questions about why she only recently opined that Bill Clinton should have resigned after the Lewinsky affair came to light. She sure never mentioned that when the former president was campaigning for her.
On Morning Joe last month, Mika Brzezinski and Joe Scarborough went after Gillibrand for turning on Bill Clinton. “[Gillibrand] has to address the cameras and answer the question as to what was the motivation behind her change of opinion about the Clintons,” Brzezinski said. “…I don’t know how your position could change on this. And I’d like to know about that process.”
Former Gov. Paterson may be the least surprised person in America that Gillibrand has tossed Franken and Bill Clinton under her express bus to the White House.
Not long after Paterson plucked her out of obscurity and handed her Hillary Clinton’s Senate seat, Gillibrand began to distance herself from the governor and his troubled tenure.
Then in early 2010, The New York Times reported that Paterson, who had replaced disgraced Gov. Eliot Spitzer, had intervened in a domestic-abuse case involving one of his longtime aides, and he ended his week-old campaign for a full term as governor.
Four days later, with a potential primary challenge safely behind her—as Maggie Haberman, then at the New York Post, wrote at the time—Gillibrand was one of the first to say that Paterson, whose political career was effectively over, should resign immediately and not serve out his term if the reports were true.
Maybe Gillibrand was right that Paterson should have resigned. Maybe she is right that Clinton should have stepped aside. Maybe she was right to give Franken a shove. Maybe she is right that Trump should exit the Oval Office and slink back to his tower.
But one thing seems clear: Those denunciations and their timing were all designed to be right for Kirsten Gillibrand.