Kirsten Gillibrand Shouldn’t Have Been the One to Drop Out

Her campaign never got off the ground, but she was a more interesting candidate than people gave her credit for.
August 29, 2019, 4:01pm
Kirsten Gillibrand
Kirsten Gillibrand in the Senate. Photo by Stefani Reynolds/Bloomberg via Getty

Kirsten Gillibrand got jobbed.

The only mentally functional Senator from New York wasn't my first choice, and given that she ended her campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination on Wednesday, becoming the first halfway plausible candidate to drop out, she wasn't most people's choice. While some responsibility for that obviously falls on her, it's hard to shake the notion that she was misserved by her party, by the process, and by Democrats' warped assumptions about which way selling out is supposed to work.


Her campaign began under a cloud and never saw daylight. Merely typing her name on social media was enough to flush a brace of Al Franken fans from the underbrush. Before she was a presidential candidate, she was best known for being the first of Franken's fellow senators to call for his resignation in the wake of a series of accusations of sexual misconduct. It remains debatable whether Gillibrand's stance was premature, but the idea that she forced him out is absurd. That Franken himself resigned instead of fighting for the due process he was allegedly denied never seemed to enter the collective consciousness. That more than 30 other Senators—including other presidential aspirants like Cory Booker, Kamala Harris, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren—also called for Franken's resignation went largely ignored. That Franken was replaced by Tina Smith, a Democrat who won her 2018 special election easily and isn't in any danger of losing the next contest, was hardly mentioned by most of his defenders.

For the sort of voter who can name four Senators—their own, Mitch McConnell, and that one who was on Saturday Night Live—she remained unforgivable, and unforgiven. No argument was going to take away the fact that she took Stuart Smalley away.

Franken was lauded as a bountiful cache of future virality without interrogating whether that was worth anything. For all his wit (which his defenders don't seem to realize he can still use outside of the Senate), he was powerless to stop almost all Trump nominees from perjuring themselves successfully through the confirmation process. As is customary with matters of sexual misconduct (or, for that matter, racism), the past and potential career of the accused ballooned into a masterpiece, while the shame of their alleged actions fell on the people who had the audacity to decry them. Influential Democrats and donors like George Soros who should've known better all unconsciously read from the GOP playbook: The real bad guys are the ones who notice crimes.


If it was already difficult to escape this narrative, the one the Gillibrand campaign constructed lacked enough of its own velocity to clear it. Her focus on being the candidate for women ran into the problem that Warren, Harris, Amy Klobuchar, Tulsi Gabbard, and Marianne Williamson all possessed the same signifiers and many of the same aspirations. Worse, her refrain about the strength of mothers and motherhood seemed tepid enough to border on pandering, the equivalent of the male candidate who says his hero is his wife.

Like the rest of the second-tier candidates, she was ill-served by an overcrowded debate format that couldn't have crafted more insipidity if that was its aim. But she shone in townhall settings—especially her first on MSNBC's All in with Chris Hayes—where she could sit down with potential voters and demonstrate an effortless empathy with their concerns that hit Oprah-like notes. When onstage with the other Democrats, however, she hung back, too civil until too late, then forced three minutes of talking points into a panicked 60-second interruption. Even before withdrawing her candidacy, she seemed as if she had misjudged when it was her time.

Her one attempt at seizing the narrative via a prefabricated confrontation was dwarfed by the one that inspired it. At the second Democratic debate, she shot her shot against Joe Biden, taking him to task for an op-ed written in 1981. Unfortunately, her rightness took a backseat to the sense that she was running Kamala Harris’s playbook, but less well. All Gillibrand had was a valid point, but Harris had that in the preceding debate—along with a rollout of tweets and emails capitalizing on the shocking "it's me, Austin!" reveal of how Biden's opposition to school integration hurt a little girl who, it turned out, was her all along.


As Gillibrand's campaign fades into a footnote, it's worth considering what she represented. After a 2016 primary contest that pushed Hillary Clinton to adopt the most progressive platform in history and revitalized the sort of agitation for social democracy that defined Bernie Sanders's career, the party had two ways to go. For the sorts of Clintonite Third Way humps who helped to dig the trench toward the 19th century that we find ourselves in today, there were candidates like Pete Buttigieg—who packaged the appeal of weightless High Obamaism in something shorter, whiter, and more tedious—or Harris, whose career appeal to "realism" amounts to to undermining more progressive candidates.

Those who imagine that the real problem is the system itself—including the Democrats who have been running the party for the last several decades—have Sanders or Warren to choose from, depending on whether you like your progressivism framed as revolution or reform.

Gillibrand's career indicates she's from the former camp. She began it with the Clintons' blessing, with an A rating from the NRA, and by championing anti-immigrant restrictions. But in the years since she was appointed to the Senate, she said Bill Clinton should have resigned after the Monica Lewinsky scandal, the NRA reduced her rating to an F, and she called to abolish Immigration and Customs Enforcement. All of which makes her a flip-flopper and maybe a sellout.

But even if you imagine that her move to the left was a cynical ploy at electability, at least her version of "electable" involved listening to the activists who make up the Democratic Party's base, rather than appealing to millionaire donors and the meager handful of Trump voters who theoretically might be persuaded to switch sides if Democrats avoid denouncing racism too strongly.

Gillibrand had the decency to sell out in the right direction and not look back.

Jeb Lund is a former political columnist for the Guardian and Rolling Stone. He has a podcast about Hallmark original movies.