Gillibrand Shadowed By Her “Et Tu?” Moment
by Kevin Kelton
For Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, the end of her presidential campaign may have come before it started.
Gillibrand, of course, is a charismatic and mostly liberal New York senator who has 12 years of congressional experience (going on 14) that stands out among the other “fresh faces” who will populate the 2020 Democratic field. But the issue that may forever define her in the eyes of Democratic voters was her role in ousting Al Franken from the U.S. senate.
The beloved Minnesota senator and originator of SNL’s “Al Franken decade” catchphrase was a rising star in the party before Gillibrand and a handful of likewise self-righteous female legislators decided to truncate his senate decade six months early.
In retrospect, it was an ill-conceived career move.
When the Franken scandal was breaking in 2017, there seemed to be clear political advantages to her role as the leader of the #MeToo mob that forced Franken to resign. Doug Jones was stuck neck-and-neck with jailbait dater Roy Moore in their hotly contested Alabama senate race, and the political calculation was that by sacrificing Franken on the alter of the Me Too movement, they might push Jones to victory over Moore and get the Democrats one seat closer to controlling that chamber. Jones did ultimately win by a nose, maybe in part thanks to Gillibrand’s role in cleaning out her party’s own closet. (Rep. John Conyers was also sent packing from the House to prove the Democrats’ bona fides on sexual harassment.)
But the party still fell short of winning back the senate in 2018, and there is not a single major vote that has taken place since Franken’s exile that went the Democrats’ way because of the seat Jones flipped. And Jones is nowhere near the liberal lion of the senate that Franken proved to be while bludgeoning Attorney General nominee Jeff Sessions in his senate confirmation hearing and effortlessly slapping down right-wing bullies with wit and charm. In that regard, Jones’s win has proven little more than a pyrrhic victory so far.
In the meantime, millions of Franken’s admirers in the party are still seething at Gillibrand for fragging one of their own. Many, including billionaire Democratic donor George Soros, feel that it was naked political opportunism. (Gillibrand still maintains that she did it for the right reasons.) And while Franken’s appointed replacement, Tina Smith, held onto the seat in 2018 and has been a reliable liberal senate vote, she has been no substitute for her outspoken, passionate, charismatic, and roundly respected predecessor. Indeed, had his relatively mild missteps in the evolving battle of the sexes not dislodged him from his rising perch among the liberal leaders of the party, Franken might’ve been running for president himself this time around.
Instead, it’s the woman who some feel stabbed him in the back that is flexing her national political muscles. But her “et tu, Kirsten?” moment hangs as a Sword a Damocles over her run.
Watching Gillibrand announce her presidential run in front of a live TV audience on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert,” one couldn’t help but sense that her reason for running (“As a young mom, I will fight for your children as hard as I would fight for my own”) felt rehearsed and banal. She babbled the standard Democratic lines about being for “better public schools,” healthcare being “a right and not a privilege,” and “finding common ground.”
But when asked by Colbert what would be the first thing she’d do on day one of her presidency, she fumbled over hackneyed promises to “restore the integrity and compassion of the country” and “bring people together” before scrambling for safe haven in a trite shoutout to Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday. “Darkness cannot drive out darkness. Only light can do that,” she quoted the late civil rights leader to audience applause. But what King’s 1957 line about nonviolent resistance has to do with being president is perplexing at best.
Unless Gillibrand can articulate a platform that is more than platitudes, her moment in the light may be be fleeting. Running because you’re a mom who can quote MLK will only get her so far. Against more forceful and inspiring female candidates like Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren and Tulsi Gabbard, the NY junior senator may feel like an also-ran. To break through, Gillibrand will have to win back many of the diehard Democratic primary voters who still blame her for the Franken debacle.
If she can’t, it’s highly unlikely that 2020 will be the start of the Kirsten Gillibrand decade.
Kevin Kelton is the cohost of The More Perfect Union podcast and founder of Open Fire Politics. He is also a former Saturday Night Live writer who has never worked with Al Franken…or Kirsten Gillibrand.