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It’s Good For Presidential Nominees to be Good at Politics


Clare Malone’s profile of Kirsten Gillibrand is excellent:

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.


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.


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.

There will, needless to say, be an argument about Gillibrand that because she wasn’t as left-wing when representing a House district the Republican incumbent she beat won by 32 points two years earlier as when she became a statewide official, this shows she is a Graspingly Ambitious politician who lacks the Absolutely Consistent Left-Wing Principles the next nominee requires. This is really, really stupid. Lincoln, FDR, LBJ — the most transformative progressive presidents — were not consistent Unbending Men of Principle. (Indeed, by the dumb, decontextualized metrics people use to argue that Gillibrand is a closet neoliberal LBJ should have been the worst 20th century president on domestic policy rather than the best. He voted for Taft-Hartley, for Chrissakes. It didn’t matter when he became president, because presidents lead coalitions.) They were good at politics, and became presidents during rare periods where major change was possible. Gillibrand has always been well to the left of whatever constituency she represented, and ideologically that’s plenty good enough.

I have no idea how Gillibrand will do if she runs in 2020. Sometimes politicians who look great in theory don’t do well in practice, and there are numerous impressive potential Democratic candidates. But her political abilities are a strength, not a weakness. And evaluating politicians based on arbitrary, decontextualized dealbreakers has the perverse effect of making the ability to win in unfavorable contexts a liability rather than a strength. Limiting the pool of presidential candidates to politicians who have only run in unloseable elections would be senseless.

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