Commentary Magazine


Is Gillibrand Dems’ Best Backup?

If you listen to some Democrats, you’ll walk away thinking the race for their presidential nomination in 2016 will be about as exciting as a matchup between the Super Bowl champions and a team from the Little Sisters of the Poor. Hillary Clinton is not just the favorite to be their next standard-bearer. Those who claim her entry will clear the field of serious challengers are probably right. The odds facing any Democrat who would dare take on the Clinton machine will be long and raising money for such a challenge will not be easy. Having patiently waited her turn after being derailed by Barack Obama in 2008, Clinton is in position to portray any Democrat who stands against her as someone who is attempting to prevent the country from electing its first female president. Clinton will not have as easy a time in the general election, but barring the emergence of another Obama-like phenomenon (something that only happens once in a generation, if that often), it’s hard to envision anyone else as the Democrats’ nominee.

But what happens if Clinton doesn’t run? That would open the field to the likes of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, not to mention Vice President Biden, whose lust for the Oval Office appears to have only grown with his proximity to the top job in the last four years. Yet those who assume that one of those three, or someone like them, will rise to the top are forgetting why all of them were assumed to have no chance against Clinton: they’re widely considered to be duds. So if for some as-yet-unforeseen reason Clinton decides to pass on another “inevitable” race for the presidency, Democrats will be looking around for another choice. And one of them will undoubtedly be the senator that her colleagues dubbed “Tracey Flick” during her introduction to Congress: Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York.

The comparison of Gillibrand with the protagonist of the scathing 1999 satire “Election” in the feature on her possible candidacy by Politico today is unfair, but it’s not hard to see why the nickname stuck during her early years in Washington. Like the type-A overachiever played in the movie by Reese Witherspoon, Gillibrand is driven, ruthless and charming when she wants to be–not to mention pretty and blond. But while she is still a relative newcomer to the political big leagues and is vulnerable to charges of being a flip-flopper, Gillibrand is perfectly positioned to take up the feminist torch from Clinton. Nor should her potential opponents underestimate her skill in fundraising as well as willingness to take any position she needs to in order to win votes.

Successful presidential candidacies are often the product of good luck, and a Gillibrand run to the nomination would invite comparisons to the runs of both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. Clinton had the guts to run in 1992 when more credible Democratic frontrunners (like Andrew Cuomo’s father Mario) didn’t run. Her rise is also reminiscent of Barack Obama’s path to 2008. Obama won an Illinois Senate seat in 2004 largely because the Republican who was assumed to have an easy path to victory was torpedoed by revelations about his divorce. In 2006, Gillibrand faced a double-digit deficit in a long-shot race an upstate New York House race with only a few weeks to go, but won in a walk after newspapers ran stories about her incumbent Republican opponent being involved in a domestic violence incident. A little more than two years after that, she was unexpectedly tapped to replace Clinton in the Senate by former New York Governor David Patterson after the trial balloon floated by Caroline Kennedy crashed and burned.

Gillibrand was a pro-gun moderate in the House, but she was quick to get with the program set for her by mentor Chuck Schumer as she flipped on guns and shifted left on other issues. Some liberals will hold her previous apostasy against her, but if she is the sole woman in the race in 2016, don’t bet on her past deviations from liberal doctrine being an obstacle to lining up solid feminist support. Moreover, her ability to raise money on Wall Street (with Schumer’s backing) will make her a formidable contender in a race in which there will be little ideological diversity.

Anyone who thinks she will listen if told to wait her turn behind fellow New Yorker Cuomo hasn’t followed Gillibrand’s career. Nor is there any reason for her to defer to Biden, who flopped twice as a presidential candidate in the past.

At the moment, there’s no reason to believe Hillary Clinton won’t run for a nomination that is hers for the asking. But if she doesn’t run, Biden, Cuomo and O’Malley should be worrying more about Gillibrand than each other.

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