With Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s presidential campaign faltering from the start, it didn’t come as a surprise this week when it hit a brick wall. In an unwieldy field of Democratic candidates, the New Yorker didn’t stand out. After failing to qualify for the next round of debates, she dropped out of the race on Wednesday.
If her departure seemed inevitable – her national level of support was just 0.1 percent, according to the most recent RealClearPolitics polling average – she executed it with both grace and toughness. Indeed, it may have been the highlight of her campaign.
Many of the troubles she faced were of her own making. Politicians should not be penalized for growing in office or revising positions as circumstances change, but Gillibrand’s evolution was startling, from a mainly conservative Democrat to a largely liberal one. If elections are based in part on character, and if holding to a set of beliefs helps to define character, then Gillibrand made it hard for voters to be comfortable with her.
Less influential in her decision, perhaps, but still troubling was the fact that she lied at least twice about her presidential ambitions in the days before last November’s elections. She told both the Buffalo News editorial board and a debate audience that she was not going to run for president and would serve her six-year Senate term. She was put on the spot – as presidents tend to be – and handled the matter poorly.
She also paid a price for her role in pushing former Sen. Al Franken out of office, but it was a bum rap. Gillibrand has made a Senate career out of standing up for women and Franken was an offender.
He wasn’t an abuser on the order of Harvey Weinstein or Roger Ailes – Franken was accused of inappropriately touching and forcibly kissing women – but how bad does it have to be before being called to account?
It may have been a judgment call as to whether Franken’s offenses merited his resignation, but as a matter of consistency and of values, Gillibrand’s position was entirely reasonable.
Still, her fundraising troubles among progressive Democrats was tied in part to pushing Franken out the door. She paid a price for standing up for women and, if she regrets that, she doesn’t show it. Nor should she. It was an honest decision on her part – the kind anyone might want to see in a president. Indeed, it demonstrated character.
Gillibrand says she will, at some point, make an endorsement for the Democratic nomination but promised to support whoever wins. In the meantime, New Yorkers should encourage her to continue her efforts on behalf of women, particularly those who suffer from sexual harassment or assault in the U.S. military. They need a champion and Gillibrand has been relentless.
Congress and the Senate in particular are breeding grounds of presidential ambitions. But often enough, members are in for a rude awakening. While several presidents had once served in the Senate, only three have moved directly to the White House from Capitol Hill: Warren Harding, John Kennedy and Barack Obama. Based on that history, the odds are long for someone such as Gillibrand – or Cory Booker, Kamala Harris, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Amy Klochubar or Michael Bennett.
And yet, they persist.
And good for them. The presidency needs ambitious, passionate Americans who are willing to defy the odds and to add to – or change – the conversation.
More Democrats will be dropping out of the race, and probably sooner than later. Gillibrand made the right decision and if her candidacy was doomed from the start, it’s worth remembering that that’s also what observers said about the “Seven Dwarfs” who took on George H.W. Bush in 1992. The winner that year was Bill Clinton.
You never know.