Kirsten Gillibrand Is More Economically Progressive Than You Think. So Why Isn’t She Touting It?

The day after the 2016 election, I said, without a hint of irony, that Kirsten Gillibrand would be considered a frontrunner for the 2020 nomination, but I hoped she didn’t run. While I was adamant that a woman could win the general election, I was worried that she would remind people too much of Hillary Clinton as a senator from New York (and in fact Clinton’s direct successor in the Senate). Believing that the 2020 nominee would need to be able to rise past the personal attacks of the 2016 campaign, I thought this would be (unfairly) an albatross around her neck in a general election.

The day after the 2018 election, I vehemently defended Kirsten Gillibrand as the clear best choice in an imperfect primary field that looked like it might be crowded and splintered. She’d been telegraphing her run since the beginning of 2017, but she was doing so by taking sweeping and consistent anti-Trump stances in her Senate votes and by cogently making the case for under-the-radar economic and racial justice policies that put her at the top of the field on policy.

I had major concerns with certain isolated parts of her House voting record, but I had concerns that were at least as large about every other plausible presidential contender (other than Stacey Abrams). I didn’t expect that anybody could make a better case than she’d set herself up to make over the last two years, the one I expected her to make over the next two years.

I know I’m not the only one, but I’m very confused as to what has happened since the calendar flipped to 2019.

But let’s lay it all out:

31 votes have been taken on appointments for Cabinet-level positions since 2017. Gillibrand has voted no on 29 of them, more than any other senator. (Of the two she voted for, one, David Shulkin, was confirmed 100-0, and the other, Nikki Haley, was confirmed 96-4.) 29 no votes is one ahead of Bernie Sanders, who voted for John Kelly and James Mattis in addition to Shulkin, and one ahead of Elizabeth Warren, who voted for Mattis and Haley.

538 has been keeping a Trump Score, which indicates how often a legislator has taken a vote on a position that the president has previously endorsed. From the inception of the tool until August 1, 2019, Gillibrand had the lowest Trump Score of any senator. (Elizabeth Warren has nudged below her slightly, but this is only by virtue of Warren missing a recent bipartisan Senate budget vote that Gillibrand attended.) Taking just the 115th Congress (January 2017 to December 2018), Gillibrand’s score was significantly below everybody else.

Many of my friends on the left would respond that this doesn’t tell us very much about her policy positions, though. And they’d be right. Especially given her reputation as a Blue Dog in the House who moved left in the Senate, it’s worth making sure that the leftward movement actually happened. So let’s take a look at the bills that Gillibrand has sponsored or cosponsored in the 115th Congress.

Now, Gillibrand has consistently been a leader on family leave and family issues, childcare expenses and related government benefits, foster care overhaul, and other similar issues, and she’s tried to brand herself as that candidate. (As an example of the many bills she’s introduced on this topic, one of them requires SNAP eligibility for students who informally care for an elderly relative.) I counted probably about 30 bills, many of which Gillibrand directly introduced, in these fields.

But here’s a sampling of the bills that Gillibrand either introduced or cosponsored during the 115th Congress (2017-18) outside of that realm. For bills Gillibrand didn’t introduce herself and merely cosponsored, I tried to restrict this to bills with 15 or fewer cosponsors, figuring that anything with more does not distinguish Gillibrand from the Senate Democrats at large.

Introduced:

  • A postal banking bill. (S.2755)
  • A shockingly aggressive bill that makes corporate executive salaries above (a) $1 million or (b) 25 times the median salary for that company non tax deductible (for the company) and requires shareholder approval of any salaries paid in excess of that amount. (Violations of the shareholder approval provision would result in corporate fines equal to 100% of the excess compensation.) (S.1843)
  • A bill to remove the decision as to whether to prosecute sexual military assault cases out of the chain of command and send those cases instead to an independent prosecutor. (S.2141)
  • The bill to override the trans military ban. (S.1820)
  • A bill to establish a federal process to vacate and expunge convictions and arrests for criminal offenses by trafficking victims, with an affidavit from a victim services organization or a medical professional presumptively sufficient to qualify for relief.  (S.104)
  • A bill requiring data collection for every stop made by CBP or ICE, including specific reasons for the stop, any use of force, and justifications for stopping people in public, for pattern and practice study purposes. (S.2832)
  • A bill to establish a full museum and educational center at the African Burial Ground in New York (a cause very close to my heart). (S.391)
  • A bill to study the prevalence of human trafficking in the United States and to require DOJ to make additional efforts for mandatory restitution orders for trafficking victims. (S.1504)
  • A bill to aggressively fund rural broadband coverage. (S.1676)

Original cosponsor:

  • Bernie’s Medicare for All bill. (S.1804)
  • A federal job guarantee bill. (S.2746)
  • A bill to preempt state right-to-work laws. (S.1838)
  • Bernie Sanders’ bill to drastically expand Social Security disability insurance (S.427, only original cosponsor)
  • An environmental racial justice bill. (S.1996)
  • A right-to-counsel bill for all immigration removal proceedings, before the concentration camp crisis started. (S.349)
  • A national same-day voter registration bill (S.360) and a national automatic voter registration bill (S.2106).
  • A bill to direct grant money to organizations that increase cancer screening access for communities of color and women of color in particular. (S.689)
  • A bill increasing eligibility for Medicaid expansion to 200% of the poverty line and making it available for lawful permanent residents. (S.3485)
  • Two bills repealing abstinence education programs and redistributing those funds to sexual health education and contraception initiatives geared toward marginalized youths. (S.1650, S.1658)
  • A bill, predating the Green New Deal, to ensure that offshore oil reserves were kept in the ground and not opened up for drilling. (S.750)
  • Bernie Sanders’ bill to make community college free for all (and 4-year college free for kids whose parents make less than $125,000). (S.806)
  • A bill to amend the civil statute of limitations for victims of federal sex offenses to 10 years from discovery. (S.30) The current law is that you have ten years from the date of the offense or, if underage, three years from when you turn 18.
  • A bill requiring DHS to create standards for conditions of confinement for undocumented folks that remain above the ABA’s model standards, a searchable database for locating detainees, a private right of action for detainees who are injured due to a violation of the standards, and a ban on private for-profit facilities being used for detention. (S.3112)
  • A bill to direct grant money to states that place restrictions on gun sale or transfer to people convicted of domestic violence or subject to a domestic violence protection order. (S.2045)
  • A bill to require states to provide postage-free vote by mail without requiring a reason. (S.1231)
  • A bill directing grant money to states that provide free community college and to HBCUs and similar institutions that waive tuition for low-income students’ first 60 credits. (S.2483)
  • A bill putting a minimum 50% (and up to a 100%) tax on large price spikes on prescription drugs. (S.1369)
  • A bill prohibiting restraints and restrictive housing during pregnancy, labor and postpartum recovery and to provide comprehensive medical service during that time. (S.3616)
  • A bill to establish that gig economy workers qualified as employees for labor purposes under the NLRA. (S.2069)
  • A bill to require disclosure of the tax returns of nonprofits and the identities of large donors (above $5000) to any tax-exempt organization engaging in political activity for or against political candidates (think superPACs). (S.300)
  • A comprehensive bill for racial equity in healthcare. (S.3660)
  • A bill requiring all SEC filers to disclose the number of workplace harassment settlements (both total and involving senior leadership). (S.2454)
  • Bernie Sanders’ prescription drug price negotiation bill. (S.2011)
  • A bill forgiving Puerto Rico’s debt to the United States. (S.3262)
  • A bill creating a reconciliation board for the wrongful terminations of federal employees due to perceived sexual orientation in the 1960s. (S.1420)
  • A bill lifting the Cuban trade embargo. (S.1286)
  • A bill extending Pell Grant eligibility to Dreamers and repealing suspension of eligibility for drug offenses. (S.2598)
  • A number of employee ownership initiative bills, largely in conjunction with Bernie Sanders, (e.g., S.1081, S.1082, S.1538), but including one she introduced with Tammy Baldwin (S.1788).
  • A bill to federally guarantee funds for medical assistance for Hurricane Maria survivors and to federally guarantee funds for all future natural disasters. (S.2066)
  • A bill expanding free trade adjustment assistance to workers whose jobs are automated rather than outsourced. (S.2982)
  • A bill directing grant money to schools that train teachers to teach English language learners. (S.3408)
  • A bill capping payments for income-based student loan plans, automatically enrolling delinquent borrowers in IBR, and requiring quicker forgiveness. (S.3584)
  • A pair of bills to remove the caps on cleanup and environmental liability on oil companies for spills. (S.3756, S.3757)
  • A bill banning guns from being sold to anybody who has been convicted of a hate crime. (S.1324)
  • A drastic expansion of Social Security surviving spouse benefits. (S.3457)
  • A bill to eliminate the carried interest loophole. (S.1020)

Cosponsor:

  • A bill decriminalizing marijuana and automatically expunging all use and possession convictions, and creating a community reinvestment fund for communities most affected by the failures of the War on Drugs. (S.1689)
  • A bill to require explicit Congressional authorization of a nuclear first strike. (S.200)
  • A bill outlawing cash bail in the federal criminal system and directing grant money to states that do the same (sole cosponsor). (S.3271)
  • A bill to expand the definition of “physician” in Medicare to include clinical psychologists. (S.448)
  • A comprehensive bill integrating trauma-informed care into the current healthcare system, with a particular focus on Native communities. (S.774)
  • A bill expanding mandatory notice of the federal compassionate release program for people with terminal illnesses. (S.2471)
  • A bill imposing monetary fines on pharmaceutical companies engaging in certain opioid marketing and distribution practices. (S.2691)
  • Bernie Sanders’ bill to tax financial securities trades (sole cosponsor). (S.805)
  • A bill that requires a state or municipality receiving certain kinds of grant money to appoint an independent prosecutor for police shooting cases (sole cosponsor). (S.814)
  • A bill providing a refundable tax credit of 25 to 100 percent for rent that exceeds 30% of somebody’s income (with an income cap of $100,000). (S.3250)
  • A bill to provide incarcerated people with certain basic rights, including placement as close to their family as possible, trauma-informed care, parenting classes, and overnight visits from family members. (S.1524)
  • A bill to eliminate the Social Security payroll tax cap and to better calculate cost of living increases. (S.1600)
  • A bill creating a National Museum of the American Latino within the Smithsonian. (S.1364)
  • Elizabeth Warren’s bill to reinstate Glass-Steagall. (S.881)
  • A bill to dramatically expand Pell Grant coverage and benefits. (S.1136)

A few of these economic justice initiatives, particularly the federal jobs guarantee and postal banking, are in my opinion heavily underrated policy proposals that will be a necessary component of progress (and have been in the past). Gillibrand has been out in front on the latter in particular, and her legislative agenda showed it.

And then she declared for president.

Several of those bills she introduced in the previous Congress were reintroduced, but gone were the postal banking bill and the CEO pay bill. Her campaign also de-emphasized the most progressive planks of her platform in doing so. The job guarantee? One vague mention on her campaign website, buried in her economic justice page (“We need to make sure that everyone has guaranteed access to full employment”). Postal banking? Nowhere to be found.

I was worried, when she declared, of course, that the specter of Al Franken would haunt her, and that worry has unsurprisingly been substantiated. It’s difficult to determine exactly how much it’s affected her standing in the polls (and what follow-on effects that’s had), but the mentions of her leading the charge against Franken are expected now in virtually all of her press coverage. (That premise alone is somewhat exaggerated, given that we know that Chuck Schumer was applying a lot of private pressure and that Gillibrand was one of four senators to simultaneously break the silence by tweet.) The notorious CNBC report about leaked phone calls to Wall Street executives served as a brutal one-two punch, not only to ding her once more for her part in leaning on Franken but also to direct the economic populist ire disproportionately at her. (She should not have done it in the first place, especially after being one of the first candidates to renounce corporate PAC money 18 months ago, but it’s funny how none of the other candidates who almost certainly made the same calls didn’t have that information leaked.) And of course, while this is not an article about Al Franken, subsequent news cycles have proven that anti-harassment principles are still not taken seriously by a large swath of primary voters.

It’s easy to point to Franken as the only issue, of course, but there’s plenty more. Women tend to have a major structural disadvantage in terms of coming across as both “presidential” and “relatable”, two adjectives i’d love to never see again. But regardless of its unfairness, Gillibrand’s campaign style has not broken through.

And the thing is that she’s had her moments, too. Her best answer at the second debate was taken almost verbatim from a town hall she did in Youngstown, Ohio, where she got a round of applause from a largely white audience for what appears to be an off-the-cuff explanation of white privilege. And consider this early 2018 appearance she did on Desus and Mero (yes, that Desus and Mero):

She’s still got the laser focus on policy, and she bulldozes some of the hosts’ banter as a result, but if this Kirsten Gillibrand was the one the media narrative was pushing, the one who appears to live her mantra of lifting up marginalized voices, I could not imagine her remaining behind the second tier of candidates, the Klobuchar/Booker/Castro/Yang tier.

Speaking of narratives and debates, Gillibrand has mentioned her anti-Trump voting record exactly once over the course of two debates: in her closing statement during the first round of debates, at 10:54pm.

“I’ve stood up to Trump more than any other senator.”

Think about that point. It’s a ready-made ad line, for TV, for digital, for stump speeches. And it wasn’t even the leading point in the sentence she was speaking: it was stuck behind two other points, almost as a throw-in, leading into a pitch for her comprehensive plans. And despite seeing dozens and dozens of ads from her online over the course of several months, I haven’t seen this claim repeated even once.

She clearly knows that she has a claim to being the most anti-Trump senator out there. Perhaps she’s using that fact in other places. But if I’m on her campaign staff, this is the only sentence I know for the entirety of 2019, because it clearly hasn’t reached people enough. In a conversation with a number of other folks who are following the primary closely, I brought this fact up, and everybody was surprised. And I keep thinking about this choice to de-emphasize Gillibrand’s voting record, and I have only one reaction: Why?

I’m incredibly grateful that she’s not backing down from her women’s rights and family policy platform. Those issues are still given far too short shrift in policy circles, and shying away from those policies for tactical reasons is a terrible idea. But her economic justice platform is very similar to the one that Elizabeth Warren has been speaking in specifics about to great effect, and in some ways even better. Why hasn’t she made that case for it yet?

It’s by far the most confusing thing that’s happened in this presidential primary, and I’m including the fact that Joe Sestak is running for some reason. Is she deliberately trying to run a single-issue campaign, like Jay Inslee? Did she think she couldn’t actually win the nomination and just wanted to make sure that women’s issues were discussed?

Or did she think this was actually her path to the nomination? Did she think that the lane of economic populism from a wonkish perspective was going to be too crowded? Did she think the women’s rights lane would be more likely to help her standing in the polls? Did she think that leaning into her economic platform would open her record up to critiques about how she wasn’t as far left during her House tenure?

My concern with Gillibrand’s path, though, has not been purely procedural. A number of folks I know moved Gillibrand out of their top tier of candidates with the introduction of the Opioid Addiction Prevention Act, a bill that would stop doctors from prescribing people long and addiction-prone courses of opioids in the absence of a chronic pain diagnosis, limiting prescriptions otherwise to 7 days. This might work in a system where you could receive a chronic pain diagnosis within 7 days, but there are both diagnostic and practical concerns with that (that is, getting a follow-up appointment within seven days is virtually impossible, even if you assume that a doctor would be willing to make that diagnosis at that time). Despite any good intentions that underlie this bill, it would, from a policy perspective, create a lot of problems and undercut what appears to be clearly established sound medical judgment. Gillibrand acknowledged the criticism of the bill and expressed a willingness to meet with folks to improve it, but the bill has not yet been amended.

Twitter is not America, of course. But I hesitate to say that it is just luck that has led to this being perhaps the most amplified of Gillibrand’s policy positions.

Today, Gillibrand is no longer my first choice in the primary. But I think she could convince plenty of people that she has the vision and the ideas to lead us forward, and she wouldn’t have to change her positions or embellish her record. I have donated to her, as one of a few presidential campaign donations, in the hopes that she might.

But we’ll have to wait and see. It might already be too late.

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