In this special, shorter Martin Luther King Jr. Day Eve edition: Gillibrand on the trail, the Democrats' secular holiday and the Larry Hogan fan club.
I, too, regret some things I said in Upstate New York 10 years ago, and this is The Trailer.
DES MOINES — The first thing many Democrats want to know about Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) is: What changed? During her maiden voyage to Iowa as a presidential candidate — seven stops in four cities — the senator often described how she won a 2006 race for Congress, then got a question about why she no longer sounded like a conservative-leaning Democrat.
“When I became senator, I recognized I had a lot to learn about my state and all of the 20 million people I was going to represent,” Gillibrand told one voter in Sioux City, who said he had seen a Fox News article about her “evolution.”
Every presidential candidate tells a story, and Gillibrand's was always going to be, in part, about her mistakes. Former president Barack Obama's “unlikely” story was that of a son of a Kenyan academic and a Kansas social scientist who was raised by his grandparents and became a community organizer. Sen. Elizabeth Warren's story, on the stump, includes a reference to her “smart” decision to walk away from her college scholarship and get married at age 19.
Gillibrand's story is, in political terms, pretty “likely” — the daughter of politically connected Albany lawyers, she received an Ivy League education, became a corporate lawyer and won a tough race (in a good Democratic year) before she turned 40.
She does not claim to have lived a hard-knock life. At that same Sioux City house party, the story of her political setbacks peaked with an anecdote about a panicky voice mail for the governor of New York, left because she realized she hadn't lobbied hard enough for that Senate appointment. The story Gillibrand tells on the stump is of a politician who won, changed and won again. Sometimes, she goes into detail about how those victories came together.
“I've been able to do well because I listen to all voters, all people I represent, and I bring people together,” Gillibrand said. “I do well in the red and purple places where, perhaps, other Democrats don't do as well.”
This came on a trip that looked more like a typical exploratory visit to Iowa than the big rallies that Warren, Obama and Donald Trump held on their first visits to the state. Gillibrand's roundtables and her house party appearance (organized by Sioux City Democrats) attracted a few dozen people. Her Saturday night town hall at the microbrewery, held across the street from a venue where more than 1,000 people saw Warren, pulled in around 150.
The senator is already heading back to Washington, but this trip laid out a candidacy, skill set and rationale that's different from what we've seen in this field so far. Here's what stood out.
“More cows than Democrats.” Gillibrand repeatedly described New York's old 19th Congressional District, which she won in 2006 and 2008, as Republican turf where her party was outnumbered 2 to 1, as a place much like Iowa. She was not bluffing — it was a largely rural, economically frustrated district with no major population centers. (Gillibrand's actual upbringing, in Albany, was not rural at all.)
“The way you win campaigns is door to door, family by family, person by person, voter by voter, caucus-goer by caucus-goer,” Gillibrand said in Sioux City. “The issue back then was getting out of Iraq. People not only wanted to get out of Iraq, they wanted you to explain why. And even though my district is conservative and only 30 percent of the district wanted to get out of Iraq, by Election Day it was 70 percent. You can lead a narrative if you’re speaking from your heart, and I think Democrats can win any district.”
Not every question about that district has to do with Gillibrand's old, more conservative positions. At several stops, she emphasized that she had sold Medicare-for-all, as a concept, to conservative voters.
“I always thought Medicare-for-all was a great idea,” she said in Sioux City. “When I first ran in 2006, I made it really clear: I said, wouldn’t it be good if you had at least one not-for-profit public option? Wouldn’t it be good if anybody could buy into Medicare at a price they could afford? Just to create competition? Insurance companies keep raising your rates because they can! I always believed that Medicare-for-all was a great solution, and that was in a 2 to 1 Republican district.”
This is not a description of the current Expanded & Improved Medicare for All Act, though Gillibrand has co-sponsored it. There is plenty of skepticism, on the left, about Democrats who use the “M4A” brand to advertise something else. But Gillibrand can truthfully say that she has discussed the concept since 2006 and won every election she's ever contested.
Check the record. Every Democratic senator who's won the party's presidential nomination has been hit with accusations of thin experience. It happened to Obama, who had been in the U.S. Senate for just four years and who talked more about what he had achieved in Illinois politics than his few bipartisan Senate bills. It happened to John F. Kerry, who ran for president after 20 years in the Senate and was accused of doing little with the job.
Gillibrand preempts any attempt to diminish her record by describing how much she passed and how much she's proposed. Her first real national attention came with legislation to get medical care for 9/11 first responders and a simultaneous effort to end the military's “Don't Ask, Don't Tell” policy — both are part of her story now, as was a bipartisan bill that provides one of her readiest laugh lines: “I worked with Ted Cruz on ending sexual harassment in Congress. I can work with anybody!”
At times, Gillibrand packs so many of her priorities into a sentence, so quickly, that it can sound like she's auctioning them off. In Des Moines, an attack on state Republicans' work to end collective-bargaining labor rights turned into a riff on what workers needed: “To have fair wages, to have fair benefits, to have fair opportunity, equal pay for equal work, how about affordable day care, universal pre-K and a national paid-leave plan?”
Running against Trump. It was hard to miss it when some other Democratic candidates visited Iowa and did not use the president's name to criticize his administration. That's not Gillibrand's style: She says the president is “destroying the moral fabric” of the country. She blames him for Republican voters believing, incorrectly, that criminals are about to leap across the border straight to West Des Moines. She says he is the reason she's running.
“President Trump promised no bad trade deals. What he's created are trade wars,” Gillibrand said at one stop in Des Moines. “For folks I talked to today and yesterday in Iowa, for folks I talk to in Upstate New York, it's crippling. President Trump has to stop.”
At one Sioux City stop, Gillibrand confronted an issue that has dogged her for more than a year: Her vocal role in urging Al Franken (D-Minn.) to step down from the Senate after eight allegations of sexual harassment or inappropriate touching were levied against him. Gillibrand did not mention the president's name in her answer, but put her decision in an unmissable context: It was impossible for her work against sexual harassment and disrespect toward women if she gave a friend a pass on it.
“You have to stand up for what’s right, especially when it’s hard,” she said. “And if you create a pass because you love someone, or you like someone, or you admire someone, or they’re part of your team, it’s not okay. It’s just not. I feel strongly about it. It’s painful. It was painful for me. It was painful for a lot of us. But enough was enough.”
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It didn't start out this way, but Martin Luther King Jr. Day has become an important event on the Democrats' political calendar.
Washington. Joe Biden and Mike Bloomberg will appear in the capitol to speak to the Rev. Al Sharpton's National Action Network. Both have existing relationships with Sharpton. The civil rights activist got close to Bloomberg during Bloomberg's second term as New York mayor, and he has continued to give Biden platforms to speak to black voters even as the former vice president has avoided “political” events.
South Carolina. Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) will join an NAACP march in Columbia. Booker is road-tripping with Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.). While Booker will leave the state afterward, Sanders is sticking around South Carolina for at least two more events with black voters.
New York. Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) will appear on “Good Morning America,” where she may or may not announce something. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) will speak at the fourth annual MLK Now conference, where she will not announce whatever Harris may or may not announce.
Georgia. Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.) will be in Atlanta for an event at MLK's former church (Ebenezer Baptist) and a roundtable with voters.
There's Something About Larry. On Wednesday, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) was sworn in for a second term with a speech that made subtle but hard-to-miss criticisms of President Trump — so subtle that he did not mention the president by name.
By Saturday, Hogan had been drafted as the latest avatar for a shrunken, defiant and well-connected movement of conservatives who want Trump off the ticket in 2020. The ramp-up from “Hm, let's see where this goes” to self-parody was unusually fast, culminating with David Brooks's assessment that “I’m not sure any of the Dem presidential hopefuls are well positioned to take on the Republican nominee, Larry Hogan.”
The Democrats' maneuvers ahead of 2020 are pretty easy to follow and predict: Most of those who talk about running are, in fact, going to run for president. But the effort to draft a Republican who can wrest the nomination from Donald Trump is a paradox: something less probable than it was in 2016, with advocates whose media influence has actually grown since then.
There absolutely is a conversation, among a small number of Republicans, about getting someone into this primary. As The Post reported this week, some of those Republicans lunched with Hogan five days before his inauguration. Mark Salter, the longtime literary collaborator of the late senator John McCain, helped with the speech and told us that he would like to see Hogan run. So long as anyone is working to persuade a Republican to challenge Trump, and so long as some Republicans, like Hogan, don't rule it out, this is news.
The generic problem for a Trump challenger is fourfold.
One: Trump's critics inside the party have diminished since 2016. Some of his most vocal critics from that time, like Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), are now resolute defenders.
Two: Actual Republicans have warmed to Trump since 2016, and every serious poll of them, in an early-voting state, has more than 80 percent of them approving of his performance.
Three: The potential electorate for a Trump challenge overlaps with the one Democrats will be working to draft into their primary — moderate voters, unaligned with the party, who can pull either an R or D ballot.
Four: This is the simplest item on a simple list: Trump won. He won in 2016 when Democrats said he couldn't. He won when the old anti-Trump coalition said he wouldn't. To convince the Republican electorate that Trump can't win in 2020 is to argue that a man who proved the doubters wrong will be unable to do it again. If you think that logic works on most people, go hang out at a blackjack table for a while.
In the short term, the most interesting question here is if Hogan, who has often resisted commenting on this or that Trump move, will willfully join the purgatory that former senator Jeff Flake lived in for two years and begin commenting on everything the president does.
. . . 379 days until the Iowa caucuses.
. . . 731 days until the next presidential inauguration.