Relative to 2016, the Democratic Party is in great shape. Their lead over the Republicans on the generic ballot from this month’s midterms just surpassed 8%, making it a bigger wave than the 2006 Bush backlash. Women have run for and won office at record numbers—infusing the party with a breath of desperately needed fresh air. It’s hard not to be optimistic about 2020 given what we have witnessed since 2016. Democrats are far more organized, far more engaged, and far more driven to gain office than at any point since at least 2008 and probably earlier. Big picture: what we have witnessed since 2016 is immensely encouraging. We should win in 2020 if we keep this pace up.
There is still much work to be done. The Democratic Party’s central problem is that they basically became Republicans in the 1990s, and we are still battling with the consequences of handing the party off to major donors to this day. This wasn’t some big secret at the time. That was the supposed basis of Bill Clinton’s political genius. The story went that Clinton yanked the Democrats out of the doldrums and to the right—aligning the party known for fighting for the little guy with “Real America.” What a lot of people need to understand is that this consequence is not looked upon favorably with the benefit of hindsight, as the hyper-corporatization of America couldn’t be possible without Bill Clinton’s help (there is a direct line between the policies of the 1990s and the fact that a majority of millennials have soured on capitalism).
The Clintons—and more specifically, the culture which envelops them—is what my title is getting at. One thing that is still held as a truism amongst many on the left is that campaigning in the center is the key to winning elections, which is beyond infuriating given that a supremely competent woman running on a largely centrist policy lost to a rabid baboon flinging his feces in every direction in 2016. While it’s not a certainty that leftists have become the dominant wing of the party—2018 was a great year for progressives, but it was far from perfect—the party is moving left. Much farther left than it was in the 1990s.
Also, this is a fact that I really don’t think the Clintonian wing of the Democratic Party has fully internalized yet:
I say “we” because I am part of this failure. So is Paste politics. So are you, if you are a liberal. This was a collective failure on the part of liberalism. America looked at what we all presented to them in 2016, and chose an outright white supremacist who talks like a man who just sustained a severe concussion. If that doesn’t force you to seriously address your shortcomings, nothing will.
So what does this have to do with Kirsten Gillibrand?
The celebrity culture which the Clintonian wing unleashed on the Democratic Party is currently devouring her, using logic that honestly doesn’t make any sense. The Democrats lost over a thousand seats during the Obama years and Hillary Clinton ran virtually unopposed in the Democratic Party (because Bernie’s not a Democrat, right?) because the Democratic Party does not seriously invest in its races at all levels—there simply was no one coming up through the ranks that was ready for prime time.
Why? Because of the donor class’s obsession with celebrity candidates who look good on TV, and how that worldview trickles down through the party.
It’s no secret that all the major Democratic donors are enamored with celebrity candidates. Anthony Weiner, a man who really did nothing legislatively in congress, was widely assumed to be New York City’s next mayor simply because he gave firery tirades against the Bush Administration on C-SPAN. Hell, the guy who donated the most money to Democrats in 2016, Tom Steyer, is running for president himself in 2020. The money in the Democratic Party is concentrated at the top (although a big story of our 2018 success is the avalanche of money from grassroots donors), and its distributors really only care about candidates at the top. There’s a reason why Kamala Harris took a trip to the Hamptons the moment her televised interrogations made it clear that the former prosecutor was a real 2020 contender.
Which brings me to Al Franken.
To call Al Franken a celebrity is technically correct, but it is really a laughable assertion in 2018. When Al Franken was a second-rate star at Saturday Night Live, he was a celebrity, but his first year there (1975) was almost a half-century ago. To consider him a major 2020 presidential contender is lunacy, yet here we are.
If you don’t know what I’m talking about—first, congratulations on having less anger and frustration in your life than me—and secondly, I’m sorry for exposing you to this nonsense. Per yesterday’s Politico:
Today, nearly a year after Gillibrand led the charge in calling for Franken’s resignation, the anger is fresh on the minds of major donors across the country.
More than a dozen prominent West Coast, New York and national donors and bundlers — many of them women — said they would never again donate to or fundraise for Gillibrand or would do so only if she ended up as the Democratic presidential nominee.
“I thought she was duplicitous,” the donor said. “Once the whole thing happened with Al Franken, it was confirmed 1 billion percent that she’s not to be trusted. I think that she hurt the Democratic Party. I think that she hurt the Senate. I think that what she did for women in politics was dreadful.”
Why is Kirsten Gillibrand not to be trusted?
Over objecting to something described by Al Franken as such in a letter to the Minneapolis Star Tribune:
He wrote that he “feels terribly that I’ve made some women feel badly.” He called himself “a warm person” who likes to hug people when they’re being photographed with him, but clearly, his embrace “crossed a line for some women.”
A photo exists of Franken groping a sleeping woman, and that woman said she felt violated by the event. Yet somehow, Gillibrand doing this is crossing some unspeakable line.
What makes this especially infuriating is that by heaping all of the blame on Gillibrand, those making this case are literally silencing other women’s voices who joined Gillibrand. Senators Claire McCaskil, Maggie Hassan, Mazie Hirono, Patty Murray, Kamala Harris and Bob Casey all echoed her call for Franken to step down, yet they have received none of this Al Franken ire. Why? All the others had no choice but to follow Gillibrand, so they’re absolved of any supposed wrongdoing in this situation? What’s the logic here? This is bananas.
The logic in this Hamptons-endorsed argument goes that Kirsten Gillibrand took out a “good guy” in the Democratic Party because she was worried about him in 2020.
I don’t get it. I really don’t. Al Franken was not a first-tier threat in 2020. He just wasn’t.
Not to mention, Kirsten Gillibrand “taking out” one of seemingly infinite Democratic competitors in 2020 is not a coherent strategy. It doesn’t do anything to boost her chances in what is certain to be the most crowded field in modern history. I’m not disputing that Gillibrand can be an opportunist (I mean, what politician isn’t?)—her recent overtures to the left have not gone unnoticed at our progressive politics shop here—I’m just saying that this move wasn’t opportunistic. It was mandatory.
From a policy perspective, Gillibrand’s signature issue is sexual assault. She has been on the front lines trying to enact legislation designed to curb the scourge of sexual assault in our military. She is very much a leader on this topic, and she is a vitally important figure when it comes to manifesting the #MeToo movement’s legislative priorities. Had she not spoken out on Franken, she would have been a massive hypocrite, obliterating her credibility on the issue she has worked her entire congressional career on.
How the hell is “she just wanted to take out Al Franken for 2020” where this has gone? Why is Kamala Harris not viewed in the same light? Or Mazie Hirono? Or Claire McCaskil? Or Maggie Hassan? Or Patty Murray? Why aren’t they opportunists too? Why is Gillibrand the only one being targeted here? Just because she was first to make a statement? This doesn’t make any sense.
This is what I’m getting at as far as the poisonous Democratic celebrity culture that trickles down from the top. I mean, look at this quote from a donor who didn’t have the guts to give their name to Politico:
”[Franken] was one of our best weapons against this administration, his presence on these committees. [Gillibrand] did the damage that Republicans could not do themselves.”
The logic underlying the anger over losing Franken is thanks to an unforced error committed by a man who Caitlin Bladt hilariously called in Paste last year, a “twee fascist.” Jeff Sessions, a lying liar who lies, shot himself in the foot when Al Franken asked him a simple question in his confirmation hearing. Because of this, the former SNL cast member is supposedly some master interrogator who could single-handedly bring down Trump. That sounds more like an absurd SNL skit than anything resembling reality, but it’s the logic which has taken root in the ManhattaHamptons wing of the Democratic Party, and has trickled down to the rest of us through some servile messengers on outlets like MSNBC.
And again, all this is in slavish devotion to a man who admitted to and apologized for committing sexual abuse. This is celebrity culture run amok—as if an SNL veteran is the only senator who can stump the endless stream of smoothbrained idiots that is the Trump Administration.
It’s clear as day that these donors want Al Franken on their TV interrogating Trump’s army of lemmings because Al Franken was good on TV in the 1980s. He’s not uniquely qualified to make good TV out of Trumpian incompetence, they just know who he is. Angus King meticulously dismantled Jeff Sessions over the course of four and a half incredible minutes last summer—providing us all with this amazing moment screenshotted below where Sessions realized that he had been cornered into an impossible situation.
Show of hands, how many of you reading this have ever heard of Angus King (I-ME)?
Al Franken was not a uniquely qualified congressional interrogator—simply a competent one—and to think that his admitted sexual abuse was worth overlooking in a party who is about to run against a serial sexual assaulter in 2020 is nonsensical. It’s all just…it’s infuriating. There has been so much progress made since 2016, and to hear a group of people who otherwise should know better, echoing unhinged talking points coming out of the Hamptons because of some amorphous loyalty to the old guard of the Democratic Party is beyond depressing. Kirsten Gillibrand should not be punished for Al Franken’s sins. A man committed sexual abuse, admitted to it, a woman then said he needed to step down, and now the woman is receiving more anger and hatred from Democratic Party elites than the man received. Not a good look, Democrats.
The fact that major Democratic donors have turned Gillibrand into Voldemort is not a bad reflection on her—it’s an indictment of the old guard of the Democratic Party and its financiers—who gave up their right to call themselves the adults in the room when they proved that they couldn’t come up with a plan to defeat a carnival barker who can’t stop telling everyone how badly he wants to have sex with his own daughter. What we are witnessing with the Clintonian wing of the party in the Trump Era is a modern reenactment of The Emperor’s New Clothes.
The Clinton legacy is making the Democratic Party more conservative and more focused on style than substance. That is what helped them lose in 2016, and that same sneering culture is currently being expressed through this bizarre kamikaze defense of Al freaking Franken from the upper echelon of the party. This needs to stop, lest we embarrass ourselves again in 2020.
Jacob Weindling is a staff writer for Paste politics. Follow him on Twitter at @Jakeweindling.