At the moment, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand is receiving lots of positive attention for being at the forefront of efforts in the Senate to do away with Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, a policy that has come to seem embarrassingly retrograde for most of her party.
"Our new senator has been proactive in reaching out to our community and asking how she could be helpful in changing policy in Washington," said Alan Van Capelle, the executive director of the Empire State Pride Agenda. Van Cappelle also notes that she has been “spearheading” national initiatives of importance to gay-rights advocates.
This should all be very helpful stuff for Gillibrand, who, as a member of Congress, was considerably to the right of the Democratic primary electorate statewide on a number of high-profile issues.
For Gillibrand and her handlers, though, it’s not quite enough. They want the record to show not only that she is a friend of gay rights now, but that her outspokenness on gay rights since becoming a senator is perfectly consistent with her prior record.
As a result, the Gillibrand press team has aggressively countered any suggestion that she has shifted at all on gay issues, arguing that her relative silence on gay rights previously was just a function of the powerlessness to effect change, pointing to qualified remarks she made once about her personal support for gay marriage as evidence of her true pre-Senate position.
"Senator Gillibrand has always supported repeal, but felt there was zero opportunity to repeal this legislation when George Bush was in the White House," her spokesman, Matt Canter, told the New York Post recently.
Presumably, her political advisers—a group that includes her senior colleague and mentor, Chuck Schumer—see gay-rights advocacy as a unique opportunity for her to send a signal to liberal donors and activists as well as to super-prime Democrats in the city and suburbs that, despite her recent past as a conservative Democratic House member from an upstate district, she has the same values they do.
On the issue of gay rights, unlike, say, guns and immigration, she was certainly not actively opposed to the consensus position of her party. In the House, Gillibrand kept quiet on gay issues, generally voting with her Democratic colleagues while taking care not to attach her name to any potentially controversial legislation or to speak out in on-the-record situations on hot-button issues like Don’t Ask Don’t Tell or same-sex marriage.
Her office says that the reason they need to fight against any notion of an “evolution” on gay rights—despite the fact that Senator Gillibrand is clearly more outspoken and aggressive on the issue than Representative Gillibrand ever was—is to prevent the intellectually lazy media from characterizing all of Gillibrand's changes in emphasis and focus as flip-flops simply because that fits a pre-established narrative.
Which is one way of looking at it, tactically. Another is that picking a fight, in the absence of much actual evidence, about what was in Kirsten Gillibrand’s heart before she became a senator is a counterproductive distraction from her significant advocacy on a high-profile issue.
"The Sotomayor stuff didn't go so well, so you are seeing a regrouping," said Jennifer Duffy, a senior political analyst who specialized in the Senate at the Cook Political Report. "The stuff about Don't Ask Don't Tell—this is quintessential Schumer. She needs something to run on. This is what I've seen him do with vulnerable incumbents before. So this seems to be the one that he has her picking up, or that they've decided to pick up."
There’s also another drawback to the contention that Gillibrand was secretly always a champion for gay rights: It’s that the argument, substantively, is weak.
When she was in the House, according to gay-rights groups, Gillibrand had a more conservative record on gay issues than the rest of her colleagues in the New York delegation.
As late as the day before her selection, she had the lowest rating of all of New York's Democratic representatives from the Human Rights Campaign, which gave her less-than-stellar-marks on her commitment to gay marriage, the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell, and legislation to grant same-sex partners of U.S. citizens and permanent residents the same immigration benefits of married couples.
As I reported at the beginning of the year, Gillibrand’s posture toward the demands of gay activists changed quickly in the hours preceding her Senate appointment, when an ally of Governor David Paterson called her to say that she needed political cover from Van Capelle and from Christine Quinn, the City Council speaker and longtime gay-rights activist.
Gillibrand promptly called Van Capelle and began by expressing her commitment to same-sex marriage. In her introductory press conference as the state's next senator, Gillibrand stood on a stage with many of the state's elected officials and, to reporters and television cameras, stated a position on gay issues that went further than Clinton before her and Schumer, standing next to her.
"I will strive for marriage equality," she said.
Some time after that, when she began taking fire for her admitted leftward drift on guns and immigration, she started arguing that her conspicuous embrace of gay-rights issues wasn’t a shift at all.
Gillibrand cited a radio appearance from October 2008 with New York Post state editor Fred Dicker in which she made the case for federal support for civil unions and for a state-by-state determination of whether to label those unions marriage. (At the time, this was the default position for Democrats, including Hillary Clinton and, then, Chuck Schumer, who weren’t ready to support legalizing gay marriage. When pressed by Dicker, Gillibrand said that as an individual and a voter in New York—not as a legislator—she was in favor of gay-marriage rights.)
But in another interview around the same time, she had fully articulated an official position in support of expanded benefits and rights for same-sex couples in a civil union, and observed that many people were still uncomfortable with the notion of calling that union marriage.
"I think the way you win this issue is you focus on getting the rights and privileges protected throughout the entire country, and then you do the state-by-state advocacy for having the title,” she said.
That was then.
In June, Gillibrand explored the possibility of repealing Don't Ask Don't Tell by offering an amendment to the defense authorization bill, but found insufficient support among her colleagues.
On July 27, Gillibrand, likely with some help from her senior partner, managed to get a hearing in the Senate Armed Services Committee on Don't Ask, Don't Tell.
"This policy is wrong for our national security and wrong for the moral foundation upon which our country was founded," Gillibrand said in a press release. "I thank Chairman Levin for agreeing to hold this important hearing. Numerous military leaders are telling us that the times have changed. ‘Don't Ask, Don't Tell' is an unfair, outdated measure that violates the civil rights of some of our bravest, most heroic men and women. By repealing this policy, we will increase America's strength – both militarily and morally."
Gillibrand's office says, correctly, that by pushing for the hearing, she is making one of the first significant efforts to repeal the law in 15 years.
Despite their best efforts, Gillibrand and her advisers are still getting headlines in the New York Post like "Gillibrand Flips on Don't Ask Don't Tell." The Post story noted that when Gillibrand sat on the committee that oversaw the matter in the House, she refused to co-sponsor a measure that would have repealed the policy.
Her campaign responded by saying that she always supported the aims of the measure, and, after the story came out, the Human Rights Campaign released a statement praising her commitment on the issue. (“In the last several months, Sen. Gillibrand has truly become a national leader in the effort to repeal ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.’”)
But there’s a much simpler way of making the criticism irrelevant.
As University of Virginia political scientist (and noted sound-bite machine) Larry Sabato put it, "She can now say, ‘Look at this, I am way out in front of even the White House on this.’”
Isn’t that the important thing?