Gillibrand’s Vox (Un)Populi

(“A well-known phenomenon in the world of language and gender studies is that females get interrupted more than males,” Dr. Vaux told The Observer. “Leahy’s interruption of Gillibrand’s speech was a classic example of this.”)

“It is one of the first big opportunities she had to be in front of a big audience and really distinguish herself and appear senatorial, and she just didn’t,” said Jennifer Duffy, who covers Senate races for the Cook Political Report.

“It could be a combination of youth and voice. I think youth is a harder thing for women,” Ms. Duffy said, citing the frequent comparisons of Ms. Gillibrand to Tracy Flick—the ambitious (and blond) young politician from the movie Election—a comparison for which there’s no real male equivalent.

Political science professor Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia said that even the voice, and overall impression of Flickiness, didn’t entirely explain why Ms. Gillibrand has been just so forgettable.

“There are a lot of women in the Senate who are very memorable,” said Mr. Sabato, who added that he literally could not remember the last time he saw Ms. Gillibrand give a floor speech, even though he knew she had given plenty.

“She just kind of blends into the background,” he said.

 

In the Shadow of Schumer

In early December, Ms. Gillibrand sat in Fox’s New York studio for a soft, Monday morning interview with Greg Kelly of Good Day NY. “One thing I have noticed: Senator Schumer, your colleague, he’s out there just about every Sunday on some issue,” Mr. Kelly said. “Yesterday it was ATM fees, last week it was—T-shirts in Asia?—I don’t know, some issue, but he’s always out there. We haven’t seen that much of you. Is that just deference to the senior senator, or how does that work?”

Ms. Gillibrand explained she had been out traveling the state, and promised that everyone would be seeing more of her. Of course, she did not point out to Mr. Kelly that she had, in fact, appeared on Good Day NY several times since her appointment.

Over time, it seems that Ms. Gillibrand’s advisers have worked so hard to blend her into her new office, controlling her public appearances and restricting the opportunities for off-the-cuff answers that might go astray, that she now almost leaves no trace.

“The purpose here was to create the stealth senator,” posited consultant Hank Sheinkopf. “Make no trouble. Have no primary. Have no general election and just keep moving. So if you don’t take any controversial positions, nobody pays any attention to you. And if you don’t spend a lot of time in New York City, where the media is, then nobody else will pay much attention to you. You just kind of float along.”

The strategy appeared to be working, until two weeks ago. “If Ford jumps in, the strategy of ‘make no waves and make no trouble’ backfires, because what occurs here is, she hasn’t used her time well enough,” Mr. Sheinkopf said.

The consensus among consultants these days is that Ms. Gillibrand’s carefully calibrated attempt to carve out a legislative and advocacy niche for herself as Senator Working Mom—with a focus on issues like healthy school lunches and safe baby products—just isn’t substantive or ambitious enough for the occupant of a seat once held by luminaries like Bobby Kennedy, Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Hillary Clinton.

“Clearly, her handlers want to diminish the number of mistakes she can have,” said political veteran George Arzt. “But people want to see her out there. People want to see their representatives out there. People want to touch and feel them. Harold Ford is out there. He makes a lot of mistakes, but Harold Ford is out there.”

And now, it would seem, Ms. Gillibrand has to be out there, too.

The good news: Maybe presentation isn’t everything.

Whether she arrived there with unseemly haste, and for reasons that were far more pragmatic than heartfelt, she is, as her supporters point out, “right” on the issues in question.

“If we did the Pepsi taste test, and we presented the two sets of positions that the senator and her potential opponent have—without identifying whose they were—there’s no question in my mind that Democrats in New York would choose Senator Gillibrand,” said Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union head Stuart Appelbaum.

Also, maybe more to the point, New Yorkers have a proven willingness to elect senators based on attributes other than their ability to make speeches.

“For Christ’s sake, have you ever seen Schumer speak? His graduation address every time he comes here is the same speech. The guy is not an orator. He’s not John Kennedy,” said SUNY New Paltz professor Gerald Benjamin. “Interpersonally, she’s very good. And she’ll be coached, and she’ll be trained.”

Additional reporting by Azi Paybarah and William Akers