As Gillibrand Pushes Left, Her Economic Agenda Tilts to Populism

After President Trump announced his nomination of Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand led demonstrators in chants of “Stand against Kavanaugh!” on the courthouse steps in Washington.

WASHINGTON — Standing before a crowd of a thousand union members and progressive activists last month at a conference here that served as a 2020 audition for aspiring Democrats, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand was asked if she supported imposing a new tax on financial transactions in the stock market.

It once would have been unthinkable for a senator from New York, the epicenter of Wall Street money and influence, to back a tax so targeted at her own constituents. But Ms. Gillibrand did not hesitate to answer.

“I do,” she said. The crowd erupted in cheers.

The unequivocal embrace of the tax proposal was just the latest in a series of policy pronouncements and political moves that have thrust Ms. Gillibrand toward the front and left of the Democratic Party in the age of President Trump.

While Ms. Gillibrand has made her name and reputation on fighting for women’s issues, especially around sexual assault and harassment — “60 Minutes” favorably branded her “The #MeToo Senator” earlier this year — she has spent recent months injecting her portfolio with a dose of the kind of economic populism that infused Senator Bernie Sanders’s campaign in the 2016 presidential primary.

If that sounds like the fundamental planks of a 2020 presidential campaign, Ms. Gillibrand, who is running for re-election in November, demurred. “For me, it’s all about 2018,” she insisted.

She was among the first this year to endorse a federal jobs guarantee that is newly in vogue on the left. She was the first senator to introduce legislation to require that every post office in the country offer retail banking services in an effort to curb the predatory payday loan industry. She has announced a push to provide training to help those who lose their jobs to automation, embraced legalizing marijuana, pushed to tax drug companies for prescription drug price hikes, backed the Wall Street tax and announced that she would reject all future corporate political action committee money.

“Labels are hard,” Ms. Gillibrand said in a wide-ranging interview about her agenda. “But I’m comfortable with ‘populist.’”

Her leftward thrust on economics — coming on the heels of her progression from a first-term congresswoman with an A rating from the National Rifle Association and guns under her bed to a gun-free senator with an F rating — is likely to resurrect questions about where her convictions end and political convenience begins. Mr. Trump’s campaign manager, Brad Parscale, told The New York Times she is a case study in Democratic “political contortionism.”

Ms. Gillibrand, unsurprisingly, views her economic platform in more generous terms, with roots in President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “second Bill of Rights” and Martin Luther King Jr.’s call for full employment. “It’s certainly a bolder idea, and it’s larger in scale, than all the things I’ve worked on in the last 10 years,” she said.

On Capitol Hill, Ms. Gillibrand is viewed by her colleagues as one of a half-dozen senators most clearly positioning themselves for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, along with Mr. Sanders of Vermont, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Cory Booker of New Jersey and Kamala Harris of California.

Those five were the senators who spoke at the 2020 audition last month, and they have engaged in a monthslong policy shadow dance, each signing onto others’ proposals while zipping to the front of the line with fresh, liberal ideas of their own.

Ms. Gillibrand has signed onto legislation to decriminalize marijuana (a Booker bill), agreed on the need to cut interest rates for indebted student-loan borrowers (currently Warren legislation, though Ms. Gillibrand had pushed a similar measure before), and pushed a bill to strengthen unions (along with Mr. Sanders). She was the first to endorse aloud a jobs guarantee, while Mr. Booker has introduced a pilot program and Mr. Sanders is promising more sweeping legislation to come. On postal banking, Mr. Sanders and Ms. Warren endorsed the idea first; Ms. Gillibrand was the first to put it into legislation.

When Ms. Gillibrand forswore corporate PAC money in February, she was following Mr. Sanders and Ms. Warren; Mr. Booker joined them within hours. (Ms. Harris, at a town hall, initially waffled on doing so. “It depends,” she said. But she soon reconsidered and joined the rest of the bloc by late April.)

For Ms. Gillibrand, it represented a stark reversal for a politician who raised nearly $5 million from business PACs earlier in her career, and was confronted in 2013 by John Oliver on “The Daily Show” about her substantial contributions from the likes of Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan Chase & Company.

“What is required of you, for that money?” Mr. Oliver asked. “Because it makes me uncomfortable.”

Today, Ms. Gillibrand, who has long called for publicly financed campaigns, says that her decade-plus in Washington has taught her that “every ill in Congress, no matter what it is, it will stem from the fact that money corrupts politicians and politics.”

Ms. Gillibrand’s leftward tack has manifested itself in other ways. She has continued to outpace her colleagues in opposing Mr. Trump’s nominees to his administration and the federal courts. (She rushed late at night to the courthouse steps after Mr. Trump nominated Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, and led chants of “Stand against Kavanaugh!”)

And she became the first senator to call for abolishing the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.

Her call to “abolish ICE” drew the attention of Mr. Parscale, the Trump campaign manager. He posted to Twitter an archived screenshot of her campaign website from when she was running in a conservative upstate New York House district. Then, she had opposed giving “amnesty to illegal aliens” and called for English to be the country’s “official language.”

“You might want to update your website,” Mr. Parscale wrote.

“Her only core belief is that her positions can be completely reversed to meet the mood of the progressive left,” Mr. Parscale later said.

How left is Ms. Gillibrand today?

She is now aligned with four of the key platform planks of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the 28-year-old Democratic socialist who shocked the political world when she beat Representative Joseph Crowley last month in a Democratic primary in New York. Both support Medicare-for-all (which Ms. Gillibrand backed in her first 2006 House race), a federal jobs guarantee, rejecting corporate PAC funds and abolishing ICE.

Ms. Gillibrand acknowledges her shift on immigration — “I am very proud where I am today,” she said — but cast her economic policies as in line with her past, citing more than once in the interview that she had opposed the bank bailout during the 2008 financial crisis, despite pressure from constituents and donors.

Nationally, Ms. Gillibrand remains most closely identified with her stances and work on issues around women and sexual harassment, from her yearslong push to remove military sexual-assault cases from the chain of command to being the first Senate Democrat to call for then-Senator Al Franken to resign following allegations of sexual misconduct last year.

Weeks earlier, she had declared that President Bill Clinton should have resigned over his inappropriate sexual relationship with an intern. The Clintons had been among Ms. Gillibrand’s earliest and most important benefactors. (Hillary Clinton wrote the foreword to Ms. Gillibrand’s book.)

The one-two combination made Ms. Gillibrand a lightning rod in some liberal circles; George Soros, the billionaire financier, has said he is rooting against her in 2020 and some stalwart Clinton loyalists and donors have turned on her, too.

“She’s living in a different context. And she did it for different reasons,” Mr. Clinton said of Ms. Gillibrand on his recent book tour.

Ms. Gillibrand’s Republican opponent for re-election this year, Chele Farley, has accused the senator of being “busy running for president” in her first television ad. And Ms. Gillibrand does keep an aggressive schedule that includes travel across the country to hold high-dollar fund-raisers and campaign for other Senate candidates, especially women.

Ms. Gillibrand is also writing a children’s picture book, profiling 10 women suffragists, due out in November.

Her outspokenness on sexual misconduct and her early adoption of the “abolish ICE” tagline have drawn national attention recently, but in the New York world it was her openness to a Wall Street tax that was seen as the clearest sign that her political outlook had expanded far beyond her home state’s borders.

“Why would the representative of the U.S. financial capital be putting an additional tax on the financial industry?” asked Kathryn S. Wylde, the president of Partnership for New York City, a powerful business group. “It seems counterintuitive.”

Ms. Gillibrand, a former Manhattan lawyer, had once been among the biggest beneficiaries of Wall Street campaign cash in Congress. In her 2012 re-election, she was the No. 3 recipient of money from the securities and investment sector, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, one spot behind the Republican then-House Speaker John A. Boehner.

Now her increasingly populist rhetoric and agenda appears to be a calculated gamble that, should she run in 2020, the traditional donor class by then may be eclipsed by the grass-roots fund-raising model for national Democrats.

Indeed, her aides estimate that forgoing corporate money will cost Ms. Gillibrand $800,000 to $1 million this year alone. But she has invested heavily in digital fund-raising, collecting roughly $4.5 million online in 2017 alone, according to her campaign. About 97 percent of her donations this cycle have been $100 or less.

Ms. Gillibrand sounded happy with where she is now. “It’s a much better policy to take no corporate money,” she said.

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