Kirsten Gillibrand

Gillibrand swings left on economics

U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York has recently embraced several populist progressive proposals.

US. Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand and Bernie Sanders announce the Medicare for All Act of 2017 on Capitol Hill in September.

US. Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand and Bernie Sanders announce the Medicare for All Act of 2017 on Capitol Hill in September. MICHAEL REYNOLDS/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock

In keeping with her trajectory of becoming more progressive on immigration and gun control, U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand has recently moved sharply leftward on economic issues, embracing a number of proposals to expand the social safety net and bolster lower-income families.

On April 25, Gillibrand proposed legislation requiring banking services to be provided at every U.S. post office as an alternative to for-profit payday lending services. This would save money for lower-income households that don’t have bank accounts.

In March, she became one of the first senators to endorse a universal jobs guarantee for every American, and has since tweeted about the idea. A universal jobs guarantee would require the federal government to provide a paying job to every American who wants one, using the labor to address needs such as infrastructure improvement and child and elder caregiving.

Self-described “democratic socialist” U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders is reportedly preparing a comprehensive plan for a jobs guarantee, including a $15 minimum wage and health benefits. If Gillibrand signs on to the legislation, it would be another in a series of moves she has made to align herself with the Vermont senator and his large left-wing following. Late last year, Gillibrand also became a co-sponsor of Sanders’ bill to institute single-payer health care, in which the government would expand Medicare to cover everyone.

Collectively, these proposals would cost trillions of dollars, amounting to the largest expansion of the government’s role in the economy since at least President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, if not President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal. Although the proposals would lift millions of Americans out of poverty and dramatically expand access to health care, critics question the price tag and raise the possibility of unintended damage to the private sector. (Gillibrand and other progressives respond by noting that the recent Republican tax bill spent trillions of dollars on tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations.)

Gillibrand’s support for such an expanded role for government marks a new phase in her career, which has not previously been identified with economic populism, possibly indicating ambitions for higher office.

The potential 2020 presidential contender has become steadily more progressive during her nine years in the Senate, especially compared to her brief tenure as a congresswoman from an upstate, Republican-leaning district. But her previous moves were usually on social issues, such as evolving on gun control, consistently opposing President Donald Trump’s cabinet nominees and championing the #MeToo movement in Congress.

Gillibrand’s embrace of progressive social and economic causes is unlikely to threaten her prospects for reelection this year, as it may reflect the preferences of voters in a progressive state such as New York. Her Republican opponent, Chele Chiavacci Farley, is largely unknown throughout the state and is visibly struggling with being associated with her party’s polarizing president.

Recent polls show that Gillibrand has a steady favorability rating, although her popularity is lower than that of longtime U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer, who is more moderate than the junior senator. Gillibrand’s favorability rating hovered around 50 percent in a recent Marist College poll and a recent Siena College poll, and 59 percent of Democrats said they would vote to reelect her in the Marist poll. In the Siena poll, 47 percent of respondents said they would vote to reelect her, although 58 percent said they would vote for Gillibrand in a matchup with her Republican opponent, Farley, presumably because Democratic-leaning voters who may not be especially enthusiastic Gillibrand supporters would still support her over a Republican. Gillibrand was reelected by a wide margin in 2012.

The senator may be opening herself up to accusations from Farley that she has flip-flopped on her positions, a tactic the Republican has already tried on Gillibrand’s evolution on gun control. But the effectiveness of that attack is blunted by the fact that her new views are already shared by many in the state. “The way she's evolving on some of these positions is certainly very much in line with the majority of New York voters,” said Steve Greenberg, a Democratic consultant and pollster for Siena College.

It’s also in line with the insurgent progressive movement that is shaping up Democratic politics and that will play a role in determining the party’s presidential nominee in 2020. Gillibrand may be trying to forge a progressive path on economic issues to further distance herself from inevitable comparisons to Hillary Clinton. As a blonde, female senator from New York with a growing national profile, Gillibrand is often juxtaposed with her former mentor. Clinton’s paid speeches to Goldman Sachs and perceived coziness with Wall Street was an albatross around her neck in the 2016 campaign. Sanders’s enthusiastic and surprisingly large following showed a hunger among some Democrats for a more aggressive posture on economic equality.

Gillibrand may have had that in mind when she told The Nation in March that she supported government-guaranteed jobs, a floor for wages and expanded collective bargaining rights.

“Corporate interests have controlled the agenda in Washington for decades so we can’t tinker at the margins and expect to rebuild the middle class and stamp out inequality,” she said. “We need to get back to an economy that rewards workers, not just shareholder value and CEO pay.”

If you replaced her feminine, upstate timbre and her composed coif with a Brooklyn accent and a mass of wild white hair, she could be mistaken for another senator who has railed against “the millionaires and the billionaires.”

Of course, the economic policies Gillibrand is promoting are unlikely to pass in a Republican-controlled U.S. Senate before the November election. A pragmatist such as Clinton might argue that proposing dramatic legislation in an institution defined by perpetual gridlock won’t result in substantive change.

For now, however, her leftward shift may not change the minds of the 47 percent of registered New Yorkers who would vote for her again, the 36 percent who believe it’s time for someone else, or the 16 percent who are unsure, according to Siena College. But it might help her in Iowa two years from now.

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