Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand is getting all kinds of props this week for being the only Democrat to vote against all Donald Trump’s appointments besides Nikki Haley for United Nations ambassador. High school student and Democratic activist Rachel Gonzalez tweeted out the news on Tuesday afternoon, imploring readers to remember Gillibrand’s votes “in 2020.” The tweet has been liked 81,000 times as of Thursday afternoon.
Insofar as hearts on a tweet can offer insight into the conventional wisdom of a political party, it seems like Gillibrand’s principled stance is setting her up as a recognizable Trump opponent if she decides to run for president, as many have speculated she might, in two years or so. The Senate, with its filibuster, is one of the only bulwarks the country has left against an authoritarian administration that is already following through on its most damaging campaign promises. Massive marches, like the ones that went down in hundreds of communities around the world the day after Trump’s inauguration, are good for keeping the people engaged and energized. But without leaders in office who will turn progressive, humane values into votes, the worst those people can imagine of a Trump regime will likely come to fruition.
That’s why liberals were incensed to learn that Sen. Elizabeth Warren, another oft-proposed 2020 presidential candidate, gave Ben Carson her vote to lead the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Carson has never worked in government, knows not one thing about housing nor urban development, and has repeatedly expressed contempt for the marginalized and low-income Americans he’d be tasked with serving as HUD secretary. Thanks to the likes of Warren and fellow progressive darling Sen. Sherrod Brown, who claim Carson is better than any likely alternative because he’s never literally threatened to demolish the department he may lead, Carson now has a unanimous mandate from the Senate’s banking committee.
Gillibrand, meanwhile, is proving that she won’t back down from her beliefs, even if her vote is symbolic. She was the only senator, period, to vote against retired Gen. James Mattis for secretary of defense, on the grounds that federal law prevents a military leader from taking that civilian leadership post until she or he has been retired for seven years. (Mattis retired in May 2013.) The Senate had to pass a special waiver to allow Mattis to take on the role; Gillibrand and 16 other Democrats voted against it. When the waiver passed anyway, Gillibrand was the only one of the 17 who stood her ground.
“Our American democracy was built around the concept of civilian control of the military,” she wrote in a New York Times op-ed about her opposition to Mattis’ appointment. “New presidents are typically allowed latitude to appoint their cabinet members. But President-elect Trump is not entitled to ignore our laws and change the fundamental government constructs that have enabled our country’s success.”
Gillibrand has also promised to oppose Betsy DeVos, Trump’s zealot of an education secretary pick. Haley, Gillibrand’s one “yes” vote so far, is far from an ideal candidate for a U.N. representative. She’s spoken against the Black Lives Matter movement and helped restrict women’s access to health care by signing unconstitutional abortion laws in her state. But she’s also been humble enough to give credit to Hillary Clinton’s leadership and firm-footed enough to oppose Trump’s nativism in her State of the Union response. For a position Trump would like to eliminate, Haley seems like the best person he’s capable of putting forward.
Since Gillibrand’s Cabinet votes attracted applause from the left, a spokesman for the senator has assured the Washington Post that “the only race [Gillibrand] is interested in is her reelection to the Senate in 2018.” But anti-Trump dedication promises to be a major plus for any 2020 candidate, and the senator is already setting herself up as a beacon of principle in unprincipled times. Gillibrand has already made a name for herself as a fierce advocate for equal pay, women’s health care, and accountability for sexual assault perpetrators and their apologists. And since Trump and the new Congress took office, she’s registered her opposition to their agenda with a proposed amendment that would have protected the no-cost birth control, maternity care coverage, and gender-neutral premiums guaranteed by the Affordable Care Act.
Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, another name often mentioned in whispers of the Democratic presidential pipeline, has also been laying breadcrumbs for good anti-Trump publicity in recent weeks. (Booker voted against John F. Kelly for secretary of homeland security and Mike Pompeo for CIA director, as well as against the Mattis waiver, but ended up voting for Mattis and Haley.) Booker made a grand to-do about going against Senate conventions to testify directly against Sen. Jeff Sessions for the U.S. attorney general gig. “In a choice between standing with Senate norms and standing up for what my conscience tells me is best for our country, I will always choose conscience and country,” he said. The stump speech writes itself.