After hearing innumerable advertisements denouncing Kirsten Gillibrand as a typical liberal, it's stunning to see the new U.S. Senator denounced from downstate as a reactionary gun nut. Especially venomous is Maureen Dowd's latest column, in which she claims that Gillibrand is hated by her own colleagues in the state's Democratic delegation to the House of Representatives. Dowd reports that her colleagues nicknamed her "Tracy Flick" after Reese Witherspoon's character in the 1999 comedy Election, allegedly for being pushy and opportunistic. She condemns Gillibrand for opposing the Bailout, which Dowd, displaying her local bias, insists should be thought of as the "New York bailout" rather than the "Wall Street bailout." The columnist still can't get over Governor Paterson's refusal to annoint Caroline Kennedy, for whom Dowd has only fulsome praise ("a smart, policy-oriented, civic-minded woman"), as if Gillibrand's two elections in a traditionally Republican district count for nothing compared to the rejected one's "magic capital" and her purported friendship with President Obama. For this tragedy, Dowd blames the "vindictive" Clinton family. I don't often defend the Clintons, but on this occasion I'll go as far to question the objectivity of their accuser, given her sycophantic attitude toward the Kennedys.
Of course, it becomes increasingly clear that people like Dowd think that a traditionally Republican district is not worth winning if it means that the Democrats who win don't meet the metropolitan standard of liberalism. There is an obvious degree of sectional snobbishness in downstate's repudiation of Gillibrand. How good can she be, they must be asking down there, if we haven't heard of her? How good can she be, they imply, if she's from up there? The way some people have commented, you would think that Gillibrand is the second coming of Sarah Palin. That comes across most strongly on the subject of guns. Gillibrand's most likely primary opponent next year has called her an "NRA poster child" and anti-gun organizations are, if you'll excuse my language, already training their sights on her. Frankly, I don't have a strong opinion on Gillibrand's position on guns, but I presume that she's probably more pro-gun than I am. However, I object to that being made a make-or-break issue, and I object to the insinuation that New York City's attitude toward guns is somehow automatically more legitimate than the prevailing opinion in Gillibrand's old district. Ideally, a large city and a comparatively rural district ought to be able to have different rules, but I'm not going to base a vote for the U.S. Senate on that issue.
The whole episode demonstrates that even ideological labels are relative and subject to self-interested manipulation. As far as Republicans hereabouts are concerned, Gillibrand is indisputably liberal, but to downstate Democrats, it seems, she's nothing of the kind. Does that make her a centrist? I don't know if there is such a thing, because I question whether there's a "center" of consistently moderate positions on issues that can somehow always be correct. A pragmatist, then? That's for her former constituents to say, for now, and for the rest of us to learn from now on. Democrats throughout the state will have their say on Gillibrand next year, and the rest of us, perhaps, in November 2010. This final act of the senatorial farce should teach us not to jump to conclusions based on labels. People are going to label Gillibrand to serve their own purposes, and she'll do the same to serve herself. What we ought to do during her year in the big league is judge her not by labels, be they ideological or geographic, but by what she does and how she votes. That might be more time-consuming, but that's what we're supposed to do.