Zaman: On Gillibrand

Reconsidering a Dartmouth alumna’s political values.

by Raniyan Zaman | 5/28/19 2:05am

I hardly need to introduce U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand ’88. The famous Dartmouth alumna, a senator from New York who is also running for president, has stood out among Democrats as one of the fiercest critics of President Donald Trump. She boasts the most votes against Trump’s cabinet nominations of any Democratic senator running for president. Her progressive record should position her to be a competitive contender in the upcoming election. She was, after all, the first senator to insist Al Franken resign after evidence of inappropriate sexual behavior surfaced. And she has voiced firm support for the Green New Deal and some version of Medicare for All. She’s denounced the Trump administration’s “outrageous and unacceptable” treatment of immigrants and has also expressed urgency in ending America’s gun violence epidemic. 

Although her record makes her seem like the perfect resistance figure to take down Trump, this sentiment isn’t just misplaced — it’s dangerously false. In fact, Gillibrand’s political progressivism is a façade. 

An inconsistent voting record says it all. Take her stance on immigration, for instance. The same senator who stood in Dartmouth’s Alumni Hall in February and told the audience that America was founded by immigrants was also the U.S. Representative who in 2008 wanted funding for local police to enforce federal immigration laws, opposed any sort of amnesty for undocumented immigrants — “illegal immigrants,” as she referred to them — and voted against then-New York governor Eliot Spitzer’s plan to allow undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses. Before Gillibrand was a co-sponsor of the DREAM Act in 2010, she was a co-sponsor the SAVE Act, which aimed to increase immigration enforcement. 

As a representative, Gillibrand also voted in favor of the Bush tax cuts on the wealthy and for maintaining intrusive parts of the Patriot Act. In 2008, she held an “A” rating with the National Rifle Association. And just two years ago, Gillibrand co-sponsored the Israel Anti-Boycott Act, which made it punishable by up to 20 years in imprisonment and $1 million in fines for Americans to encourage or participate boycotts of Israel. She withdrew sponsorship of in a matter of months, but the incident is a textbook example of how quickly Gillibrand, even now, flip-flops on important issues. 

Of course, a certain amount of shifting on positions is to be expected and sometimes even embraced from politicians. Some might argue that sometimes it turns out for the best. Abraham Lincoln, who didn’t start off an abolitionist, initially favored limiting slavery to areas where it was already present; later, he signed the Emancipation Proclamation and is commonly (if somewhat mistakenly) credited with “freeing the slaves.” In 2008, Barack Obama told CNN he thought marriage should be limited to heterosexual couples. His position changed in 2012. This could be credited to an evolution of beliefs and growth — a nice way of saying that a politician has changed his or her mind as to what was more politically favorable. To be sure, a willingness to seek out new perspectives and grow as a leader is commendable. But constituents also have the right to expect and demand a degree of personal and political consistency from their elected officials. Despite Gillibrand’s many accomplishments, she lacks that consistency. 

Perhaps at any other college in the country, Gillibrand could be dismissed as just another flaky politician. But she is in many ways a uniquely Dartmouth problem. The College, perhaps overzealous in its enthusiasm for such a nationally-known alumna, has assisted with the construction of a false narrative of Gillibrand as a Trump resistance figure. Before I even arrived at Dartmouth for orientation, my inbox held a link to an issue of Dartmouth’s Alumni Magazine, which somewhat bizarrely lauded Gillibrand as a “crusader.” The office of communications ran an article on Gillibrand’s campus event in February at Alumni Hall parroting the highlights of her platform and ostensible progressivism, ignoring the many contradictions within her career.

One of Dartmouth’s most potent appeals is its incredibly loyal alumni network, and it’s clear that this loyalty has been extended to Gillibrand as well. But as campaigning for the 2020 election begins, Dartmouth students and graduates should remember that alumni loyalty must not cross into political loyalty without good reason and should not be doled out blindly to anyone with a Dartmouth degree. This extends far beyond Gillibrand. Plenty of Dartmouth alumni occupy powerful, prestigious positions — but we should resist celebrating these alumni because of the positions they hold. Dartmouth is an institution that values its powerful alumni network. This shouldn’t mean sticking by people. It should mean sticking by values.