Not long ago, Democratic power brokers and political strategists in both parties spoke about Kirsten Gillibrand’s seemingly inevitable presidential candidacy with a shrug of the shoulders or a roll of the eyes. She was eager all right, but that didn’t mean that she was ready, and they felt that too much of her brand was invested in a fight against sexual assault and abuse.
Now they rave: What a fierce warrior she is! How ahead of the curve!
While that’s a testament to her savvy and persistence, it’s also thanks to Donald Trump. His presence in the White House amplifies her signature issue, and he’s the best tormentor that an ambitious Democrat could have. In trying to demean her, he merely makes her more important. He also fuels chatter that the first female president will, after all, be a senator from New York.
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His administration devours the reputations of the people who join it. They mortify themselves. But there are exceptions, and one stands out. Her name is Nikki Haley, and her time in Trump’s service, as our ambassador to the United Nations, has only elevated her standing among Republicans – even those who detest him.
In her they see someone somehow respectful enough of Trump to hold onto her job but defiant enough to hold onto her dignity. Meanwhile, she’s adding serious foreign-policy experience to her two terms as the Indian-American governor of the deep-red state of South Carolina.
Could she, in fact, be our first female president? Watching her go hard after Iran and North Korea at the United Nations, many impressed conservatives are asking that question.
Perhaps I’m just scribbling in my silver linings playbook, but I find myself contemplating an absurdly delicious irony. It goes like this: An unabashed misogynist helps to sire the very milestone for women that his pummeling of Hillary Clinton postponed. He advances women just as surely as he has objectified and trivialized them.
Without too crazy a stretch, it’s possible to imagine Trump’s exit before the 2020 election and a historic matchup between Gillibrand and Haley. That would make up for everything that we’ve been through. Well, almost.
I don’t mean to idealize these two. Gillibrand is a fickle, fitful crusader. She flashed one set of colors to get to the House of Representatives from upstate New York a decade ago; she’s flashing another, more liberal set to win favor in a Democratic Party that has moved to the left.
After telling The Times’ Jennifer Steinhauer last month that Bill Clinton should have vacated the presidency when his sexual involvement with a young intern and his attempts to cover it up came to light, she seemed nervous and determined to soften the impact of what she’d said.
But say it she did. And she recovered her resolve quickly enough to call for the resignations of Al Franken and, just this week, Trump. He predictably directed one of his infantile Twitter tirades at her, dismissing her as a “lightweight” who “would do anything” for campaign contributions. She had the excellent sense not to bristle but to beam, and she vowed that she wouldn’t be silenced.
“Clinton, Franken, Trump – she’s relentless,” a senior Republican operative said to me the other day. “Not a bad quality if you want to run for president.”
Haley hasn’t demonstrated policy fluency or intellectual depth so much as political dexterity and an exquisitely calibrated measure of boldness. Those are trademarks of hers. They were on display in South Carolina in 2015, when she made the case for the removal of the Confederate flag from the Statehouse grounds.
And they’re on display anew in her current role. She has broken with Trump repeatedly, on Russia and other matters, but never so flamboyantly that she wrested the narrative from him or provoked his public wrath.
On Sunday on CBS’ “Face the Nation,” she answered a question about the women who have accused the president of past sexual misconduct in a manner hardly laundered by the likes of Sarah Huckabee Sanders.
“They should be heard, and they should be dealt with,” she said. “And I think we heard from them prior to the election. And I think any woman who has felt violated or mistreated in any way, they have every right to speak up.” Notice the hedge in the second of her three sentences, a sort of concession to Trump. With a velvet touch, she’s rapping him on the knuckles but staying employed – a minor miracle in this White House.
Gillibrand and Haley aren’t the only female politicians experiencing a Trump bump. In the toxic atmosphere that he has created, there’s extra oxygen for Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris as well. There are swelling ranks of women starting campaigns at all levels of government. There’s a reinvigorated discussion about the wisdom of having more women in power. And there’s a route to it.
I’ve affixed many labels to Trump, but I missed a major one. He’s an accidental feminist.