As the 2020 Democratic Primary begins to take shape with multiple candidates travelling to the early contest states, voters have started to confront candidates about their records. The anticipated field of Democrats running for President may exceed 20, and the depth of experience ranges from a few terms in the House to over 40 years in elected office. Regardless of the length of their record, every candidate has at least a few votes that likely would receive scrutiny — especially as the Democratic Party has gradually shifted to the left and re-centered social justice as a prominent component of their message. For any candidate that runs in 2020, it will be imperative for them to provide an explanation to contextualize their decisions, and to take voters on their journey conveying how they’ve evolved on the issues.
But “A year in politics is an eternity,” as my high school government teacher would say. Many of the candidates who will run for president have extensive records that certainly will offer contradictions that may appear downright incompatible in 2019. How can a candidate effectively make a persuasive case to voters that they’ve experienced a change of heart regarding an issue, without emitting vibes of political opportunism and fomenting distrust?
To me, the best strategy is honesty and inviting voters to reflect with them. While the campaign is very early, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York so far is conjuring up a blueprint for any candidate that needs to reckon with their record. Gillibrand’s positions and rhetoric on gun & immigration policy while she was in the House of Representatives in the late 2000’s sound extremely conservative in today’s political discourse. Many observers will aptly contextualize the situation: Gillibrand represented a conservative, rural, mostly white district, winning as a part of the 2006 Midterm Wave. Her views fit the district, and there was a relevant corner of the Democratic Party that largely agreed with her. This context is important, and there is a plethora of political observers and congressional historians who can fill this void.
The context from others, however, isn’t what I believe voters will yearn for. While several well-informed people can offer an explanation, what makes Gillibrand’s response distinct is she openly grapples with her record in front of voters with humility. She has called her previous views on Immigration “callous,” and has displayed sincerity describing her thought-process when she realized she wasn’t comfortable with what she believed in. This extends beyond her voting record — Ms. Gillibrand offers a raw, honest explanation for why she called on Al Franken to resign. In a political climate where there is an emphasis on competitors attempting to uncover deleterious votes or pining to call out hypocrisy, a politician who can convincingly offer a humanistic response to the difficult issues facing our country has an opening to inspire a new wave of hope and redefine American identity to share the values we aspire this nation to hold. In my opinion, Gillibrand tells a sincere story of how her views have involved in a way that many Americans can relate to.
Every day there is an exasperated public awaiting a government that doesn’t rely on the worst parts about our society. I don’t know if this strategy will catapult Senator Gillibrand to the nomination. We’re still over a year out from the Iowa Caucus, and have plenty of “eternity” to experience between now and then. Maybe another candidate will emerge who has a better strategy to confront voters than Gillibrand. But at this point, Ms. Gillibrand’s schematic is the gold standard, and something I hope every candidate will adopt for the 2020 campaign.