It’s all happening. On Tuesday, Kirsten Gillibrand—the junior Democratic senator from New York—confirmed her long-rumored intentions to run for president.
Gillibrand told Stephen Colbert that she has formed a presidential exploratory committee, a preliminary phase before she assembles a full campaign staff and issues a more formal and elaborate announcement. In the hours before The Late Show aired Colbert’s conversation with Gillibrand, The Washington Post published a summary of Gillibrand’s campaign platform, which includes universalizing paid family leave, ending cash bail, lowering infant mortality rates, and nationalizing health insurance. In Congress, Gillibrand has led several campaigns against sexual harassment and assault, and her most famous effort culminated with Al Franken’s resignation from the Senate in 2017.
Gillibrand enters a crowded field that isn’t technically populated quite yet. Elizabeth Warren, Julian Castro, and Tulsi Gabbard are declared; Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, Amy Klobuchar, Beto O’Rourke, and Sherrod Brown are all expected to announce in the next few weeks. Brown says he is launching an Iowa speaking tour at the end of the month. More will soon follow. It’s only January 2019, but the 2020 presidential election has begun.
The “exploratory committees” will mark the laziest phase of a long primary season; the dramatic in-fighting among Democratic candidates is still a few months away. For now, it’s is limited to all the candidates’ premature, pugnacious supporters, very many having tripled-down on their allegiances—and their grievances—before most of these candidates have declared their campaigns with explicit certainty. The Democrats are announcing their intentions to announce their intentions; the political calendar has afforded everyone a single, pathetic month of post-midterms reprieve.
For now, the Democratic hopefuls are all jockeying for basic prestige. Gillibrand hasn’t loomed as large as Booker, the boy wonder who seems to have been running for president since 2006; or Harris, the former prosecutor who embodies the potential for a more urgent and aggressive style than Clinton offered in her confrontations with Trump three years ago. Gillibrand has, however, positioned herself as the leading anti-establishment Democrat in a primary largely defined by left-wing insurrection against the party’s more centrist figureheads, such as Clinton, Joe Biden, and Booker. The leading Democratic candidates (there are many) have all appropriated some banner promises from the last Sanders campaign—they’ve cosponsored “Medicare for all” in the Senate, for instance—but Gillibrand seems ideally poised to resolve the great feud between the left-wing and “neoliberal” factions. Gillibrand has angered the Clintons and lived to run for president regardless. Neither a centrist nor a socialist, she will attempt to split the difference.
Good luck with that: Trump’s presidency has proved so illicit and contentious that Democratic activists and liberal pundits have yet to truly move on from the 2016 Clinton-vs.-Sanders contest. Sanders may enter the 2020 race to relitigate the last Democratic primary himself. The Democrats are united against a president whom they loathe more passionately than they opposed George Bush; but they are wildly divided in their regard for centrism, incrementalism, and so many other implements of also-ran status. Gillibrand is the reformed centrist Democrat who, in the course of a decade, became “the most radical feminist in Congress.” It’s a strange, if savvy trajectory. It’s also the story of the Democratic Party in a strange and cynical century so far.