Of Country Bumpkins and City Slickers

By Stephen Steinlight on February 27, 2009

In the age-old battle between the City Slicker and the Country Bumpkin, a literary opposition dating back to Greek and Roman sources that persists to this day in high and popular culture, the outcome never varies: the sophisticated overconfident Slicker loses to the ostensibly witless though wily-wise Country Bumpkin. The narrative expresses the triumph of the pastoral ideal, the tradition out of which the story line emerges, which asserts truth is most readily found and a virtuous, civilized life best lived farthest from cities and closest to nature. It would appear that Kirsten E. Gillibrand, former Representative from New York’s bucolic 20th Congressional District recently appointed to fill the two remaining years of Sen. Hillary Clinton’s term, has chosen to subvert the tradition, alter the conclusion, and let the Slickers win. During her ascension to statewide office she’s also morphed from the Bumpkin who could have prevailed to the Farmer’s Daughter who meets the Traveling Salesman in another old story line. In this version of the tale the traveling salesmen are the members of the New York State Democratic Congressional leadership. What they are doing to her – metaphorically – is what traveling salesmen are wont to do to farmers’ daughters.

The last thing this group of politicians want is a viable candidate for the Senate from the second most populous state in America who would run – and quite possibly win – on a platform opposing amnesty for illegal aliens, committed to ending illegal immigration, upholding the rule of law, and actually fighting for the American worker rather than paying mere lip service to the idea, something the Democratic Party has been getting away with for decades. They needed to co-opt her as quickly as possible, and it is enormously disappointing, as well as a sad reflection on Sen. Gillibrand’s lack of inward fortitude and political insight, that they were able to succeed so easily. To placate the State’s Democratic leadership, she is, in effect, being forced to snatch defeat from the jaws of potential victory. For someone who once seemed reasonably savvy and is hardly lacking in intelligence, she appears unaware that she’s being set up to take the fall in what looks like a Machiavellian political maneuver.

Immediately following her selection by Gov. Paterson, the State’s leading Democrats determined that the two-term Congresswoman, ostensibly an inner-motivated, heterodox Blue Dog Democrat representing a historically Republican district (with a very noticeable ability to raise large sums for her campaign) should be ceremoniously elevated while being forced to toe the Party line. Treated with breathtaking condescension – which, one would like to think, might infuriate her inwardly – she’s undergoing a political “re-education” managed by Sen. Schumer, the likes of Rep. Anthony Weiner and other New York City Congresspersons, most of whom couldn’t win many votes north of Riverdale and not a great many on Long Island; a few Hispanic members of Congress, State Assemblypersons and State Senators, newspaper editors, and organization leaders; groups of liberal media pundits; and last but surely not least, the New York Times. Indeed, it appears she can be profoundly influenced by whoever is the last politically correct person with whom she’s been granted an audience, and she seems to experience an epiphany after each encounter. This humiliating public charade, which has already undercut her dignity and standing as a legislator – occasionally appears like a parody of the authentic nightmare in totalitarian socialist states when politicians were sent to the countryside to undergo political re-education. But New York’s freshly minted Senator is getting her re-education in the City, and she seems to be relishing every minute of it.

It’s one thing for a Congressperson to amend or even make significant changes in previous positions given the need to represent a much broader, more diverse constituency and go on to win statewide election. It’s quite another to throw one’s former defining allegiances overboard as if one never took them seriously in the first place. Reasonable flexibility is one thing – that’s politic – presenting oneself as a blank slate for others to write upon is another. It suggests an absence of principle, of character. As a practical matter, Sen. Gillibrand undoubtedly had no choice but to accede to the Party’s position on firearms. Supporting the gun lobby is political death in New York, where both city dwellers and suburbanites would never elect a candidate with a 100% approval rating from the NRA.

But other changes leave one wondering what she’s thinking, assuming she’s still doing any thinking of her own. Witness her disturbing, wacky conversion on immigration policy that came with the speed and suddenness of St. Paul’s on the road to Damascus. Assuming she gets the nomination in two years, that change could cause her tremendous political damage if the economy has not recovered and the nation is facing or already living through a second Great Depression with job losses soaring and simmering anger about illegal immigration’s impact on employment and the survival of the social safety net reaching the boiling point as citizens begin connecting the dots.

Prior to her conversion experience, Gillibrand had been a strong supporter of strict enforcement of immigration laws against illegal aliens. But poof! Like magic, just one day after meeting with Hispanic leaders in New York City she saw the light and began articulating extreme positions in favor of illegal aliens. She announced she would ask President Obama to stop deportations; she shifted policy from opposition to support for the DREAM Act, a stealth amnesty that could potentially legalize 3-4 million illegal aliens; changed her position on withdrawing federal funds from “sanctuary cities;” didn’t fight for the retention of E-Verify or break ranks with fellow Democrats in voting for the Stimulus Package that failed to include it, a major reversal in light of her previous support for the program and other components of the SAVE Act for which she voted; and, most importantly, dropped her opposition “to a pathway to citizenship” for the approximately 11.5 million illegal aliens in the U.S. In the flash of an eye she became a supporter of amnesty. Still, Hispanic members of the State Senate and State Assembly are not yet convinced she will become a “leader for immigrant rights.” Given the amount of groveling she has already done at their feet, their demands for more seem sadistic as well as the height of presumption, but their expectations are very high, and perhaps rightly so given Sen. Gillibrand’s apparent lack of political ballast.

She even tries selling herself as a novice who barely understood the political process during her terms in Congress. Sounding like an earnest high school student council member eager to impress the principal, she breathlessly told the New York Times (a paper that won’t endorse her two years from now even if Adlai Stevenson, Tom Wicker, and James Reston all came back from the dead to plead her case) “In a lot of these issues, it’s a case of learning more and expanding my views.” How laudable. She even blamed her previous voting record on immigration on not having had enough time to understand what was going on. “A lot of these votes, literally, were procedural motions that were taken with five minutes of information given to me about what it says.” “Procedural motions?” Who knew! Her use of the passive voice compounds the smarmy defense based on alleged – or worse – real ignorance. An insanity plea would have been more honorable.

Her “backpedaling,” “waffling,” “twists and turns,” “surrender,” “gyrations” (these have become common descriptors in the unfriendly press) regarding her radical switch on immigration policy has not gone unnoticed and is causing considerable consternation in some quarters. Though her ally de jour, the New York Times, argues it’s only a problem for the Upstate rubes she formerly represented (see “To Some in Gillibrand’s Old District, Her Evolution Is a Betrayal,” David Halbfinger, Feb. 9, 2009), the Daily News editorialized about “The daring young senator: Kirsten Gillibrand proves quite the acrobatic, flip-flopping contortionist” (Feb. 7, 2009), and Steve Levy, the Blue-Dog Democratic Country Executive of Suffolk County, who has taken a tough approach to its large illegal population – and has “sky-high” popularity on populous Long Island according to the New York Times – has expressed profound disappointment about her “caving in” to the “extreme left” of the Democratic Party.

Hard as it is to sympathize with a politician as apparently feckless and opportunistic as Gillibrand – it appears her only loyalty is to what someone else has recently told her is in her own immediate interest – there’s something mildly pathetic (accent on the scornful element in pity) about someone who’s been so completely snookered by what amounts to a plot to destroy her chances of election precisely because of her previous support for the immigration policies – indisputable political strengths – she’s recently disowned. The ambush was set with the New York Times’ publication of “Gillibrand Immigration Views Draw Fire” (Kirk Semple, Jan. 27, 2009) that made the ludicrous claim that her opposition to amnesty and support for law enforcement represent political liabilities. She evidently bought it hook, line, and sinker. If only she had the ability to see through the journalist’s stealth editorial and recognize how ideologically blinkered and mistaken it was.

If 21% of New York State’s population is foreign born, as the Times’ Semple crowed, than 79% is not. The piece also repeats a well-worn error of open-borders advocates: it assumes the views of small leadership elites reflect those of ordinary people. Gillibrand permitted the editors of El Diario (Puerto Rican, not Mexican in readership) and a handful of elected Hispanic municipal officials and organization leaders to turn her around. It’s important to stress it wasn’t the Hispanic community she kowtowed to but the Hispanic elite. She would have been wiser to have listened to them respectfully, responded that she would reflect on their arguments, gone off and had some research done on statewide attitudes, and, last but not least, deeply pondered what she considers best for New York and America. She might have discovered that 76% of New Yorkers oppose drivers’ licenses for illegal aliens and recalled that the imperious former Governor, Elliot Spitzer (the “Bulldozer”), had to back down in the face of public fury over that issue, a freakishly rare occurrence.

There is no simple or direct correlation between race/ethnicity/culture and voting patterns, but it does seem as if Sen. Gillibrand might have considered the state’s demography before permitting representatives (many self-appointed) of one group of New Yorkers to exercise such outsize influence on her politics. The great majority of New Yorkers (over 60%) are non-Hispanic White, and its African-American population (17.3%) is the highest in the nation, with polling data showing powerful black opposition to open-borders immigration. These groups together massively outnumber the 16.4% that is Hispanic, and this still begs what is arguably the most salient question: how high a percentage of the Hispanic population of New York State has naturalized and is eligible to vote? Even Hispanics who have naturalized have the lowest voting rate of all American ethnic/racial/cultural groups. Nor are Hispanic attitudes towards immigration as monolithic as some Hispanic leaders would have us believe. A recent survey by Zogby finds that 77% of Hispanics oppose the immigration of any additional unskilled workers because it threatens their own tenuous grasp on the bottom rungs of the American socio-economic ladder. Given the fact that approximately 62% of Mexican and Central American immigrants lack a high school diploma and are therefore “unskilled,” what does this say about Hispanic attitudes towards immigration by these Hispanic immigrants whose number is so huge it exceeds that of the next ten largest groups of immigrants combined?

Polling by Gallup, Rasmussen, and Zogby reveals approximately 67-79% of Americans favor the attrition of the illegal population through immigration law enforcement and strict border control, not amnesty. The views Sen. Gillibrand has repudiated are those of the great majority of Americans, New Yorkers included. The views of the New York Democratic congressional delegation are not. The dream of most of her fellow Democrats is that the outcome of the great national debate over immigration will be decided without interference by anything so messy and unreliable as the democratic process. Their hope is that they will determine this policy, not the American people.

Finally, the New York Democratic congressional delegation that’s overseeing the tutoring of the ingénue will not necessarily support her two years from now, despite her abject surrender of principle. Rep. Carolyn McCarthy of Long Island’s 4th Congressional District, who has a reputation as one of the fiercest opponents of the gun lobby in Congress based on tragic family history, has already announced she will oppose Gillibrand two years from now, and it’s also possible that Rep. Carolyn Maloney of New York’s 14th District will make a run. It’s hard to imagine that other better-known, longer-serving, and ambitious House Democrats and State office holders won’t challenge someone who they perceive as more Republican than Democratic. (There’s a long list, including Andrew Cuomo.) Not all of them can seek the gubernatorial nomination.

Perhaps the ultimate irony is one can easily imagine Gillibrand’s future Democratic rivals for the Senate nomination (several of her present “handlers” included) castigating her as someone whose present flip-flops – in which they have been deeply complicit – tell New Yorkers all they need to know about her lack of ideological consistency, integrity, and are indicative of a troubling emptiness at the core, proof she stands for precisely nothing.