You can learn a lot about yourself from reading the op-ed page of the Washington Post. For instance, I just learned from columnist Richard Cohen that as a miscegenating bisexual, I provoke, by my very existence, a gag reflex in regular Americans of conventional viewpoints. Even if it were true, that might not be enough to chasten me, but it’s not; the facts prove Cohen wrong.
You see, Cohen has a strange notion of what constitutes a “conventional view.” For instance, he believes that if you feel like you might vomit at the thought of a white man and Black woman knowing each other in the biblical sense within the bonds of matrimony, that means you hold a “conventional view” of interracial marriage. And if you hold that view, according to Cohen, you’re not necessarily a racist.
This is what Cohen argued in a justly pilloried column published Tuesday. The columnist sought to opine on the pitiful state of the Republican Party, dragged ever rightward by its Tea Party wing, but he wound up revealing more the state of his own prejudices than those of the reactionaries in tricorn hats.
And how does Cohen know what “conventional views” real Americans hold? He’s ridden “the Internet Express to Iowa.” Translation: He’s read a few things written by Iowans on those newfangled website things.
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Selected for widespread mockery on the Internet Express is this paragraph from Cohen’s piece:
Today’s GOP is not racist, as Harry Belafonte alleged about the tea party, but it is deeply troubled — about the expansion of government, about immigration, about secularism, about the mainstreaming of what used to be the avant-garde. People with conventional views must repress a gag reflex when considering the mayor-elect of New York — a white man married to a black woman and with two biracial children. (Should I mention that Bill de Blasio’s wife, Chirlane McCray, used to be a lesbian?) This family represents the cultural changes that have enveloped parts — but not all — of America. To cultural conservatives, this doesn’t look like their country at all.
If that finds you scratching your head, you’re not alone. Even among Beltway reporters in Washington, the land where “conventional wisdom” frequently emerges from views that bear no resemblance to reality, that paragraph left the wags momentarily speechless.
In the course of five sentences, Cohen manages to give Tea Partiers a pass on prejudices against interracial couples, biracial children, lesbians, and, generally speaking, non-whites.
And this from a writer who poses as a centrist—a near-liberal who likes to poke fun at real liberals. However laughable Cohen’s execrable prose, it’s actually dangerous, for it’s “moderates” like Cohen who are best situated to perpetrate the fiction that Tea Partiers represent the “real America,” which they most assuredly do not.
Let’s start with the most arguable of Cohen’s claims: that the Republican Party is not racist, even though the civil rights activist and singer Harry Belafonte claims the Tea Party is. Right there, Cohen obfuscates, conflating a remark about the Tea Party with a condemnation of the entire Republican Party. So let’s join him in the conflation.
Is the GOP racist? A 2012 poll conducted by the Associated Press found that “Republicans were more likely than Democrats to express racial prejudice in the questions measuring explicit racism (79% among Republicans compared with 32% among Democrats).”
The poll also found that when measuring what is known as “implicit racism”—often unconscious attitudes that add up to racial prejudice—the gap between the parties narrowed on questions that revealed anti-Black attitudes, with 64 percent of Republicans showing implicitly anti-Black opinions, compared with 55 percent of Democrats. Bottom line? Members of both parties are racist, but Republicans appear to be more so.
When you drill down to the Tea Party faction, anti-Black and anti-Latino racial attitudes are more strongly stated. For instance, in a 2010 survey on race and politics by Christopher Parker of the University of Washington Institute for the Study of Ethnicity, Race and Sexuality, 73 percent of respondents who strongly identified with the Tea Party agreed with the statement “If blacks would only try harder they could be just as well off as whites,” compared with 56 percent of all whites.
Add to those results such anecdotal evidence as the unfurling of a Confederate flag in front of the White House at a Tea Party protest during the government shutdown (and the absence of repudiation by Tea Party leaders) and the support for George Zimmerman during his trial last year, and it’s hard to see why Cohen is at such great pains to paint the Tea Party and/or the GOP as just a little old-fashioned.
But that assertion is nothing compared to the lies Cohen advances with regard to the attitudes of most Americans toward queer folk like me, or toward interracial couples and biracial children.
Where Cohen sees revulsion at interracial unions as a “conventional view,” most Americans apparently shrug their shoulders at the sight of such. A Gallup poll conducted in July found that 87 percent of Americans said they approve of interracial marriage. And a Pew poll conducted a year earlier found that 43 percent of Americans actually regarded interracial marriage as a sign of improvement in U.S. society.
While surveys on the acceptance of biracial people by the population at large are harder to come by, one might consider one major poll, taken in 2008 and again 2012: the U.S. presidential election, in which a majority of voters selected a biracial man as the nation’s commander in chief.
Then there’s Cohen’s slam against Chirlane McCray, whom the columnist defines as someone who “used to be a lesbian.” Actually, although she is married to a man, McCray has never said she’s not a lesbian, only that she once identified as such. But I’m sure just trying to fit that thought—a lesbian married to a man—into Cohen’s inflated head might just make it explode.
So let’s move on to how most Americans say they feel about LGBTQ people in general. Here’s the actual “conventional view”:
Seventy-three percent of respondents to a 2011 survey of likely voters show support for protecting gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender individuals from workplace discrimination.
Fifty percent of respondents to a 2013 survey expressed approval for allowing gays and lesbians to marry in same-sex unions; 43 percent opposed marriage equality.
You can learn a lot from reading the op-ed page of the Washington Post—a page dominated by white, male columnists. You learn, for instance, that a self-styled white-guy contrarian is granted a prime piece of real estate in one of the nation’s most important newspapers to affirm racists for their nauseating ideas, only to be lauded by his publisher as “brilliant” for having done so.
Studies suggest that Gen Xers like Kirsten Gillibrand question authority and reject seniority, while Baby Boomers like Claire McCaskill treasure loyalty and play by the rules. A proposal to stem the military's sexual assault crisis may just be the result of generational divide.
UPDATE, September 23, 1:32 p.m.:Politico reports this morning that three retired generals have now expressed their support for Gillibrand’s Military Justice Improvement Act.
In the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing room last June, an extraordinary spectacle took place as the Joint Chiefs of Staff, together with other top military leaders, assembled at a long table for a dressing-down by the senators over the epidemic of sexual assault taking place within the ranks—an epidemic that appears only to have grown since it first became known 20 years ago, and spilled into public view once again this year with a rash of news reports and the release of the latest data on the crisis by the Department of Defense.
By the Pentagon’s own accounting, an estimated 26,000 incidents of unwanted sexual contact were experienced by members of the military in 2012, often at the hands of perpetrators of higher rank. Yet only 3,300 reports of sexual assault were made that year, and a mere 302 went to trial.
Among the generals’ toughest critics on the committee that day were two women—Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO)—whose questions were as pointed as their rejoinders were barbed.
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At one point, McCaskill lectured a panel of commanders on Lt. Gen. Craig A. Franklin’s decision to overturn the sexual assault conviction of Lt. Col. James Wilkerson, citing a letter written by the general to justify his action as “astoundingly ignorant.” Referencing the general’s assumption of the victim’s culpability in her own assault, McCaskill said, “Are you frickin’ kidding me?”
Gillibrand, too, erupted with incredulousness at what she sees as military leaders’ failure to appreciate the depth of the sexual assault epidemic. Some commanders, she said, “can’t distinguish between a slap on the ass and a rape.”
While the two share a penchant for outspokenness, particularly on the subject of sexual assault, their solutions to the crisis in the military diverge widely, and they are as different in style as the generations they represent.
Gillibrand’s ‘Question Authority’ Generation X Style
McCaskill, like most of her female colleagues in the U.S. Senate, exemplifies the ethos of the Baby Boomers, as described by a bevy of academic studies: Work hard, play by the rules, and behave with loyalty and deference to those above you in the organizational chart.
The future of the Senate, however, belongs to Gillibrand and her fellow Gen Xers who, according to social scientists, tend to rebel against authority, have little regard for seniority in the workplace, and believe in solving problems immediately—qualities that, especially when possessed by a woman, will jar any observer steeped in the conventions of an earlier generation.
Gillibrand wants to remove the reporting and prosecution of rape, sexual assault, and other serious crimes from the chain of command—a change she and victims’ advocates say will encourage more victims to come forward—and is meeting fierce resistance by military leaders. There’s no getting around the fact that Gillibrand’s Military Justice Improvement Act (S.967) would represent a profound change to the very structure of the justice system in the armed forces.
McCaskill has aligned herself with Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-MI), who accepts the claims of Pentagon leaders that removing any authorities from commanders will destroy “good order and discipline” in the ranks, and favors instead a new entity staffed by civilians in each of the armed services that would review any case that a commander refuses to pursue.
If the social scientists are right, the generational difference between two of the Senate’s strongest women may account, in part, for the fact that Gillibrand’s proposal is still alive and gathering support, even after being voted down in the Armed Services Committee, while McCaskill’s reward for playing by the rules in the battle over how to fix the military’s sexual assault has been deserted by nearly all of the other Democratic women in the Senate, who have either co-sponsored or expressed support for Gillibrand’s measure.
Unburdened by the Boomers’ reverence for hierarchy, Gillibrand, in her refusal to bow to the will of her committee chairman or the military brass, forced the women of the Democratic caucus to choose between the remedies favored by victims’ groups or those favored by the male military leaders who have presided over a crisis that has only gotten worse over the last two decades. But in siding with Gillibrand, they’re not merely expressing a desire for structural change in the military; they’re weakening the bonds of gentlemanly protocol in the Senate.
As Congress approached its August recess, the battle between Gillibrand and McCaskill became tense, with military brass, via McCaskill and Levin, publicly opposing Gillibrand, and a victims’ advocacy group allied with Gillibrand launching an unexpected broadside at McCaskill.
Won’t Back Down
When Levin, as committee chairman, shot down Gillibrand’s attempt to include the provisions of her proposal in the mark-up of the 2014 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), he likely thought that was the end of it.
The two are, after all, in the same party, and Levin is Gillibrand’s senior, by far. In the culture of the Senate, few attributes are venerated more grandly than seniority.
In order to address the sexual assault crisis, Levin included a hodgepodge of measures, ranging from the creation of a victim’s advocate position, proposed by Sens. Patty Murray (D-WA), Kelly Ayotte (R-NH), and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT); to removing a commander’s ability to overturn a sexual assault conviction, proposed by McCaskill, and criminalizing retaliation against victims by commanders.
But leaders of advocacy groups say that while helpful, these measures fall short of the kind of fundamental change needed to solve a problem that has only grown worse in the more than 20 years since it was first exposed with the Tailhook scandal, when 80 women and several men were assaulted by Marine and Navy pilots at an annual convention in Las Vegas.
Instead of folding her tent after her remedy was shunted from the mark-up, Gillibrand soldiered on, mounting a campaign to bring her Military Justice Improvement Act to the Senate floor, buttonholing colleagues and building a coalition of support that includes such unlikely allies as Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Rand Paul (R-KY), both Tea Party darlings and aspirants for the 2016 presidential nomination (and fellow Gen Xers who have no compunction over defying the leadership of their own party).
At last count, according to sources in Gillibrand’s office, her military reform measure had garnered the support of 46 senators (including its author)—just five shy of the 51 she will ultimately need to convince Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid that her measure is worthy of a floor vote.
Reid expects to allow that vote to go forward, according to an aide in the majority leader’s office, who hastened to add that observers should expect to see, in addition to jousting over the Gillibrand measure, a “robust debate of over 30 provisions to combat military sexual assault” when the NDAA comes to the floor later this fall.
An aide to Gillibrand told Rewire that supporters of her measure include nearly all 16 of the Democratic women senators. Two—Sens. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) and Amy Klobuchar (D-MN)—have yet to express a view on the bill, and none are standing publicly against it, except for one: McCaskill. (Emails and phone calls by Rewire to the press secretaries of Stabenow’s and Klobuchar’s offices were not returned.)
A former county prosecutor who specialized in sexual assault cases, McCaskill asserts that putting such cases in the hands of prosecutors who work outside the chain of command will lead to fewer cases being tried, not more. A new class of military prosecutors will be loath to move forward with difficult cases, she says, in order to protect their win-loss record.
As Washington bureau chief of the St. LouisPost-Dispatch, Bill Lambrecht has covered McCaskill since she first came to the Senate in 2007. “My sense is that she comes to this issue feeling that she has a lot of experience, and understands motivations and prosecution, and how prosecutors think, because she was one,” he told Rewire.
“I think anybody who knows my record, who knows that I’ve been working at this for years, who understands my time in a courtroom, no one in the Senate has cried with more victims of sexual assault than I have,” McCaskill said. “No one has looked more juries in the eye and said, ‘Put this man in prison for as long as the law allows.’ No one has had more experience with these kinds of crimes than I have. The notion that I would ever be a roadblock to prosecutions, is enough to give me a stomachache.”
The Fairest Adjudication
When the Department of Defense released those jaw-dropping estimates of sexual assault incidents in May, they appeared against the backdrop of relentless news reports of rape and sexual assaults committed by military officials ranging from military recruiters to the lieutenant colonel then in charge of the Air Force’s sexual assault prevention unit.
The media’s attention was partly drawn to the decades-old sexual assault crisis by a devastating, Oscar-nominated documentary, released in 2012, on the military’s rape culture: The Invisible War, directed by Kirby Dick.
Dick says that while he appreciates McCaskill’s concern about a new prosecutorial structure possibly inhibiting numbers of cases that are brought forward, “the much more important bottleneck is how many people report [having been assaulted],” Dick says. “And right now, with less than 10 percent of people [who have been assaulted] reporting, the first objective of any legislation should be to increase reporting … and that’s where the Gillibrand bill is so effective.”
Today, when a soldier reports that she’s been raped or sexually assaulted by another in her unit, it is her commander who decides whether or not the case goes forward. Often the perpetrator is of a higher rank than the victim, who commonly finds that her commander is more inclined to protect the career of a fellow officer than to seek justice for a lower-ranking member.
And it’s not simply a matter of justice denied; retaliation against victims who report the crimes perpetrated against them is common. A Pentagon survey found that among victims who reported having been sexually assaulted, 62 percent said they had suffered retaliation for having done so. Sometimes the retaliation is career-destroying—not just ending the victim’s military career, but impairing her or his civilian career, as well. It is not uncommon for victims to be saddled with a mental health diagnosis after reporting a sex crime by a superior. Brian Lewis, a Navy veteran who spoke at a press event convened by Gillibrand in May, said that he was tagged with a personality disorder after he reported having been raped by a superior.
Gillibrand’s proposal would refer cases of sexual assault and other violent crimes to a new class of prosecutors, trained in the Uniform Code of Military Justice, removing the conflicts of interest that often occur when victim and perpetrator serve under the same commander.
The Gillibrand proposal echoes the practices of many of the nations the U.S. counts as its allies, including Israel, the United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia. (Cases specific to military duties, such as charges of going absent without leave [AWOL] or dereliction of duty, would remain under the purview of the chain of command.)
Amos Guiora, a law professor at the University of Utah and former judge advocate in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), has been watching the Senate drama unfold.
“I haven’t really seen anything that’s remarkably compelling as to why [the adjudication of sex crimes] should stay within the chain of command,” he told Rewire, speaking via Skype from his home in Israel. Instead, he said, the arguments he hears from Gillibrand’s opponents in the U.S. military amount to, “‘We’ve always done it like that’ and ‘Only the commander knows what’s good for the unit.’”
In Israel, said Guiora, who also served as commander of the IDF School of Military Law, the judge advocate decides whether or not a case goes forward. In that role, he said, “I informed the [unit] commander of my decision, but I didn’t consult with him as to my decision, and I didn’t require his permission as to my decision.”
In the rhetorical contest between McCaskill and Gillibrand, neither have produced data to support their claims as to whether the outside-the-chain-of-command adjudication structure used by U.S. allies for the prosecution of sexual crimes would increase the number of reported assaults, as Gillibrand asserts, or reduce them, as McCaskill says it would.
But that’s not the point, said Guiora. “I think the issue is: What’s going to enable the fairest adjudication of any particular incident? I think that should be the focus,” he said. “What’s important is whether or not he or she—the victim—believes that the attacker, the case against them, will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.”
In Gillibrand’s quest to keep her Military Justice Improvement Act alive after the Armed Services Committee voted against including its provisions in the annual defense spending bill, she began lobbying fellow senators one by one, Politico reported, keeping track of supporters on a big whiteboard in her office.
On July 17, she won a lot of attention when Rand Paul and Ted Cruz signed on as supporters, and appeared with Gillibrand at a press conference. That, and the subsequent article by Politico’s Darren Samuelsohn and Anna Palmer, seemed to have set her opponents scrambling, and in less than a week, Levin and McCaskill produced letters from top military officials that detailed their contention that the Gillibrand measure would spell disaster for the armed forces.
The next day, a full-page ad appeared in the Post-Dispatch featuring an open letter to McCaskill from Navy veteran Terri Odom, who tells of having been raped and left for dead by a trusted colleague (with a rank superior to hers) when she was in the service, and then forced out of the Navy in retaliation for reporting the assault.
“How can you possibly be against the creation of a professional, independent, impartial military justice system?” Odom says in the ad.
Accompanying the lengthy text is a photograph of Odom from her Navy days—young and pretty, a smiling, dewy-eyed teenager in uniform, purse on her shoulder.
The ad was placed by Protect Our Defenders, a victims’ advocacy group whose president, Nancy Parrish, testified before the Armed Services Committee on the day the brass lined up to take their lumps from the senators for failing to have fixed the military’s rape culture. By all accounts, McCaskill was blindsided by the ad. (Requests by phone and email from Rewire for comment from McCaskill’s office received no replies.)
When asked if McCaskill had been given a heads-up before the ad ran, Protect Our Defenders Executive Director Taryn Meeks, a former judge advocate in the U.S. Navy, told Rewire that she had not. However, members of her group had met with McCaskill in the past, she said, “and there were obvious differences of opinion.”
“The reason that our response was appropriate was based upon many statements that had been made recently by Sen. McCaskill that warranted and necessitated a response,” Meeks said, rattling off three such statements, including McCaskill’s contention, stated in the July 20 episode of the MSNBC program Morning Joe that the Pentagon’s estimates of 26,000 unwanted sexual contacts included “somebody looking at you sideways, saying you look nice in a sweater.” (In fact, the Pentagon estimate does not include verbal sexual harassment, only physical contact.)
Another statement that drew the group’s ire was one McCaskill made to The Nation while explaining her belief that a case brought forward by an accuser’s commander was preferable to one brought by the kind of military prosecutor, working outside of the chain of command, that the Gillibrand bill would create.
“If everybody in the unit knows the commander has said, ‘This needs to go to court,’” McCaskill told The Nation’s Zoë Carpenter, “that gives you a level of protection you will never have when everyone knows a bunch of outside lawyers have bought your bull.”
“Their bull?” Meeks said, with irritation filling her voice. “These are the kinds of statements that we felt really necessitated a response.”
She also took issue with McCaskill’s assertion that the military should be granted another five years to rectify its sexual assault problem before deciding to change the command structure.
Of the ad featuring Odum, McCaskill told the St. LouisBeacon, “If she would have called, I would have loved to visit with her about it because I think if I would have talked to her, she’d get it.”
Protect Our Defenders was prominently featured at the May Senate event at which Gillibrand unveiled her Military Justice Improvement Act, and the group is viewed as allied with Gillibrand.
The day after the ad appeared, McCaskill convened a press event featuring several retired service members who are women, including Lisa Schenck, associate dean of academic affairs at the George Washington University Law School and a retired Army judge advocate, who argued for maintaining the current adjudication structure for sexual crimes, and expressed support for a proposal put forward by McCaskill that would add a review by civilian experts employed by the military.
“If you take out the command authority from the process, you are essentially gutting the military justice process,” Schenck said. “You have to look at why they are there in the first place. They are there for discipline and our military justice process is for discipline. Victims need to be empowered and [McCaskill’s] bill empowers the victims.”
(Schenck declined to comment for this article.)
At McCaskill’s side stood Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT) and the GOP’s Kelly Ayotte, and joining Schenck among several women military veterans at the event were retired Marine Col. Ana Smythe and retired Navy Capt. Kathy Beasley. Yet none of those arrayed around McCaskill at that press conference were women who claimed to have suffered a sexual assault while in the military.
On the same day, McCaskill also posted on her website two diagrams pertaining to Gillibrand’s bill and the measures included by Levin in the appropriations bill that Gillibrand aides say include text that is misleading. Both of the diagrams on McCaskill’s site carry a note that says victims already have several avenues for reporting a crime outside the chain of command.
“Of course they can,” Gillibrand’s office shot back in a press release issued that same day, “but under the current system, regardless of whom you report the crime to initially, it ultimately ends up on the desk of the commander.”
A few days later, on July 30, Gillibrand made her case on the PBS show NewsHour, telling host Judy Woodruff, “The secretaries of defense, since Dick Cheney was secretary of defense some 20-odd years ago, have said, Judy, over and over again: ‘zero tolerance’ for sexual assault and rape. This has been within the chain of command every one of those years since. Commanders have had every bit of authority they need to tackle this problem and solve this problem, but it’s not being solved.”
Not to be left on the sidelines while the battle ensued, the Pentagon, in early August, fired some 60 troops who worked as either sexual assault counselors, recruiters, or drill instructors, according to USA Today, for “violations ranging from alcohol-related offenses to child abuse and sexual assault.”
A week later, McCaskill appeared on NBC’s Meet the Press to say there was no evidence that reporting of sex crimes had risen in the armed forces in countries where the adjudication of such crimes had been removed from the chain of command. She repeated her well-known refrain that to take the prosecution of such crimes from the chain of command was to “let commanders off the hook.”
Two days after McCaskill’s August 12 NBC appearance, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced a number of measures the Pentagon was implementing to address the crisis, including a prohibition on commanders’ overturning jury verdicts rendered in sexual assault cases in the military justice system, which they’re currently permitted to do. (That prohibition, via a measure proposed by McCaskill, was already on its way to becoming law as part of the 2013 defense appropriation bill.)
While Gillibrand publicly applauded Hagel on that particular point, she issued a short statement that basically added up to: Nice, but not good enough. Then she went back to summoning support for her bill—the measure opposed by Hagel and the military brass.
The Coming Showdown
In the closing months of the current session of Congress, there’s a pile of business to take up—including a battle with Tea Party Republicans to keep the government open—and Gillibrand faces an uphill slog. Reid may have promised that her measure would see a vote (provided she musters enough support), but the comments of his aide suggest it will be presented amid a flood of competing—and complementary—measures.
“[M]y gut here is that [Senate Majority Leader Harry] Reid doesn’t want to have this vote on the floor,” said Sarah Binder, senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution and professor of political science at George Washington University, in a telephone interview. “It’s rare you see these divisive votes, because the parties don’t like to air their disputes publicly.”
On the merits of Gillibrand’s Military Justice Improvement Act, missing on the list of the measure’s supporters is the majority leader. Indeed, when Rewire asked Reid in May if he supported Gillibrand’s measure, he gave a noncommittal answer.
Binder went on to explain that under the rules of the Senate, there are a number of ways that a vote could be constructed (or sabotaged), one variable being how cooperative Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) deigns to be. But McConnell, normally inclined to side with the Pentagon, may not be so inclined this time around, given the fact that he’s up for re-election in 2014, and is facing a primary challenge from the right. That means he needs the full-throated support of Gillibrand’s ally Rand Paul, Kentucky’s junior senator.
As for McCaskill, she may have won the battle by allying with Levin in voting down the Gillibrand measure in the appropriation bill, but she might just lose the war if Gillibrand wins a floor vote, one in which McCaskill could find herself as the lone Democratic woman in the Senate to stand with the nearly all-male line-up of generals and admirals who acquitted themselves so poorly before the Armed Services Committee during that epic June hearing on the military’s sexual assault crisis.
It all has political observers scratching their heads at McCaskill’s intransigence on the chain of command question, especially given her well-earned reputation as an adept and strategic politician. (This is the woman, after all, who, expecting a tough re-election fight in 2012, nudged Republican primary voters to pull the lever for Todd “legitimate rape” Akin, correctly seeing him as a weak opponent.) As Brookings’ Sarah Binder said, McCaskill’s last election “was really all about being on the right side of the women’s issue.”
“I think that perhaps McCaskill believes that she has more bona fides on this issue than does Gillibrand,” said Lambrecht of the Post-Dispatch. Others in the Senate, Lambrecht said, whisper “that maybe Gillibrand is trying to build on her résumé.”
Amid those whispers is the notion that perhaps Cruz and Paul aren’t the only supporters of the Military Justice Improvement Act who have embraced it with an eye toward the 2016 presidential race.
“There’s certainly some personality issue here,” Binder said. “I don’t normally traffic in those, except to say that Gillibrand is really dogged.”
What Binder sees as a personality conflict, though, may be attributable, in part, to the generational values Gillibrand embodies.
Binder noted how Gillibrand managed to achieve a piece of legislation that eluded Hillary Clinton when the former secretary of state, hardly a pushover, held Gillibrand’s seat: a bill to compensate workers at the post-9/11 ruins of the World Trade Center for the health consequences many encountered while cleaning up that toxic site.
Then there was Gillibrand’s coup in the face of the brass’ resistance to allowing gay men and lesbians to serve openly in the military. Speaking to the New York Times after Gillibrand unexpectedly rallied the votes she needed from Republicans to win a repeal of the Pentagon’s anti-gay “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy in the Senate, Levin told the Times,“She is not shy about her views, and pressing her views and talking to anybody and everybody, on the floor and not on the floor, and in office visits, and in the hallways.”
Even if Gillibrand prevails in getting her Military Justice Reform Act to the Senate floor, it’s unlikely to pass the House, where Republicans are in the majority. But she’ll have kept the issue alive for the better part of a year, called attention to the plight of assault victims, and put the Pentagon on notice that a close eye is turned to its leaders’ promise to fix the problem.
And she’ll have secured her place as one of the Senate’s rising stars, heralding the arrival of the Gen X woman, and the passing of an age of deference.
Correction: A version of this article incorrectly spelled the first name of Politico’s Darren Samuelsohn as Darrell. We regret the error.
In her second appearance in Washington, D.C. in less than a month, Texas Sen. Wendy Davis (D-Fort Worth) appeared before the National Press Club on Monday, using her personal, up-from-poverty story to challenge the safety-net-slashing, education-cutting, anti-choice politics of Texas Gov. Rick Perry and his fellow Texas Republicans.
Davis’ return visit to the nation’s capital is widely viewed as an effort to build a war chest for a campaign for higher office. Asked once again if she would run for governor of the Lone Star State, Davis said only that she’s considering it, but she ruled out a run for any other statewide office. Her next effort will be either a run for the governor’s mansion or a re-election campaign for her current senate seat, she said.
Davis burst on the national scene in June, when she launched an 11-hour filibuster against a draconian bill that curtails the right to have an abortion through a number of new restrictions that are estimated to force the closure of all but five of the 42 women’s health clinics that currently offer abortion services in the state. Although Davis’ filibuster staved off initial passage of the bill, then called SB 5, at the end of the state’s legislative session, Perry convened a subsequent special legislative session in which the bill, re-labeled HB 2, passed into law.
That defeat did nothing to diminish Davis’ legend, however. Her stamina during a filibuster she described as “a test of physical and mental endurance” still leaves many marveling at her ability to remain on her feet, continuously talking, deprived of food, water, or a bathroom break, while not being permitted to so much as touch her desk, never mind lean on it.
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The pink sneakers she wore on the senate floor during her marathon stint became iconic, as did the orange t-shirts worn by her supporters in the gallery. While she chose more formal footwear for her National Press Club debut, Davis donned a bright orange jacket for her star turn at the podium. Of her famous sneakers, she said she went right back to using them as her running shoes, “to the horror of a couple of people on my political team.”
Having a (Non-Partisan) Voice
Davis began her speech with a personal anecdote about the importance of “having a voice.” When she was a child, she said, her grandfather suffered a massive stroke, leaving him largely paralyzed with a limited ability to speak. Her task, as a 9-year-old, Davis said, was to take dictation from him when he wanted to write a letter to a friend. “I wanted to be true to his words and write down exactly what he wanted to say,” Davis explained. But he would grow frustrated, she said, and start crying, which made her cry too.
The purpose of the story was to portray Davis as a politician who wished to be the voice of Texas families, whose needs, she said, were being ignored by those now in power, and how distressing it is to see people deprived of a means of expression.
Davis went to great lengths to portray her quest as one not rooted in partisan politics, even though the state is almost entirely in the hands of Republicans, and hasn’t had a Democratic governor since George W. Bush defeated Ann Richards, the late mother of Planned Parenthood Federation of America President Cecile Richards, in 1994.
During the question-and-answer period that followed her speech, Davis was asked what chance she thought a Democrat really had at being elected into office in her notoriously red state.
“You know, I think the question really is: What chance do new leaders have of winning elected office in the state of Texas?” she said. “I think the best way to talk about that is to talk about what Texans want to see in their government, and not to talk about it in party frames.”
In both her speech and the question period, Davis laid out her case against the current leadership, talking not only of the recent anti-choice bill that drew national attention, but also of the legislature’s 2011 bill that “strip[ped] $5.4 billion from our already underfunded public schools.” That attempt prompted her first, less-heralded filibuster, which despite the bill’s ultimate passage (which led to the layoffs of some 10,000 teachers), bought time for parents and teachers to travel to the capitol to voice their opposition, Davis said.
From Trailer Park to Harvard
Throughout her speech, Davis tied her signature issues—women’s health care, education, and economic development—to her extraordinary personal history, a story of a young, single mother, living in a trailer, “always on the brink of a financial disaster,” she said.
“My mother had a sixth-grade education, four children, no husband, and no financial security,” Davis explained, and 30 years ago, she found herself on much the same path, she said, save for her high school education.
She told of feeding herself Totino’s frozen pizzas, which then cost 99 cents, and cutting them into quarters, making each quarter into a meal—so she could buy baby food for her daughter. But when a co-worker gave her a brochure for a public community college, she enrolled, and then transferred to Texas Christian University with both academic scholarships and financial aid that covered her tuition. She graduated first in her class and went on to Harvard Law School. She was the first person in her family to go to college.
Davis also explained that during those years, the only health care she received was at women’s health clinics.
Today, she noted, the budget for the state’s women’s health program has been slashed by two-thirds, and college is no longer as accessible and affordable as it was for her because of state budget cuts.
The “War” on Texas Women
When, after the speech, Davis was asked whether the “war on women” was a real thing, she noted the attack on women’s health clinics as being about far more than abortion; clinics that never offered abortion have been defunded, leaving many women without cancer screenings, contraception, and diabetes care.
“I think, at last count, we have had 56 clinics that have closed,” Davis said, noting that the budget slash to the women’s health program resulted from the state’s refusal to accept federal funding for the clinics’ services.
As other evidence of the “war on women,” Davis reminded the audience of the governor’s veto of the state’s equal pay act, which passed the legislature on a bipartisan vote.
Then, of course, there is this year’s anti-choice legislation. Davis lamented that the bill’s ban on abortion after 20 weeks post-fertilization dominated the discussion, when so many other provisions of the law affect far greater numbers of women—especially new regulations that require clinics to maintain the standards of ambulatory surgical facilities, which she said were unnecessary for maintaining safety.
Davis spelled out the new rules for those seeking non-surgical abortions through the use of the drug known as RU-486, which for years has been safely used to terminate early pregnancies by patients who, after a clinic visit, could take the drug “in the privacy of their own homes,” under a doctor’s guidance. Now, not only do patients have to take the drug, which is administered in two doses days apart, on clinic premises, but the clinic must reach the “ambulatory surgical facility” standard, even though nothing that could be remotely described as surgery is involved in the procedure.
In addition, she said, “The safety net is so badly fractured that putting it back together is going to take years.”
Hillary, Cecile, and Rick
This being Washington, audience members were keen to elicit quotes from Davis on other national political figures.
Asked whether she would consider running as a vice presidential candidate on a presidential ticket with the name “Clinton” at the top, Davis replied, “We’ll have to find out whether Hillary’s planning to run for president first.”
As to whether or not Clinton, whose name is synonymous in many minds with that of the Democratic Party, could win the electoral votes of the very Republican state of Texas, Davis was diplomatic. “I think Hillary Clinton has a chance to do just about anything she sets her mind to,” Davis said.
One audience member, perhaps looking to stoke the specter of competition for Davis, asked if she would welcome a run at statewide office by Cecile Richards.
“Cecile is such an extraordinary human being,” Davis said, “so I would welcome her back to Texas; I’ll sign up for her campaign if she wants to run.”
Urged to respond to the likelihood of Rick Perry reprising his presidential bid in 2016, Davis, whom Perry famously insulted in a speech to the National Right to Life convention, Davis made an apparent reference to Perry’s famous 2012 presidential debate meltdown, when he couldn’t name the three government agencies he had pledged to abolish.
“Well, I have three responses to that,” Davis said. Then she took a long beat. “I think that’s all I’m gonna say about that,” she said, smiling, her arms folded.
Liberty, the Constitution, and National Politics
When asked what limits she would personally place on abortion, Davis artfully employed the language of “first principles” so beloved by members of the Tea Party movement, who hold great sway in Texas.
“You know, the Supreme Court has made that decision,” Davis said, “and it’s one of the protected liberties under our Constitution. And I respect the constitutional protections that are in place today, whether it be for this purpose, or for other protected purposes in the Constitution. I don’t think we can pick and choose.”
After the formal event drew to a close, Davis took a few questions from reporters. I asked her whether or not the legislative assault that prompted her filibuster was due to politics particular to Texas, or whether Texas was being used as a stage for national politics.
“I think much of what we’re seeing in Texas is an amplified version of what we’re seeing going on across the country,” she said. And with that, she went on her way.
In Washington, D.C., one gets the feeling that she’ll be back.