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Gillibrand’s Lesson: Your Best Story Can’t Be Untellable

In the wake of the last debate, we saw what storytelling could do for presidential candidate Andrew Yang, who in a one-minute opening statement gave his campaign an unprecedented jolt. Similarly, Senator Elizabeth Warren has been using the pointed power of storytelling—to an audience of one voter at a time—to leap into the double-digit polling pack and make it a three-horse race along with Senator Bernie Sanders and former vice president Joe Biden. And then there’s Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, who this week had no words other than concession. She leaves the presidential race despite the fact that she has a more impactful story to tell than most any other candidate. The problem was, she couldn’t tell it.

In late 2017, Gillibrand led the charge that forced her colleague, Minnesota’s Al Franken, to resign from the Senate. That’s an achievement of more gravity and long-lasting effect than anyone else in the Democratic field. But who, watching the debates or listening to a stump speech, wants to hear Gillibrand tell the story of how she ousted a beloved, effective senator? Clearly no one, which is why she said little if anything about the situation during her campaign.

By the deadline for the next round of debates in Houston, Gillibrand couldn’t accumulate the required 2% support across four polls. She also never made the move from longshot to contender in our Strategic Storytelling index, which measures candidates’ ability to deliver on the essential storytelling elements of wisdom, wonder and delight.

For what it’s worth, Franken was in a difficult bind, having been accused of inappropriate behavior by a conservative commentator while on a USO tour—and there was a photograph worth a thousand words accompanying the charge. Gillibrand grabbed the opportunity to take a stand not only as a candidate, but as a leader willing to apply the brushstrokes that painted a complete narrative—one in which the Democratic Party stands in contrast to that of the Republicans and their blind support of a misogynist-in-chief.

Before all the facts were in (as described in a recent New Yorker profile of Franken), Gillibrand publicly called for Franken’s resignation and built a coalition of female, male, Democrat and Republican colleagues to join her. No judge, no jury, no trial—straight to execution. Franken became only the fourth senator in as many decades to resign; the other three left under circumstances involving overt corruption, abhorrent sexual misconduct or both.

Agree with Gillibrand’s crusade or not, what other candidate has such a success story? Really only Warren, who millions have watched on YouTube lambasting wildly wealthy, unscrupulous CEOs in committee hearings. But only Gillibrand could state emphatically that she took decisive action and delivered a swift result. It just so happens, though, that enduring love for Franken on the left made Gillibrand’s story the one nobody wanted to hear. The story has no hero or villain, only collateral casualties.

Gillibrand’s departure from the race, more than anything else, should send a clear signal to the other candidates. Their main success story needs to be worth telling—and repeating.


Image source: Gillibrand 2020 Campaign Announcement