(CNN)President Donald Trump’s showdown with Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand shows that the cultural moment triggered by allegations of sexual harassment is the most vibrant and emotional issue in politics.
Their public feud, which featured Democratic claims that the President made a distasteful sexual reference about the New York senator in a tweet, also carries long-term implications and previews some of the arguments that are likely to dominate the early exchanges of Trump’s 2020 re-election race.
Both sides clearly have an incentive to keep the fight going.
Gillibrand took another big step towards greater national recognition by demanding Trump’s resignation over sexual harassment allegations and punching back just as hard at his inevitable fierce counterattack.
The President, who always seems to prosper when he has an identifiable enemy, now has a new foil for his personal gallery of political enemies. In fact, Gillibrand’s acquisition of a mocking nickname might be a sign that Trump views her as a long-term political threat. “Lightweight” Gillibrand joins “low energy” Jeb Bush “Little” Marco Rubio, “Crooked” Hillary Clinton and “Rocket Man” Kim Jong Un.
That Gillibrand is a woman and a leader in the unfolding political moment brought about by the cascade of sexual misconduct allegations in Congress, the media and business means the clash adds in an extra dimension.
“Lightweight Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, a total flunky for Chuck Schumer and someone who would come to my office ‘begging’ for campaign contributions not so long ago (and would do anything for them), is now in the ring fighting against Trump. Very disloyal to Bill & Crooked-USED!” the President tweeted.
While the public mood and rules of political engagement have changed in the extraordinary atmosphere fostered by the #MeToo movement, including the resignation of three lawmakers last week, Trump’s own political technique remain the same. He is willing to attack female opponents with language that strikes his critics as demeaning and misogynistic — following his previous tirades against Megyn Kelly, Rosie O’Donnell, Hillary Clinton and many others.
White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders on Tuesday insisted that anyone who saw a sexual connotation in Trump’s remarks about Gillibrand must have a mind in the “gutter.” And conservative media quickly jumped on the idea that mainstream reporters had willfully misinterpreted the tweet — thereby offering a fresh rallying point for the President’s political base.
Gillibrand made clear she was delighted to engage with the President, as Democrats savor the chance to brand Trump as hostile to women, and a man out of his time, hoping to highlight the catalogue of claims of sexual harassment against him that failed to kill his presidential campaign and to inflict long-term political damage.
“I see it as a sexist smear. I mean that’s what it is,” Gillibrand said on Capitol Hill. “It’s part of the President’s efforts of name calling and it’s not going to silence me.”
Gillibrand’s Democratic colleague Sen. Elizabeth Warren, another frequent Trump target with an offensive nickname — Pocahontas — also responded, on Twitter.
“Are you really trying to bully, intimidate and slut-shame @SenGillibrand?” she asked Trump.
The exchange may prompt some caution among Democrats as they ponder the best way to take on Trump.
Waging hand-to-hand political conflict with an opponent as willing to respond as viscerally as Trump can be hazardous. A generation of Republican presidential candidates felt the lash of his keyboard and tongue in the 2016 campaign and limped away with their own political brands diminished.
Trump has inarguably coarsened political discourse and is uniquely willing to conduct himself in political wars in a way that most political figures would view as demeaning to his office as president or party nominee. He twists words, is merciless in spotting a weakness in an opponent and the chaos he whips up makes normal political debate impossible.
And Trump has worked out that when opponents descend into the mud with him, they usually come off worse than he does. Rubio, for instance, is yet to fully rehabilitate his image after an ill-advised venture into Trump-style insult politics when he mocked the size of his GOP rival’s hands.
That’s why Democrats need to think hard about their 2020 strategy. On the one hand, the swift reaction of Gillibrand and her fellow Democrats Tuesday show a party ready to call out the President, to fight him tweet-by-tweet and to fire up the Democratic coalition — especially women voters.
Former first lady Michelle Obama said in her Democratic National Convention speech last year that “When they go low, we go high,” referring to the tone of the Republican presidential campaign.
Trump went low and won. His showdown with Gillibrand Tuesday shows that he thinks he can do it again.