Presidential candidate and Democratic congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii is a bit of an enigma, hard to pin a label on. She has incurred the wrath and venom of the Democratic party establishment for reasons that are not totally clear to me but seem to involve the fact that she does not take an instinctively hostile attitude to the designated enemies of the political establishment, namely Russia, China, Syria, and Iran. Edward Isaac-Devore tried to understand the reasons for this antipathy. He says that the party establishment seems convinced that she has some ulterior motives for running for president even though they cannot articulate what it might be.
Many high-level Democrats I spoke with for this story, who insisted on anonymity to share their true feelings about her, suspect that Gabbard is up to something other than actually trying to win the party’s nomination—even if they can’t quite identify what her goal is.
Theories I’ve heard from top Democrats include that Gabbard is trying to get a TV show—“I already know which network: Fox,” one senior Democrat not affiliated with any campaign said, speaking anonymously to remain publicly neutral—and that she’s gearing up for a Trump-benefiting third-party run.
Isaac-Devore has followed Gabbard around and interviewed her to try and figure out what makes her tick.
Good politicians are smooth. Gabbard is beyond smooth. She’s unflappable to the point of being confounding, even to the many people I spoke with who have worked with her for years in Washington, D.C., and at home in Hawaii. She may be the most elusive candidate running for president, with a campaign that has followed none of the rules of conventional or contemporary politics, and a small but committed group of supporters.
During the first Democratic debate, in June, Gabbard took Representative Tim Ryan’s legs out from under him over his support for the war in Afghanistan; in the days after, she defended former Vice President Joe Biden against Senator Kamala Harris’s attack on his views about busing. At the second debate, in July, Gabbard clotheslined Harris with details about her record as California attorney general. That night, according to Google, Gabbard was the most-searched candidate.
Some of Gabbard’s appeal is straightforward: People are drawn to her when she talks about “the cost of war” and when she says she’d commit America to peaceful noninterventionism.
In a race that has already seen two two-term governors and a two-term senator quit, Gabbard is consistently drawing bigger crowds than all but the most covered candidates in the early-voting states and beyond.
Many of Gabbard’s current supporters are former Sanders supporters, who first came to know her when she quit as a DNC vice chair in 2016, saying that the process was rigged and she would endorse Sanders over Clinton. “I don’t know if [Sanders] has enough fight in him to go against the powers that be,” Dean Mincer, a 2016 Sanders delegate from Glidden, Iowa, told me at that coffee shop in Ames, worrying about how people would respond to the senator’s socialist views. “Tulsi’s more of a realist.”
Gabbard’s supporters are a mix of old hippie peaceniks, cryptocurrency enthusiasts, people who obsess over American imperialism, and former Trump voters. They are also people who just love that she’s a young woman of color[.]
The apparent Russian support is perhaps the most curious aspect of Gabbard’s 2020 bid. Another candidate might have gotten flustered when I asked why the Russians seem so interested in her. Not Gabbard. Her voice stayed even, and she moved right past the question, saying, “I don’t have any explanation for these things, other than the fact that the world and other countries, including Russia, are in agreeance that we are in a better place in the world when we’re not on the brink of nuclear war.”
Imagine, I said, that Putin was sitting with us. What would she say to him? “Look,” she replied. “Within the first week in office, I would call for a summit with Russia and with China, to understand and to begin the conversation to de-escalate tensions that have brought us to the point of being closer to nuclear catastrophe than ever before.”
This answer goes to the core of Gabbard’s candidacy, and what sets her apart from every other Democrat running. She won’t condemn Assad, because she thinks doing so will lead to more war (though what piqued Fox News’s and Bannon’s interest in her was her eagerness to say that Obama was failing to identify the “enemy” by not using the term Islamic fundamentalist terrorism). She won’t say bad things about Putin, because she thinks we need to find a way to live together.
There is one disturbing thing about her background that I had not heard of before but would like to learn more of.
Some Democrats say that everything they find curious about Gabbard tracks back to her particular religious upbringing, which she does not like to discuss but involves an offshoot Hindu group and a revered religious leader with a very committed group of followers, and a father who raised his family in this environment and is currently a Hawaii state senator himself. “Is she doing it for ego? No. The ego is subordinate to the mission laid out for her in life by her guru,” one longtime Democratic observer in Hawaii who has watched her career told me. This person is convinced of their assertion despite never having discussed the topic with Gabbard.
At a time when the Democratic party establishment is heavily invested in bringing back a Cold War level of tension by portraying Russia as being deeply involved in undermining US elections and that Donald Trump is colluding with him, one can see why they might detest Gabbard. On the other hand, there are elements in her background that are problematic and would need further exploration and investigation before one could consider her to be a good candidate.