When Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) was first elected to Congress in 2012 amid an ocean of positive press, a 2020 presidential run seemed like it could well be in her future. But after she announced an intent to run on Friday, she was treated less like a marquee candidate and more like a sideshow. It’s a collapse that speaks to the broader arc of Gabbard’s career so far, a story of squandered potential that feels like a Greek tragedy.
On paper, Gabbard is the perfect Democratic candidate. She is an Iraq War veteran who vocally criticized American wars, an outspoken economic progressive, and the first Hindu member of Congress. After her 2012 election victory, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called her an “emerging star”; MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow predicted that “she is on the fast track to being very famous.”
Gabbard did indeed end up getting a lot of attention in the coming years. But it was for all the wrong reasons.
The Congress member made a name for herself as the leading congressional apologist for Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. She made an enemy out of the Obama administration by siding with Republicans and blasting its refusal to say the phrase “radical Islam,” then undermined her own prior opposition to foreign wars by dubbing herself a “hawk” on terrorism. Reporters documented worrying ties to anti-LGBT groups — including one run by her own father — and anti-Muslim Hindu nationalists.
In 2016, Gabbard further alienated the party establishment by endorsing Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) over Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primary. Despite this bold move, many on the party’s insurgent left remained skeptical of her views on foreign policy and Islam. If Sanders runs again in 2020, as many expect, it’s difficult to imagine more than a handful of his hardcore supporters defecting to Gabbard.
Experts, writers, and political figures on both sides of the Democratic Party’s internal divide have told me the result is that a politician once hailed as the future of the party has no natural constituency and few powerful allies. (Gabbard’s campaign did not respond to multiple requests for comment.)
Now, anything is possible in politics; President Donald Trump is a living testament to that. But right now, Gabbard’s presidential bid does not seem like the juggernaut one would have expected from her back in 2012. The rise and fall of Tulsi Gabbard speaks to the demand in the Democratic Party for a principled anti-war voice — so much so that Gabbard, with all her flaws, managed to successfully occupy that niche for some time before crashing to earth.
The making of an unlikely progressive star
For Tulsi Gabbard, politics is a family business. Her mother, Carol Gabbard, was on Hawaii’s State Board of Education; her father, Mike Gabbard, was a political activist and Honolulu City Council member, best known in Hawaii for being one of the state’s leading opponents of LGBTQ equality. He founded an organization called Stop Promoting Homosexuality that advocated not only against marriage equality, but the very idea of tolerance for homosexuality itself.
“Homosexuality is not normal, not healthy, morally and scripturally wrong,” he said in a 1992 interview, in which he also blamed the spread of AIDS on the repeal of sodomy laws.
Mike Gabbard’s opposition to gay rights (as well as abortion) seemed to stem from his religious background. Born in Samoa, he is both Catholic and a member of an obscure offshoot of the Hare Krishna sect called the Science of Identity Foundation. The group’s leader, a self-described guru named Chris Butler, has condemned homosexuality, once arguing that it led to “an increasing number of American women [keeping] dogs for sexual purposes.’”
Tulsi Gabbard grew up in Butler’s movement, which has faced allegations of cult-like practices. She told the New Yorker’s Kelefa Sanneh that he shaped her Hindu identity, speaking of her “gratitude to him for the gift of this wonderful spiritual practice that he has given to me.”
Her early political career reflected both Butler’s views and her father’s. She worked for her father’s organization, which supported the use of “conversion therapy” to try to turn kids straight. She once blasted “homosexual activists” for trying to “force their values down the throats of the children in our schools.” During her successful run for the Hawaii Legislature in 2002, when she was just 21 years old, she vowed to pass a constitutional amendment against same-sex marriage.
Despite her conservative social views — she also opposed abortion — Gabbard was a Democrat, albeit not one likely to succeed on the national stage. But in 2004, Gabbard deployed to the Middle East for her National Guard unit, serving as a combat medic in Iraq and a counterterrorism trainer in Kuwait.
This was, according to Gabbard, a transformative experience. During her 2012 campaign for an open seat in the US House, Gabbard supported both same-sex marriage and abortion rights. She explained her change of heart in a December 2011 blog post on her campaign site. It’s worth reading her statement at length:
A skeptic could cast this as mere political convenience: a person who had spent much of her adult life in politics getting a sense of which way the wind was blowing in the party. But it’s equally plausible that Gabbard’s reasoning is sincere. It’s not at all implausible that a woman traveling to a more socially repressive place might reevaluate her views on the role of government. The thoughtful nature of the blog post, and the sophistication and plausibility of her explanation, is at the very least a testament to her skill as a political communicator.
Gabbard made a name for herself during the 2012 campaign as a Democrat to watch. The strength of her campaign — she won an upset primary victory after initially trailing by 50 points — and her compelling personal background caught the eye of national Democrats pretty early. That summer, Pelosi tapped her for a speaking slot at the Democratic National Convention.
She effectively moved beyond her controversial stands on social issues, situating herself as an economic progressive and critic of the Bush-era wars in the Middle East. The latter was particularly important, as she grounded her anti-war arguments in her personal experience witnessing the cost of war. This immunized her from the “soft on terrorism” charges so many Democrats were terrified to court, making her a powerful critic of “nation building” and “wars of choice.”
Another famous biracial Hawaiian politician, President Barack Obama, endorsed her congressional run. After her victory, Gabbard was given one of five vice-chairmanships of the Democratic National Committee, a sign of the party’s faith in her. Another rising star, then-Newark Mayor Cory Booker, told Vogue in 2013 that “she’s one of the leading voices in the party now.”
Tulsi Gabbard seemed like the perfect Democrat, the kind of politician everyone in the party was excited about. And then she shot herself in the foot.
Gabbard fought Obama — and lost the party
Gabbard’s fall from grace in the Democratic Party came in a bizarre fashion: She picked a series of high-profile fights with the Obama administration over foreign policy.
In 2015, terrorism was arguably the biggest fight in American partisan politics. ISIS had just swept across northern Iraq, seizing control of the country’s second-largest city; the Obama administration had launched a new war in Iraq to roll them back. In January, killers aligned with the Islamic State attacked the French satirical publication Charlie Hebdo and a kosher supermarket, igniting fears of a global wave of terrorist violence.
Republicans blamed much of this on Obama. One of the most common arguments from Republicans in the runup to that year’s midterm election was that Obama refused to say the phrase “radical Islam,” arguing that the president’s commitment to political correctness was preventing him from identifying the root cause of jihadist violence: Islamist theology.
Very few Democrats were willing to echo the Republican arguments on this front. Gabbard was an exception. As early as January 2015, she started going on every cable channel that would have her — including Fox News — and bashing Obama’s policy on terrorism. She sounded indistinguishable from a Republican presidential candidate.
“What is so frustrating … is that our administration refuses to recognize who our enemy is,” she said in a January 2015 interview with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer. “And unless and until that happens, then it’s impossible to come up with a strategy to defeat that enemy. We have to recognize that this is about radical Islam.”
The problem with this argument, according to both the Obama administration and most terrorism experts, is that “radical Islam” paints with too broad a brush. The term implies that jihadist militants are part of a unified ideological movement, rather than a series of discrete groups that are often at war with each other. It also unnecessarily alienates Muslims by suggesting that there is something authentically Islamic about militant extremism, muddying the waters between the religion and violent sects.
The term is not analytically precise, not necessary for designing a strategy against specific groups like ISIS, and insulting to the vast majority of Muslims around the world. President George W. Bush’s counterterrorism team refused to use it for precisely these reasons.
Yet this was the hill that Gabbard had chosen to die on. Time and time again, she went after the Obama administration for its refusal to say “radical Islam,” each time pushing herself away from the party mainstream.
This overwhelming focus on the threat from terrorism culminated in what’s now her most infamous policy position: quasi-support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, the dictator responsible for the outbreak of the Syrian civil war and the conflict’s worst atrocities.
Gabbard argued, along with a small minority of foreign policy analysts, that the best way to defeat ISIS in Syria was for the US to align itself with Assad’s regime. Gabbard argued that the US should cut funding to the rebels fighting Assad, even sponsoring a bill in Congress to cut off US support. In the fall of 2015, when Russia began its bombing campaign in Syria, Gabbard celebrated it as a win for counterterrorism.
In fact, Russian forces were mostly targeting Syrian rebel groups overall rather than al-Qaeda-aligned rebel groups specifically. The goal was not narrow counterterrorism but rather defending a Russian-friendly regime that was (at the time) losing the war.
But there’s an internal logic here, one that the Kremlin itself has argued publicly. If you don’t care about human rights and mass murder but instead are principally worried about the threat to the American homeland from militant groups aligned with the Syrian opposition, then it makes a grim kind of sense to align oneself with Assad and the Russians. This appears to be how Gabbard, who once described Assad as “brutal,” could support Russia’s intervention on his behalf — even going so far as to unfavorably compare Obama to Putin:
Gabbard’s pro-Assad behavior only escalated as her time in Congress went on. In January 2017, she traveled to Syria and went to meet with Assad personally, blindsiding the Democratic leadership in Congress. After returning to the US, she went on CNN and parroted the regime’s line that there was “no difference” between the mainstream anti-Assad rebels and ISIS.
When Assad’s forces used chemical weapons against Syrian civilians in April 2017, Gabbard said she was “skeptical” that Assad was responsible, aligning herself with conspiracy theorists against both US intelligence and the overwhelming majority of independent experts.
The “radical Islam” and Syria debacles doubly damned Gabbard. To the leadership, they showed her to be disloyal; to the party’s policy experts and rank-and-file, they revealed her to be someone who had worrying affinities with Syria and Russia.
“Rep. Gabbard loses me and, I think, many others when she claims to support peaceful values and policies that protect civilians and still engages with and even defends a murderous dictator, Bashar al-Assad,” Loren DeJonge Schulman, a senior NSC official in the Obama administration, told me. “There is no excuse for this. The hypocrisy of these actions is astonishing. One can be anti-war without being pro-murderous dictator, a fact that seems obvious.”
Nor was Assad the only foreign authoritarian Gabbard praised for fighting terrorism. She issued a statement celebrating Egyptian strongman Abdel Fateh al-Sisi’s “great courage and leadership in taking on … extreme Islamist ideology” — despite Sisi taking power in a coup and massacring more than 800 peaceful protestors in a single day.
These controversies unraveled the principal promise of Gabbard’s candidacy from a progressive point of view: that she’d be a consistent, effective anti-war voice.
It became clear that her position wasn’t that endless war was bad, but rather that wars for regime change should be replaced with a beefed-up war on terrorism. In addition to suggesting the US should intervene in Syria on the same side as a murderous dictator, she proposed a policy of US special forces raids around the world and even expressed a willingness to authorize torture of terrorism suspects if she were president. She referred to herself in one interview as a “dove” on regime change but a “hawk” on terrorism, neatly summarizing her actual positions.
As Gabbard’s dalliance with Assad progressed, the rhetoric about Gabbard as a future party leader got noticeably quieter. The once-star developed a reputation as a Washington curio, less of a future party leader and more of an oddball apologist for dictators.
Gabbard and the left: She can’t replace Bernie
If Gabbard were estranged from the party leadership as a result of her views on terrorism, a full-on divorce came in 2016 when she became one of a handful of prominent Democrats to endorse Bernie Sanders over Hillary Clinton. To do so, Gabbard resigned her position as vice-chair of the DNC, a hard break with the party that she claimed was motivated by reservations about Clinton’s foreign policy instincts.
“We can elect a president who will lead us into more interventionist wars of regime change, or we can elect a president who will usher in a new era of peace and prosperity,” she said in a taped endorsement. “The stakes are just too high. That’s why today I’m endorsing Sen. Bernie Sanders to be our next president and commander in chief of the United States.”
Much like Gabbard’s postwar conversion on abortion and gay rights, this seems both plausible and politically savvy. Gabbard’s positioning on Syria and fights with the Obama administration had already alienated many people in the party’s more mainstream wing; courting the party’s insurgents seemed like a smart way to build a new base of national support.
In the years since, Gabbard has cultivated this relationship. She has endorsed a $15 minimum wage, Medicare-For-all, and the Green New Deal. When she faced a primary challenge in 2018, motivated in part by her Syria position, the pro-Sanders group Our Revolution endorsed her (as did actress Shailene Woodley, an Our Revolution board member). She has a vocal group of online fans from the so-called “anti-imperialist” left, a loose group of writers — like the anti-Israel gadfly Max Blumenthal — who share her position on Syria.
But on the whole, the left isn’t nearly as pro-Gabbard as you might think. Some of Gabbard’s harshest critics come not from the party mainstream, but rather the party’s left and democratic socialist flanks.
In 2017, the socialist publication Jacobin published a brutal takedown entitled “Tulsi Gabbard Is Not Your Friend,” focusing on dispelling the myth of Gabbard as an opponent of America’s wars abroad.
“Gabbard’s almost singular focus on the damage these wars inflict domestically, and her comparative lack of focus on the carnage they wreak in the countries under attack, is troubling,” Jacobin’s Branko Marcetic writes. “It is nationalism in antiwar garb, reinforcing instead of undercutting the toxic rhetoric that treats foreigners as less deserving of dignity than Americans.”
Reached via email, Marcetic told me that he believes many in the American left share his view of Gabbard.
“My sense is there’s a pretty big cohort of the Left that distrusts Gabbard,” he said. “Her anti-interventionism isn’t quite as peaceful as she makes it out to be.”
Just two weeks ago, the Intercept, a left-aligned anti-war outlet, published a deeply reported expose on Gabbard’s ties to Hindu nationalists. Gabbard has long supported Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, an anti-Islam right-winger who had previously been barred from entering the US due to being personally implicated in deadly anti-Muslim riots. In turn, American Hindu supporters of Modi had become some of Gabbard’s biggest donors — including some disturbingly Islamophobic groups.
“Hindu-Americans have supported Gabbard since the start of her political career, and that support has increased substantially since Modi’s election, much of it coming from Hindu nationalists,” Soumya Shankar writes in the Intercept’s piece. “Dozens of Gabbard’s donors have either expressed strong sympathy with or have ties to the Sangh Parivar — a network of religious, political, paramilitary, and student groups that subscribe to the Hindu supremacist, exclusionary ideology known as Hindutva.”
These attacks in the left press underscore how divisive a figure she is even among the party’s insurgent wing. It’s hard to see why a faction that was troubled by Hillary Clinton’s foreign policy record would be open to someone who had engaged in borderline Islamophobic rhetoric about “radical Islam,” called for escalations in the war on terrorism, and backed anti-Islam populists and dictators abroad.
What’s more, the Bernie camp has a candidate they’d obviously prefer to Gabbard: Bernie. If the senator from Vermont runs, as many expect, there’s no way his biggest fans in the party would pick Gabbard over him. There isn’t room for multiple left outsiders, and Sanders is just more popular and has far better name recognition.
And even if he doesn’t run, it’s not obvious that his supporters would automatically pick Gabbard over another progressive.
Take Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), for example. Warren is better known as a domestic policy progressive than Gabbard is, she is genuinely responsible for major legislative changes reining in big banks, and has far more name recognition among the Democratic base. Warren also has none of the baggage on foreign policy or LGBTQ rights. From a left-progressive point of view, she’s a better candidate.
So while backing Sanders in 2016 was smart politics on Gabbard’s part, given her declining support in the mainstream it simply wasn’t enough to overcome the hole she dug herself. Nobody made Gabbard cozy up to Assad or attack Obama for not saying “radical Islam;” she wasn’t forced to entertain the idea of bringing back torture or fundraising from hardline Hindu nationalists. These moves clearly weren’t politically clever, and they seem to have cost her allies around the party.
There’s only one clear explanation: Gabbard’s most controversial positions represent her authentic convictions. She deeply believes the US would have been better off helping Assad slaughter Syrian rebels, and that combating terrorism requires saying the magic phrase “radical Islam.” There’s something admirable about a politician expressing their deep convictions even though it’s politically devastating — except, in this case, those convictions are morally repellent.
In her interview on CNN announcing her intent to run in 2020, Gabbard said she was running principally to advance her view of foreign policy. “There is one main issue that is central to the rest, and that is the issue of war and peace,” the Congress member said.
That also happens to be the “main reason” her campaign is starting out in a very tough place.