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Tulsi Gabbard, the controversial, long-shot Democratic 2020 candidate, explained

How Gabbard went from rising star to controversial figure.

Tulsi Gabbard at the microphone
Hawaii congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard speaks at the Iowa Democratic Party’s Hall of Fame Dinner in June.
Scott Olson/Getty Images
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

When Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) was first elected to Congress in 2012 amid an ocean of positive press, the Iraq War veteran seemed like a sure thing for a 2020 presidential run. But her 2020 campaign has, so far, been a nearly complete nonstarter — averaging under 1 percent in national polls.

That’s because the onetime progressive star has alienated many of her early supporters over her conservative stances on Islam and foreign wars.

Gabbard initially excited the left because she was an outspoken economic progressive and a veteran who objected to American intervention abroad. She was also the first Hindu member of Congress. Nancy Pelosi called her an “emerging star”; MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow predicted she was “on the fast track to being very famous.”

But in the following years, Gabbard staked out foreign policy positions that shocked her allies. She joined Republicans in demanding that President Obama use the term “radical Islam.” She was the member of Congress most willing to advocate for Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. She dubbed herself a “hawk” on terrorism. Reporters documented worrying ties to anti-LGBTQ groups — including one run by her father — and anti-Muslim Hindu nationalists.

Gabbard has defenses of these positions, some more persuasive than others. She seems to have sincerely changed her mind on LGBTQ issues, defends her position on terrorism as a necessary response to the serious threat from jihadism to the United States, and argues that her outreach to the Syrian government is part of an effort to open up space for a peaceful solution to the conflict.

In 2016, she backed Sen. Bernie Sanders’s (I-VT) insurgent campaign over Hillary Clinton’s. The move isolated her from her friends in the establishment while getting her little traction with the party’s insurgent left, which remained skeptical of her foreign policy.

For 2020, Gabbard has run as an economic and social progressive, similar to Sanders on domestic policy in many respects. Her campaign website calls for “breaking up the big banks” and “healthcare for all.” But the site also foregrounds her views on war and peace, arguing that “Tulsi has been a leading voice fighting to end regime change wars and instead focus our military efforts on defeating the terrorist groups that attacked and declared war on the United States.”

Yet it’s her policy views on these issues that have put her campaign in a tough place.

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.) And given that she’s not the only candidate opposing wars of regime change in the 2020 field, it’s hard to see exactly how she breaks through and betters her consistently dismal polling numbers.

The making of a progressive star

Tulsi Gabbard speaking at the Democratic National Convention in 2012.
Tulsi Gabbard speaking at the Democratic National Convention in 2012.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

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 opposed not only 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 LGBTQ rights (as well as abortion) seemed to stem from his religious background. Born in American 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, she 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 her, 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:

The contrast between our society and those in the Middle East made me realize that the difference — the reason those societies are so oppressive — is that they are essentially theocracies where the government and government leaders wield the power to both define and then enforce morality.

My experiences in the Middle East eventually led me to reevaluate my view regarding government’s role in our personal lives and decisions.

Slowly, I began to realize that the positions I had held previously regarding the issues of choice and gay marriage were rooted in the same premise held by those in power in the oppressive Middle East regimes I saw — that it is government’s role to define and enforce our personal morality.

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 a critic of the Bush-era wars in the Middle East. The latter was particularly important as she grounded her antiwar 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 chair positions on 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 peculiar 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 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’s also insulting to the vast majority of Muslims around the world. President George W. Bush’s counterterrorism team refused to use it for these reasons.

This overwhelming focus on the threat from terrorism culminated in what’s now Gabbard’s 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. She 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’re focused solely on the threat from the jihadist elements inside the Syrian opposition to the American homeland to the exclusion of moral concerns about Assad’s regime, then it makes a grim kind of sense to align oneself with the Syrian and Russian governments.

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:

In January 2017, she traveled to Syria and met with Assad personally, catching the Democratic leadership in Congress off guard. 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.

By this point, Democratic leadership considered her disloyal. “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 earlier this year. “There is no excuse for this. The hypocrisy of these actions is astonishing. One can be antiwar without being pro-murderous dictator, a fact that seems obvious.”

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.

Assad was not the only foreign authoritarian Gabbard praised for fighting terrorism. She issued a statement celebrating Egyptian strongman Abdel Fattah el-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 protesters in a single day.

She also 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.

Gabbard and the left: she can’t replace Bernie

Gabbard and Bernie Sanders.
Gabbard and Sen. Bernie Sanders.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

If Gabbard was estranged from the party leadership as a result of her views on terrorism, it was official when she endorsed Sanders over Clinton. Gabbard resigned her position as vice chair of the DNC to do it, 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 LGBTQ rights, this seems both plausible and politically savvy. Her 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 enthusiastic about Gabbard. Some of her harshest critics come not from the party mainstream but rather from the party’s left and democratic socialist flanks.

In 2017, the socialist publication Jacobin published a brutal takedown titled “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 he believes many on 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.”

In January, the Intercept, a left-aligned antiwar outlet, published a deeply reported exposé 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 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. Sanders’s supporters have not defected in any meaningful numbers to Gabbard over the course of the campaign, and there’s no reason to expect they should.

What’s more, Gabbard isn’t even the other major left-identified candidate in the field. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, not Gabbard, has emerged as the other leading candidate competing for the party’s left reaches, even outpacing Sanders in some recent polls. There doesn’t seem to be room for anyone else out there besides Sanders and Warren, who both have better name recognition than Gabbard and lack her particularly encumbering baggage.

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 an 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,” she said.

That also happens to be the main reason her campaign is in such a tough place.