The Winnowing of Tulsi Gabbard

Parties can tolerate a lot, but not sabotage.

What is there to say about Tulsi Gabbard now that her campaign appears to be falling apart? I mean, other than the fact that she’s disorganized, undisciplined and toxic? Two things: the importance of party and the role of rhetoric in political careers.

Gabbard’s campaign manager and consulting firm are planning to quit after the campaign formally launches this weekend, according to Politico’s Daniel Strauss and Alex Thompson. Those are ill omens for a campaign that’s barely begun.

Moreover, they report, Gabbard is indecisive as well as impulsive. A terrible combo. In preparation for her announcement, she made staffers work through the holidays only to reconsider their efforts. “Gabbard went up to the starting line again—signaling to her team that a green light was imminent—only to make repeated retreats.”

She then blindsided staffers by announcing her bid, without their knowing, on Van Jones’ CNN show. Even Jones was surprised. In the days after announcing, Strauss and Thompson said, “the campaign appeared to be frozen.” All this suggests her campaign will fade before more time has past. At least, she’s in good company. There’s never been a shortage of ambitious people in US history, and there never will be.

To be sure, the likelihood of a Congresswoman winning the presidency was low. Bloomberg’s Jonathan Bernstein, whom I adore, tracks the process of “winnowing,” which usually separates the wheat from the chaff. He says governors and US senators have strong state-wide bases of power. Representatives don’t. That doesn’t mean Gabbard can’t make a spirited effort. But even if she were not a toxic candidate with snowball’s chance of winning the nomination, the odds are against her.

About that. While true that Gabbard has a following among Bernie Sanders devotees, that must be measured against party regulars who can’t stand her. Gabbard has said and done some curious things. She visited Egypt’s Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in 2015. She visited Syria’s Bashar al-Assad in 2017. Hence her reputation for befriending dictators and war criminals. She was one of very few Democrats to oppose Barack Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran. It appeased “radical Islam,” she said. Like I said, curious.  

She has a history of anti-gay gestures. That was before she came to the Congress. She has since repented. While that might be enough for party regulars, I doubt it given the party’s disgust with “conversion therapy,” something he dad championed.

The left seems split when it comes to Gabbard. I was pleased to see Jacobin staff writer Branko Marcetic debunk the myth that she’s a progressive up-and-comer. Yes, he said, she was an early Sanders backer. Yes, he said, she supported some progressive policies. But look at her views on Islam and embrace of far-right world leaders.

the starry-eyed anointment of Gabbard has obscured the more unsavory aspects of her politics — so unsavory, in fact, that White House adviser Steve Bannon has reportedly spoken well of her. From her vigorous opposition to the Iran nuclear deal to her obsession with “radical Islam” to her love for the far-right Indian leader Narendra Modi, Gabbard is far from the progressive hero many assume her to be.

So in foreign policy, LGBTQ issues and ideology, Gabbard was already on the margins of the Democratic Party. But I don’t think that’s necessarily a negative as long as your party supports you, and as long as you support your party. Plus, being on the margins does not explain why a popular state senator in Hawaii announced that he’s challenging Gabbard for her job. The reason, I think, is rooted in two things: Gabbard seems to really believe her own spin, which led her to attacking her own party.

All politicians operate on two levels at the same. There’s what they say, and there’s what they believe. Often, these are the same. Mostly, they’re not. The question is about emphasis, timing, and stakes. Importantly, politicians shouldn’t confuse them. Gabbard was an early Sanders backer. In doing so, she was standing up to the “Democratic establishment.” A good thing! But it’s one thing to “stand up to the establishment” and another to attack a sitting US senator from your own state.

Which is what she did.

Even as she was launching her presidential bid, she wrote an op-ed accusing popular Hawaii Senator Mazie Hirono and others of “fomenting religious bigotry” during questioning of a judicial nominee. She wrote: “Elected leaders engaging in religion-baiting are playing with fire. They are sacrificing the well-being, peace and harmony of our country to satisfy their own political ambitions for partisan political interests.”

What was she thinking? I don’t know.

But the most likely answer is that she really believed it. Even if she were right on the merits, she was wrong on the politics. Parties can tolerate a lot, but they can’t tolerate sabotage. Gabbard is disorganized, undisciplined and toxic. But that’s not why her campaign is “melting down.” It’s melting down because Gabbard is disloyal.

The party will deal with her by winnowing her out.

—John Stoehr


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