by Keaton Weiss
I feel I should start by saying that, on the whole, I like Tulsi Gabbard. I first became familiar with her, as did many progressives, during the 2016 presidential primary, when she quit the DNC in order to endorse Bernie Sanders for president and to call to attention how the process was being rigged against him. That took guts, and whatever her motivation for doing so (be it to actually boost Bernie’s campaign or to raise her profile with what she saw as a growing progressive base within the Democratic Party), she deserves credit for having done it, as she was one of very few Congressional Democrats to stand up to the Clinton machine. She’s made her opposition to interventionist regime change wars known over the years, and as a veteran herself, she obviously brings a unique credibility to issues of war and peace. She was also one of just three House Democrats to vote against the austerity policy of “pay-as-you-go” when it was introduced as part of a rules package in January of this year. And when Hillary Clinton reared her ugly head last week to insinuate that Tulsi was a Russian asset being “groomed” to spoil the 2020 election as a third-party candidate, of course Tulsi was right to repudiate her as harshly and directly as she did. Tulsi is right to call out Clinton and the “corrupt elite” who have poisoned the Democratic Party, and she is absolutely justified in defending her reputation as a patriot against such abject, baseless smears. Furthermore, her stated mission to “take back the Democratic Party” from the oligarchs who have come to control it is of course a noble one.
So yes, we should all respect Tulsi for who she is. She’s served her country honorably in the Army National Guard and as a member of Congress. She’s spoken truth to power on numerous occasions and on numerous issues. She stuck her neck out for Bernie Sanders during the ever-so consequential primary of 2016, which is a hell of a lot more than we can say for Elizabeth Warren, whose “Dream Big, Fight Hard” motto apparently only applies to times when “dreaming big and fighting hard” is politically convenient for her.
And yes, there are of course legitimate critiques of Gabbard that are worth noting as well, especially in an election year. And I’m not talking about her meeting with Bashar Al-Assad nor her socially conservative upbringing, both of which are repeatedly mentioned by her more disingenuous detractors in the Democratic establishment and the corporate media. But her anti-war positions do seemingly stem from a more nationalistic, “America First” worldview than from a philosophical commitment to world peace. Her anti-BDS vote and her coziness with Narenda Modi do reflect a lack of concern for international human rights. Domestically, her recent backtracking on Medicare For All is of course a major red flag for progressives, as is her “open borders” rhetoric regarding Democrats’ immigration approach, and of course, her recent fundraiser with Wall St. executives at Anthony Scaramucci’s Hunt and Fish Club restaurant.
Despite her shortcomings though, I want to reiterate my opening point, which is that, on balance, I think Tulsi Gabbard is a positive force, and an important voice in the House, which is precisely why her decision not to seek re-election to Congress is so troubling.
Gabbard and her allies are framing this decision not to seek re-election as her going all-in on her presidential bid. This claim simply doesn’t pass the smell test. To call Gabbard’s presidential candidacy a long shot would, at this point, be a massive understatement. At this writing, the betting odds of her winning the Democratic nomination are 2.8%, which is actually up in recent days due to the recent boost in publicity Gabbard has received thanks to Hillary’s deranged smear against her. But her minuscule prospects for actually winning this race are reflected not only in the odds themselves, but in Tulsi’s own strategy thus far. And look, I’m the first one to applaud anyone who confronts the Democratic establishment and trashes Hillary Clinton. But I’m also willing to acknowledge that doing so as directly as Tulsi has is not the way to Democratic voters’ hearts (or at least not enough of them to win the party’s nomination). Threatening to boycott the debates doesn’t exactly help either. Again, all of this does not in itself undermine the rationale for Tulsi’s candidacy. She has every right to run, and she deserves credit for calling out the Democratic Party power brokers for the bad actors they mostly are. And, after all, they fired the first shots. In a sense, Tulsi had to respond as she did, whether or not it boosted her prospects for victory in this particular primary.
But here’s the rub: her mission to reclaim the Democratic Party from the corruptive forces who have wrested control of it simply does not square with her decision to forfeit her position in Congress as one of a precious few anti-establishment Democratic voices, given her near-certain defeat in the presidential race. By going “all-in” on a primary she’s sure to lose and surrendering her House seat in the process, she’s likely stripping herself of any potential platform she could use in the future to achieve her stated goal of reforming the party from within and ridding it of the “rot” which she speaks of so forcefully.
One plausible explanation for her decision is that she’s given up on the Democratic Party entirely, and has realized that there’s no future for herself within this particular institution. This would explain her recent bout of appearances on Fox News programs such as Tucker Carlson Tonight and Hannity, and her appeals to libertarians and other right-leaning people more broadly. As someone who almost surely will be out of government in just over a year, it seems reasonable to suspect she’s angling for a contributor position at a media outlet like Fox, where perhaps she feels she can bring her unique take on Democratic politics to an audience who is normally hostile to anyone with a ‘D’ next to their name. This, again, is itself not a dubious move. I’m not one of these hysterical, hair-on-fire liberals who’s eager to label anyone who goes on Fox News a “Trumpist by association,” if you will, or brand anyone who challenges Democratic orthodoxy as a water carrier for the right wing. Perhaps she’s considering throwing her support to other grassroots progressive organizations outside the Democratic Party. Again, this is not in itself at all a bad thing to do. Were she to join an organization like the Movement for a People’s Party, it could give them a great boost and be a very positive development for progressive politics. But this, according to Gabbard herself, is not her goal. She’s saying she’s all-in on winning the Democratic Party nomination.
My point is that surrendering her House seat and making herself a media darling of the contrarian right simply doesn’t jive with the message nor mission of her 2020 campaign. First, if her goal is to actually topple the Democratic establishment from within, she should understand that the most viable means of achieving such a goal would be to retain her seat in Congress, where dissenting voices like hers are in woefully short supply. And second, quitting her job in Congress, losing a long-shot primary, and taking a job as a media personality, would be in total contradiction to her “service above self” mantra that has been the thematic linchpin of her candidacy.
Simply put, Tulsi’s strategy just doesn’t add up. And if you’re a progressive who’s planning to vote for her over Bernie in this primary, neither does yours. This is not to say that you shouldn’t like and respect Tulsi Gabbard. It’s not to say you can’t continue to follow her wherever her career should take her once the 2020 campaign is over. It’s not to say you shouldn’t heed her warnings about the insidious forces that have come to dominate Democratic Party politics.
But this is a hugely important election, and we progressives have what is perhaps a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to elect a truly transformational president. It’s abundantly clear that the most viable threat to these entrenched power forces both within and outside the Democratic Party, including the same military industrial complex that Tulsi rightly rails against, is the Bernie Sanders campaign. Those, like myself, whose introduction to Tulsi came when she endorsed Bernie four years ago, must understand the seriousness of this moment, and take our best shot to actually win this thing. Unlike Tulsi’s campaign, which now seems to have employed what is at best a misguided strategy, and at worst an incoherent one, Bernie’s has a clarity of purpose, which is the redistribution not just of wealth and resources, but of political power, back to the American working class. Bernie supporters-turned-Tulsi supporters ought to understand this, and we need all hands on deck, including theirs, to push this campaign over the finish line.
The three earliest primary contests in Iowa, New Hampshire, and Nevada, are going to be crucial for establishing viability and momentum, and right now, the race looks very close in all three states between Biden, Warren, and Sanders. Of course, you have a right to vote for whomever you choose. But if you understand the unique opportunity that the Sanders campaign represents, and you still choose to throw 5 points away from Bernie and into Tulsi’s column in New Hampshire, and he loses that state by single digits to either Biden or Warren, you will have made a monumentally stupid mistake of catastrophic consequences.
It’s fine to support Tulsi. It’s good to defend her against horrible, baseless allegations that she’s an asset of a foreign adversary. It’s great to take to heart her legitimate critique of the Democratic power structure. And it’s essential to carry that fighting spirit she embodies into this 2020 campaign. But it’s absolutely necessary that in this primary, if you really want to oppose the establishment in a meaningful way, and transform both the Democratic Party and this country, that you vote for Bernie Sanders. Tulsi supporters are smart enough to understand this moment and the opportunity it presents, and so it’s imperative that you not squander it.