Tulsi Gabbard’s political style has never fit neatly into any traditional partisan paradigm. Most of the coverage she receives from the “corporate media”—her term—is highly derogatory and dismissive, often dwelling on trivialities in an attempt to delegitimize her. But polls in New Hampshire, where she has focused her campaign, put her as high as 7 percent—in contention with some of the supposedly “leading” candidates. So as a potential factor in the outcome of the primary here on February 11, it is worth taking a closer look at where her support is coming from.
Some of Gabbard’s most ardent volunteers throughout New Hampshire are self-described libertarians, which at first might seem incongruous. Gabbard advocates a variety of policy proposals—like a form of single-payer health care and a ban on fossil fuels—that plainly contravene the libertarian philosophy of little or no government intervention in the economic marketplace.
But in my travels across the state (I have covered her here daily for over a month), many of these libertarians told me that they are drawn to Gabbard because they agree with her as a matter of emphasis—that she has made fundamentally transforming US foreign policy her central campaign theme—and whatever philosophical disagreements they might have on domestic issues are of lesser importance. Some have even come around to the notion of a government-administered universal health care program on the grounds that if the United States is going to be making such massive expenditures anyway, instead of wasting money on endless overseas conflict, why not redirect those resources toward something that is actually socially beneficial?
As Gabbard put it to me, this reflects her ability “to reframe the conversation outside the institutional constructs that usually shape what people think is achievable.” Other candidates like Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg, and Amy Klobuchar routinely invoke their intention to “work across the aisle.” But fundamentally, they are all operating from within the same outmoded paradigm, where “bipartisanship” typically means splitting the difference between how many bombs you drop, or which social welfare programs you cut.
Gabbard also invokes the need to cultivate trans-partisan cooperation, but hers is a different paradigm—centered on her belief that upending the current foreign policy consensus must be any president’s first priority. And indeed, skepticism of US foreign policy is a cross-cutting ideological phenomenon, which explains why Gabbard’s events across the state draw such an idiosyncratic coterie of supporters: everyone from antiwar peaceniks who idolize Noam Chomsky, to erstwhile Trump supporters who say she is the only Democrat they’d ever consider voting for, to lifelong standard-fare liberals who simply believe she has the right personal characteristics to defeat Trump.
It’s certainly an unusual confluence. But it shows how making foreign policy her foremost, animating theme—an anomaly in the recent history of US presidential campaigns—can change the axis around which politics is normally framed. When politicians are able to make arguments that have resonance across the partisan spectrum, that ability is usually lauded as a valuable political asset. But with Gabbard, the prevailing media depiction is highly scornful; her motives are often depicted as sinister or mysterious. Of course, there are any number of legitimate criticisms one might make of Gabbard. With their condescending derision, though, “corporate media” merely reveals that it lacks the vocabulary to characterize a candidate whose message transcends ordinary political boundaries.
For instance, while Gabbard clearly recognizes that compromises are often necessary over the course of a legislative process, she draws different lines of demarcation as to which compromises are tolerable. Unlike other candidates, she is not going to “compromise” with defense industry lobbyists to enact whatever their favored regime change project might be on a given day—while at the same time insisting that she will treat everyone, even the most unreconstructed war hawks, with basic human decency. “Respect does not equate to compliance,” she told me.
Gabbard’s most committed supporters tend to be heterodox left-leaning voters, but part of the reason she has drawn support from a notable constituency of libertarians and conservatives is her distinctive personality, shaped by her immersion in the culture of the US military—in many ways a fundamentally conservative (and male-dominated) institution. She does not traffic in cheap anti-Trump insults, nor does she have much patience for the culture-war theatrics favored by many of Trump’s more excitable opponents.
New Hampshire state Representative Werner Horn, a staunch Trump backer who attended one of Gabbard’s recent town hall events, told me he thinks she would be the “most dangerous” candidate against Trump because she “doesn’t buy into his toxic roadshow.”
This doesn’t mean Gabbard goes easy on Trump—she calls for his defeat just about every day—but her approach to criticizing Trump differs from the typical Democrat’s in a way that even many Trump voters find appealing. As Trump abandons his campaign promise to stop squandering resources on needless wars (and starts new conflicts in the Middle East) Gabbard has unique standing to draw attention to those failures without being accused of operating merely as a knee-jerk anti-Trump partisan.
That same mindset has left Gabbard the only remaining Democratic candidate not to be implicated in the futile impeachment melodrama–which this week ended in predictable failure. By voting “present” on the articles of impeachment in December, Gabbard set herself apart from the whole American political landscape. Her rationale for that vote was explicitly not to absolve Trump of culpability for his many acts of wrongdoing. Rather, it was a repudiation both of Trump—whose most severe misconduct, like illegally committing acts of war, was nowhere to be found in the impeachment articles—and of a fatally flawed process that relied on dangerous assumptions in the realm of foreign policy.
A vote in favor of the impeachment articles would have directly contradicted Gabbard’s core campaign themes. She elaborated on this a recent event in Manchester, expressing “alarm” that a principal element of Democrats’ impeachment case entailed elevating permanent national security state officials like Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman and diplomat George Kent—the very sort of people Gabbard is running to dislodge from power—as the guardians of what’s been described by Representative Adam Schiff and other impeachment managers as “official US policy.”
“Those statements in those hearings really took me aback,” Gabbard said at the Manchester event. “Because they were coming from people who—many of them were decades-long bureaucrats serving in the State Department—who were basically saying they were the leaders of our country’s US foreign policy, not the president of the United States.”
In other words, as much as Gabbard objects to Trump’s conduct of foreign policy, the proper recourse in her mind is to vote him out of office—not establish a precedent whereby unelected security state functionaries are permitted to seize quasi-autonomous authority over “official” policymaking from a democratically elected president.
Gabbard gained a national profile in 2016 for resigning from the Democratic National Committee to endorse Bernie Sanders; she then became one of his most prominent surrogates and was chosen to enter his name into nomination at that year’s convention. In recent weeks, Gabbard has continued to come to Bernie’s defense: countering the allegations of his purported sexism made by Elizabeth Warren, visiting one of his New Hampshire field offices, and even using the #ILikeBernie Twitter hashtag.
As Gabbard campaigns in New Hampshire, she has touched on themes that would customarily find resonance on the left—condemning what she describes as Israel’s “continued illegal occupation” of Palestine, for example, as well as “the imperialistic mindset” of the Washington political class—but detractors allege (with some justification) a certain tension in her outlook. For instance, it is true that Gabbard, the first Hindu ever elected to Congress, has taken a conciliatory posture toward a number of ignominious foreign leaders—namely Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, as well as Syria’s Bashar al-Assad. But often ignored is that Gabbard has also made a point to meet with opposition figures in both India and Syria, born of her conviction that diplomatic engagement requires meeting everyone, without preconditions, as a necessary prerequisite to shifting US foreign policy away from fruitless interventionism. (Hence, she was the first candidate to denounce the Trump administration’s regime change gambit in Venezuela, and is the only candidate besides Sanders to label the ousting of Evo Morales in Bolivia a “coup.”)
In my observations, Gabbard’s rhetoric does not materially change depending on the person she’s talking to or the platform she’s speaking on. Critics often complain about her frequent appearances on Fox News, but overlook that she says much the same thing in that venue as she does on left-wing independent media. (And she attracted the ire of the Republican National Committee for condemning Trump’s assassination of Qassim Suleimani on Fox News last month). Her logic of broad-based engagement even resulted in Gabbard’s meeting with Trump himself, shortly after the 2016 election, to discuss foreign policy. She said at the time that the purpose of the meeting was to dissuade him from filling his cabinet with neoconservative warmongers. Now that Trump has done just that, she again has unique standing to call him to account.
The same pattern applies to her impeachment position. In declining to echo the standard Democratic talking points on the subject—she has repeatedly said that a shortsighted impeachment would only embolden Trump, making it more likely that he’s reelected—Gabbard is singularly positioned to detach herself from the political fallout in the aftermath of Trump’s acquittal. She may still not be “electable” in the way pundits usually understand the term. But we have already seen the definition change to accommodate a black president, female candidates—and now even a socialist. Perhaps the pundits will be proven wrong again.