Only one presidential candidate on the debate stage last night received an overtly negative question, and that was Tulsi Gabbard. Although she’s already painstakingly addressed the anti-LGBT comments she made as a teenager, and explained how her accumulation of new life experiences caused her to shed views taught her during childhood, Chuck Todd nevertheless saw fit to bring that up issue in front of a national audience being exposed to her for the first time.
The moderators didn’t raise any other candidates’ past “liabilities,” although plenty of them have what one might consider “baggage,” yet they chose to devise a specific question for Gabbard based on comments she made more than 15 years ago, well before she underwent the political and personal evolution that now forms the philosophical foundation for her campaign.
It’s nothing new for NBC News, however, which on the day of her formal announcement speech in February published a pathetic hit piece claiming that Gabbard was supported by the nefarious Russian “botnet,” using analysis derived from the discredited “cybersecurity firm” New Knowledge. The article was confabulated nonsense and said more about the editors and reporters who produced it than Gabbard, who obviously bears no responsibility for what unknown foreign trolls may do online.
If any individual Russians do in fact support Gabbard, it’s likely because she’s the only Democratic candidate who has challenged the prevailing Trump/Russia narrative, and does not favor launching into a dangerous Cold War posture over some Facebook memes. Unlike Bill de Blasio, who proclaimed last night that Russia constitutes the biggest threat to the United States, Gabbard views that threat instead to be the specter of nuclear war, which has increased as a result of the insane domestic political climate generated by years of Russia-related hysteria.
This view puts her at odds with much of the establishment liberal media, which has repeatedly attempted to cast her as a Russian stooge, a dictator-loving sycophant, and a brainwashed cult member, among other groundless charges. (De Blasio told me last weekend that he “a hundred percent” believes Trump committed treason, which is exactly the kind of inflammatory rhetoric that has made nuclear confrontation between the United States and Russia more likely.)
Another popular accusation is that Gabbard is some kind of stealth right-winger, owing to the favorable reception she often generates among conservatives on social media. She does attract some idiosyncratic right-wing supporters, but that’s not because she holds any recognizably “right-wing” views. It’s mostly because she is temperamentally the antithesis to “Resistance” left-liberalism, which tends to be overly screechy, performative, and fixated on superficial Trump-related grievances.
Gabbard has strident criticisms of Trump, but they are substantive rather than aesthetic or emotional, so she is not regarded by certain left-liberals as sufficiently oppositional in her disposition. She doesn’t indulge in culture war grandstanding, unlike most of her colleagues, which clearly endears her to some elements of the right.
But on a policy level her views are almost uniformly left-wing. She supports Medicare for All, massive infrastructure spending, and large-scale government intervention to redress climate change, among other Bernie Sanders-style initiatives. Uniquely, though, she frames these priorities as inextricably connected to U.S. foreign policy, which has appeal to libertarians and conservatives who might not agree with her proposed left-wing domestic agenda, but also view the U.S. role in the world as over-extended and financially wasteful. (The first question Gabbard received was an invitation to opine on the sexes’ pay gap, but rather than take that bait she opted to go on an anti-war disquisition.)
Her best moment came during an exchange with the hapless Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio, whose big idea for re-connecting the Democratic Party with working-class voters in the industrial Midwest is apparently to keep U.S. troops deployed in Afghanistan for perpetuity. Gabbard skewered this logic and pointed out that Ryan fails to comprehend the difference between the Taliban and al-Qaeda.
Such as it exists, Gabbard explained, the Taliban was present in Afghanistan before the United States ever invaded and will remain there long after the United States leaves. It is simply not within the capacity of U.S. statecraft to rid Afghanistan of that indigenous political force.
Ryan’s foolish beliefs on foreign affairs were already apparent to me: I interviewed him last weekend in South Carolina, and he called explicitly for the United States to launch a new Cold War with Russia. Asked if that’s not a dangerous thing to call for, Ryan maintained that it would be dangerous to not enter a Cold War posture with that nuclear-armed state. So his inability to grasp basic facts about the 18-year-old Afghanistan intervention was not surprising.
Gabbard was the most-Googled candidate after the debate, and that owes to her eyebrow-raising heterodoxy, which provokes both intrigue and disdain. It’s nothing new for candidates who challenge the Washington foreign policy consensus to be maligned: that’s exactly what happened to Dennis Kucinich and Ron Paul in past presidential cycles.
But Gabbard has a different kind of persona than either of those two, which makes it extra difficult to pigeonhole her into a typical partisan box. So expect the attacks on her to intensify.