Tulsi Gabbard: A Political Postmortem

The all-or-nothing New Hampshire gamble of Tulsi Gabbard has come up snake eyes.

As I write, with 98 percent of the vote tallied, she is in seventh place, with a meager 3.3 percent of the vote, behind Tom Steyer. It is hard to imagine any path forward for her. And, frankly, one must acknowledge that this was a debacle of her own making.

Yes, she suffered the slings and arrows of the neoliberal political/media establishment on the few occasions it deigned to take note of her. But it seems to me that her vexing waffling on key issues is what did her in. A former all-out supporter of Medicare for all, she began, last fall, to echo neoliberals like Buttigieg, Klobuchar, and Biden with a plan for a misguided public/private hybrid, variously dubbed “Medicare Plus” or “Medicare Choice,” reserving people’s right to retain their private insurance. (“I support a single-payer system that will allow individuals to access private insurance if they choose,” she states on her campaign Web site; but that is not a single-payer system at all.) But what kind of private insurance? For basic services, which would compete with the main public plan and thus render it fiscally unsustainable? Or for just elective and boutique services, as in Canada? She has never spelled this out. Moreover, she demurred on sponsoring the Green New Deal bill. These equivocations have placed her closer to the establishment than to the independent left on the two most critical issues facing the electorate.

Then came two other odd overt tilts to the right: favoring charter schools and “school choice” and opposing the cancelation of student debt (she told a college student, “I think there’s a responsibility there that students need to bear,” and then emitted a four-minute rhetorical fog designed to obscure her real position). It’s as though she thought she could attract wavering votes from the middle lane while trying to appear to bear left. But exactly how does this calculation differ from Warren’s duplicitous feints to the left while winking right? To add egregious insult to these political injuries, ten days ago Gabbard Tweeted out her “love” to the scurrilous bigot and neo-fascist radio pit bull Rush Limbaugh upon hearing the news of his lung cancer. That is beyond comprehension or excuse. I think, in the end, these suspect political tergiversations cost her a good deal of credibility and energy among her progressive followers while failing to peel off any of the centrist gravitation toward Buttigieg and Klobuchar. That’s how you end up with 3.3 percent after moving to New Hampshire and shoving all your chips onto that table.

We can still admire Gabbard on many grounds: the unrivaled boldness—among major party candidates, at least—of her denunciations of US regime-change interventionism; her potent one-punch knockout blow against the rising neoliberal star Kamala Harris at last July’s Detroit debate; her resistance to the PC establishment siren songs of identity politics, Russiagate, Ukrainegate, and impeachment while Bernie and AOC ran with those diversionary DNC stampedes; her unsparing honesty in denouncing the “rot” of the Democratic Party and her calling out Hillary Clinton as the “queen of warmongers” before suing her for defamation for the infamous “Russian asset” slur; her defense of Bernie Sanders against Elizabeth Warren’s clumsy imputations of sexism just before and after last month’s Iowa debate; and her open disdain of conventional political careerism in resigning from the DNC in 2016 in order to support Sanders’s presidential bid. These gestures of principle marked her out as a candidate of unique vision and independence who refused to run with this or that political herd or fashion. But in the end, she was too indecisive and equivocal for her own good: in politics, if you run with no crowd at all, you run alone—or with 3.3 percent.

I’ve defended Gabbard against her detractors on the left who have falsely maligned her as a Hindu nationalist, Modi surrogate or, strangely, closet militarist. But her political identity crisis of the past months won her few new friends and cost her too many of her old ones. Whatever her blindest and most ardent supporters imagined her to be politically, it appears that she isn’t all that. What exactly she is, and where she will end up, is far from clear right now. She has vowed to press on, but with modest resources and dwindling grass-roots support, her campaign has morphed overnight from quixotic crusade to self-serving fantasy.

Tulsi Gabbard: like Walter Mitty, inscrutable to the last.

William Kaufman is an educational writer who lives in New York City. He can be reached at: kman484@earthlink.net. Read other articles by William.