Last Thursday marked the beginning of a roiling feud between former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and current Representative of Hawaii’s second Congressional district Tulsi Gabbard. Secretary Clinton, who appeared on a podcast with former Obama advisor David Plouffe, said that the Russians were preparing an American primary candidate to do their bidding.
“I’m not making any predictions, but I think they’ve got their eye on somebody who is currently in the Democratic primary,” Secretary Clinton said, without specifically naming Gabbard.
The Hawaii Representative immediately struck back on social media. “You, the queen of warmongers, embodiment of corruption, and personification of the rot that has sickened the Democratic Party for so long, have finally come out from behind the curtain,” she wrote. They were strong words, even shockingly strong. But even before this drama unfolded over Twitter, Tulsi Gabbard was beginning to become a problem.
Situating herself as an outsider among seasoned Washington insiders, Gabbard has started to construct a narrative that could be fatal to the 2020 election. A few weeks ago, she announced her intention to boycott the Democratic primary debate, which was held on Tuesday, October 15. Calling the Democratic Party “rigged” as she did so, Gabbard nevertheless eventually came around. She took the platform, but she used it to accuse the mainstream media of bias against her.
Like another outsider, Jill Stein, who grabbed more votes in states like Michigan than the margin between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, Representative Gabbard has committed to a storyline about the Democratic Party that suits her needs — but no one else’s. Gabbard’s abysmal polling is proof positive that she won’t be the elected nominee to represent the Democratic Party in the 2020 general election. But her systematic criticism of the Party indicates that she could well spoil the 2020 election for the Democrats as a third-party candidate.
Many have argued — and will continue to argue — that the presence of a third-party candidate has no true bearing on the results of a major election, and that the problem lies in a lack of strong candidates. Secretary Clinton, however, won the second-most votes in the history of any American election, surpassing Donald Trump (as well as her historically popular husband, Bill Clinton). People did show up to vote for Secretary Clinton, regardless of the fact that she was deemed “corrupt,” a “warmonger,” and, to hear some tell it, extremely unlikeable. She received an astounding 65,853,514 votes — 2,868,686 more than her opponent, who would go on to become President of the United States.
Secretary Clinton’s supposed personality problem — or the fact that she was not a “strong candidate” — did not scupper her chances in 2016; a third-party contender did. In the Rust Belt and Midwest, where electoral votes were decided based on a razor-thin margin between the two major party candidates, the presence of a third candidate — Jill Stein — made an election-tipping difference.
Like Tulsi Gabbard, that candidate also ran on a platform of disenfranchisement and outsiderdom. Establishing herself as an anti-Washington populist who represented the ideologies of leftists who fell outside of the mainstream, Jill Stein convinced voters who otherwise would have voted for a Democrat to vote for her.
The pattern of rhetoric emerging from Tulsi Gabbard’s current campaign plays to the same political hand. Her views, as it happens, are not particularly liberal. She has allied herself with dictators like Bashar al-Assad, whom she once said was “not an enemy of the United States.” She has attacked the media, calling CNN “totally despicable” and accusing the New York Times of smearing her reputation. In the past, in a position on which she has allegedly evolved, Representative Gabbard has come out against both same-sex marriage and same-sex civil unions. These are conservative positions, more closely aligned with the current administration than with the Democratic Party’s platform. And yet, Tulsi Gabbard continues to generate support from potential voters who have an axe to grind with the country’s established two-party system.
Gabbard’s attention-seeking behavior makes no sense in the context of the primary race, where she is polling around 2 per cent. Her vitriolic response to Secretary Clinton, attacks on the media, and failure to decry the behavior of international dictators only make sense in the context of a separate bid for president.
Given the circumstances, it seems clear to me that Tulsi Gabbard intends to run on a third-party ticket, and, when she does, she will squander an opportunity to oust Donald Trump from office. As in 2000 and 2016, Democratic voters will have no one to blame but themselves if they support the presidential aspirations of a person bent on burning the system down. Sit up and take note: Russian operative or not, Tulsi Gabbard is a problem for all of us.