What Tulsi Gabbard Did For Us
The first time I saw Tulsi Gabbard in action was during a 2018 House Veteran’ Affairs Health subcommitee hearing on Capitol Hill. She she was going up one side of a bland-faced Veterans Affairs (VA) representative and down the other for stalling on burn pits help for sick veterans. My head jerked up as I was banging out notes on my laptop. Up until then it had been the usual staid affair—VA bureaucrats mewling the same old pablum about tasks forces and blue ribbon studies—meanwhile an untold number of vets had been exposed to toxins from the burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan, and had been warning of irrevocable health effects, even dying, since 2007. Then the air in the packed hearing room started to crackle. We don’t want to hear about your studies, the Democratic Congresswoman from Hawaii said, her voice piercing the room. We want action.
I scrambled to Google her. This young, capable congresswoman cutting straight through the bullshit was an Iraq War veteran! No wonder. As a journalist covering the swamp since 1999 it was easy to fall into jaded complacency about partisan politicians grandstanding on their hobby horses with no longterm interest in fixing anything. But recent veterans who had become members of Congress seemed to address their new roles like they would a tactical mission. In her case, it was veterans’ health, and there was nothing inauthentic in how she was approaching the witnesses in front of her, or the issue at hand.
In the intervening years she became known as a non-interventionist and independent thinker who was skeptical of her own party’s embrace of the national security status quo and the military industrial complex. By the time she launched her campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination and started talking about ending endless “regime change wars” on the debate stage, the Washington skeptics and non-interventionists on the Right, particularly at this magazine, had already taken notice. TAC writers like Scott Ritter and Daniel Larison became a vanguard here against the establishment’s spiteful and petty fusillade over her diplomatic visit to Bashar Assad, her deviation from the party’s talking points on Russia, and even Trump.
Yet when she delivered the K.O. against Kamala Harris in the second Democratic debate, cooly pointing out the California Senator’s hypocrisy on criminal justice, it was the most satisfying moment up until then or since. If forced to watch every single moment of every single debate this season it would be worth every second just to see Gabbard make Harris twist in the wind and eventually deflate her candidacy with that one brilliant stroke. Ditto for her later take-down of Pete Buttigieg, a candidate using his veteran status in a completely different way, as TAC’s Gil Barndollar (also a recent vet) points out. This was the steely focus and yes, righteousness, that I saw in that House hearing room in 2018, and served her well on the stage among her political adversaries, who didn’t care that she checked all the boxes (a woman of color, the first Samoan-American and Hindu to run for president). She was “not of the body” when it came to the party line. She would never belong.
It served her well when she called out Madame Hillary, though that likely brought the death knell to her hopes for the Democratic nod. If she hadn’t drawn the full force of the bee hive before, attacking the Queen Bee proved fatal. She left the race officially today having performed well off-the-radar in the early and recent primaries. But unlike many of the puppets who called themselves candidates in this dreary Democratic display, Gabbard leaves with her pride, her integrity, and her independence intact. Some may balk at her endorsement of Biden, a man who voted for the war that she despises, who serves as a symbol of the partisan corruption she had pledged to overcome. She has her reasons. We just hope she won’t fade away, as she won’t be running for re-election in the fall.
What has she left us? Proof that there are politicians who make “transpartisan” seem real and worthy, and not just another faddish concept to be abused for political gain. She leaves us with the sense that not all pols are in it for the power, but for weightier goals, like veterans’ health, and bringing an end to an entrenched, hubristic foreign policy that sends young men and women like Gabbard into wars we cannot win. She was the only one to bring a personal and unyielding take on that to the debate stage and into our living rooms, and for that, we should be grateful.