Why do establishment Democrats fear Tulsi Gabbard so much? (And what is her future in the party?)

By Kent R. Kroeger (Source: NuQum.com, July 31, 2017)

With the Trump administration’s July 18th announcement that it was ending the CIA program to arm anti-Assad Syrian rebels, an on-going battle within the Democratic Party emerged once again.

In a normal presidency, the Democrats might trumpet the fact that one of their own, Hawaii congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, was the leading advocate to shut down the CIA program just cancelled by the Trump administration.

These aren’t normal times.

Let us step back a few months for some background on how disoriented the Democratic Party has become since the November 2016 election.

Even in the savage world of D.C. politics, it is unusual for a national party leader to call for the defeat of a fellow party member who is not only popular in her home district but also votes with her party leadership most of the time.

Yet, that is exactly what former Democratic National Committee (DNC) chairman Howard Dean did last April on MSNBC when he issued a Democratic Party fatwa against congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI). His kooky tirade (which comedian Jimmy Dore beautifully dissects here) was a response to her supposition that the Trump administration’s attack on Syria was based on incomplete evidence (Her discussion of the U.S. retaliation with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer is here).

What was her thought crime that launched the former Vermont governor into a whirling dervish of righteous disgust? In criticizing the Trump administration’s retaliatory strike against Syria for its then alleged use of chemical weapons on April 4, 2017 against civilians in Khan Shaykhun, Gabbard suggested the U.S. should have waited for the United Nations to complete its investigation into the chemical weapons attack before launching its own attack on April 7th.

Princeton political scientist Stephen Cohen points out that prior U.S. military actions — like the one on April 7th — typically followed a U.N. or international community investigation. Without it, the U.S. risked an even more dangerous confrontation with Russia.

“I think this is the most dangerous moment in American-Russian relations, at least since the Cuban missile crisis,” said Cohen during an interview with Democracy Now!‘s Amy Goodman. “And arguably, it’s more dangerous.”

Try to understand how upside down this all is:  Uber-Democrat, Howard Dean, sided with Donald Trump over Tulsi Gabbard over a U.S. cruise missile attack against a Syrian airbase that, even by U.S. military accounts, did only superficial damage and was effective mainly as a message to Assad to stop using chemical weapons against his own people.

Let that ferment in your mind in for a moment. A Democrat attacked a Democrat for criticizing a Republican president — despised my most Democrats — for a potentially unwarranted and possibly illegal military strike against another country.

Never mind that some of the U.S. intelligence community’s (USIC) past assessments on Assad’s use of chemical weapons have not always been entirely accurate, and certainly not in the short number of days they had between the April 4th attack and the U.S. response on April 7th.

Investigative journalist Gareth Porter provides a concise summary of the fluid nature of the USIC’s 2013 assessments of the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons:

“A review of what is known about the June (2013) assessment and the alleged Sarin attacks shows that it was a major intelligence failure on the order of the Iraq WMD error,” writes Porter. “It failed to reflect accurately the evidence the administration said supported the overall conclusion. Finally, the evidence of responsibility for the alleged Sarin attacks did not confirm the accusation that they were carried out by the Syrian government.”

At a minimum, knowing the complex nature of the region and the cross-cutting motivations among its actors more than justified Gabbard’s skepticism about the USIC’s assessment in the days immediately after the Khan Shaykhun.

Furthermore, while Dean was calling Gabbard “disgusting” at her suggestion that the USIC’s April 2017 assessment had not sufficiently ruled out a ‘false flag’ operation, past history in the Syrian conflict demands such caution. Consider also that the majority of physical evidence available to the USIC before the U.S. retaliatory attack came from anti-Assad forces connected to al-Qaeda affiliate al-Nusra which controlled  Khan Shaykhun at the time.

Writing three weeks after the April 4th attack, Philip Giraldi, a former CIA officer and executive director of the Council for the National Interest, tells the story behind the Ghouta “false flag” attack in 2013. Not only did it almost succeed with aid from Turkish intelligence, says Giraldi, but it was “stopped only when Director of National Intelligence James Clapper paid a surprise visit to President Obama in the Oval Office to tell him that the case against Damascus was not a slam dunk.”

It cannot be ignored that the April 2017 attack occurred when anti-Assad forces were in retreat against Syrian government forces (with Russian support) and were making significant territorial gains throughout country. The anti-Assad forces had the motive and opportunity to launch a false-flag attack on April 4th, leaving only the question about whether they had the means to do so.

Gabbard made her statement questioning the Trump administration action on April 7th, three days after the Khan Shaykhun attack. As good as our intelligence agencies are at real-time analysis, ruling out a false-flag attack would require more time than that. By April 7th, U.S. intelligence officials admitted they had not even analyzed much of the signals intelligence (SIGINT) — cell phone conversations, emails, etc. — even as they issued their initial finding that Assad’s forces were the culprit.

I served in the U.S. intelligence community at the same time Gabbard was in her second combat deployment to Iraq. We probably saw the same strategic intelligence regarding Syrian chemical weapons capabilities and Gabbard most likely had access to even more detailed tactical intelligence. I am not naive regarding the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons. But it would have been irresponsible to accept carte blanche the USIC’s near-term assessment of the Khan Shaykhun attack. To rule out the possibility that anti-Assad forces mimicked a Syrian government air-based chemical attack required time — measured in weeks and months, not days.

I concede the open-source evidence available soon after the attack makes it hard NOT to conclude the Assad regime was responsible (go here for one of the best open sources of intelligence on the Syrian attacks).

In her CNN interview, Gabbard never dismissed the possibility that the intelligence would ultimately pin responsibility on the Assad regime; but her military experience and familiarity with the reliability of intelligence on such events demanded a prudent level of skepticism.

Assad was winning the civil war on April 3rd. To risk those gains with a chemical attack on April 4th begs the question: Why would he risk those gains with a chemical attack that would likely bring some form of retaliation by the U.S.? That is what Tulsi Gabbard was saying on April 7th.

So when Howard Dean, who isn’t always powered by reason and rational thought anyway, went on  Chris Mathew’s MSNBC  show for his virulent attack on Gabbard’s Syria statement, he seemed to be acting on a much broader and organized effort to discredit and ultimately neutralize the Hawaii ;congresswoman. It’s just a hunch, but I’m feeling pretty confident about it.

So why would he do that?

Why Does the Democratic Party Leadership Loathe Tulsi Gabbard?

The lazy answer is her support for Bernie Sanders (over Hillary Clinton) and resignation from the DNC in February 2016 over her belief the DNC colluded with the Clinton campaign to ensure her nomination.

However, a simple search shows Democratic elites were attacking Gabbard long before February 2016.  To explain the establishment’s anger with her it is necessary to look prior to the 2016 campaign. Here are the leading explanations

1. “She’s Extremely Ambitious with Flexible Principles”

Howard Dean will tell anyone willing to listen that Tulsi Gabbard is “extremely ambitious with flexible principles.” The irony of that criticism is breath taking. He could have easily been talking about about Hillary Clinton or, frankly, every major politician on the planet earth…including himself.

The most hollow criticism one can make towards a politician is calling them “too political” or “too flexible” in their beliefs. Its like calling a dentist too focused on people’s teeth.

Even worse, with respect to Gabbard, the flexible principles charge often includes references to her familial roots. In particular, her father Mike Gabbard, a well-known Hawaii Democrat who has served as a state senator since 2006.  What is the problem with that? Nothing…had he not been an active Republican from 2000 to 2007. But, even that isn’t the problem. The problem is that Tulsi’s father was an active opponent of gay marriage — and Tulsi, early in her political life, supported that position as well.

There you go, folks. That must be why Tulsi Gabbard is persona non grata with a wide swath of Democratic Party elites to this day.

But wait a second. Didn’t Hillary Clinton stand on the floor of the U.S. Senate in 2004 and declare: “I believe marriage is not just a bond but a sacred bond between a man and a woman”?

She did and most establishment Democrats didn’t blink an eye in 2004 when she said it, and didn’t blink again in 2013 when she had a “change of mind.”

Therein lies a deeper truth. For establishment Democrats, there is a kind of ‘wink wink’ game played among themselves. When Hillary stood on the floor of the U.S Senate to oppose marriage equality, more than a few pundits suggested she was masking her true beliefs in order to further her own political ambitions at the time. There is no mystery here. She wanted to be the next POTUS and she may have determined opposition to gay marriage was the right stance for her in 2004.

At the time of her U.S. Senate speech, 55 percent of U.S. adults opposed gay marriage.

That is not a criticism of Clinton. That is politics. Good politicians change their issue stances when necessary.

So, unless Gabbard’s critics have the power to read her mind, Gabbard’s “change of mind” on marriage equality  cannot be interpreted any differently than Hillary’s reversal.

There must be another other reason for the Democratic leadership’s fear and loathing of Gabbard…and there is…

2. “She is not a loyal Democrat”

The party disloyalty criticism of Gabbard is complex. On the one hand, according to Americans for Democratic Action (ADA), she voted with the party line 80 percent of the time on key U.S. House votes in 2015. While not the highest percentage among House Democrats, it puts her somewhere in the middle. Hardly grounds for suggesting she needs to be expelled from the party, but does reveal an independence that can annoy party leaders.

Nonetheless, on the Democrats’ core issues — abortion, marriage equality, climate change, Obamacare, voting rights — Gabbard’s public positions can only be seen as left-of-center. On health care, Gabbard is particularly well-informed and cogent on the strengths and weaknesses of Obamacare. And her description of a single-payer system, including its considerable costs, suggests she is open to the idea while still cautious over its financing (Here is one of her recent town hall discussions on health care).

Despite the party elders, Gabbard is one of the party’s rising stars. In fact, few have her polished presentation skills. She reminds me of Bill Clinton when I first heard him speak in Cedar Rapids, Iowa during the 1992 general election. He could go ex cathedra on a wide range of issues and good deep when necessary. No pregnant pauses.

She is that good. She has the presence of a military officer with a strong attention to policy detail, and — oh yes — just happens to be very telegenic. When Gabbard appears on Fox News’ Tucker Carlson show, the easy-on-the-eyes meter increases to weapon-grade plutonium levels.

Which brings us to another reason Gabbard’s critics question her loyalty to the Democratic cause: She is a frequent guest on Fox News. And unlike Democrats such as former Ohio congressman Dennis Kucinich, who often appears on Fox News as the predictable and non-threatening foil to a reliably conservative Fox News host, Gabbard is treated on Fox News with the type of respect reserved for mainstream Republicans like Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, John Kasich…or Donald Trump, for that matter.

Of course,  critics cannot forget Gabbard’s visit to Trump Tower on November 21, 2016 to discuss ending the U.S. program to train and equip Syria’s “moderate” rebel forces. To Dean and other establishment Democrats, the Trump Tower visit was a betrayal on two levels. She visited the man that arguably stole the presidential election, and if that were not enough, discussed reversing a U.S. policy championed by Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, and President Obama, among many other prominent Democrats.

Even the recent cancellation of the misguided CIA program to arm “moderates” in Syria, confirming much of what Gabbard had been saying about the program, failed to assuage resentments against her.

Yet, in my opinion, there is an even bigger reason fueling the Never-Gabbarders.

3. “She’s a threat to the exiting order”

Similar to Donald Trump’s ascendancy, Gabbard’s appeal operates outside the traditional left-right ideological rubric. She casts an ideological image that reminds me of the late U.S. Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson, who took a hard line against the Soviet Union, but also supported the liberal social agenda of the time.

Gabbard occupies a piece of the political realm that is almost devoid of competition from other politicians. Senator Rand Paul shares some of the space (non-interventionist, anti-neocon). Her support of an active government role in the organization of the economy, particularly with respect to income inequality, aligns her with Sen. Sanders.

But, Gabbard separates from progressive Democrats in her straight talk on the realities of today’s world conflicts. She is not a strict non-interventionist (as with Rand) even as she shares Rand’s distaste for executive-centered actions that lead to unilateral, open-ended military engagements abroad.

Like most Americans, she simply doesn’t fit well into a simplistic left-right continuum. According to Lee Drutman’s analysis of a 2016 voter survey, “Voters are not ideologically coherent, but instead have different mixes of left and right views across different issues.”

Some have used the mixed ideological nature of the American voter argues for the Democrats’ need to “move to the center” in order to maximize their vote; still others, like Drutman and The New Yorker’s Eric Levitz, contend that the “center” doesn’t exist and that the Democrats needs a clear, progressive (read: Left) agenda.

Both arguments contain important truths but misinterpret their data and come up with the wrong strategic advice for the Democrats.

The “Centrist” argument is wrong, not because this country has a predisposition for liberal positions (they don’t), but because “Centrist” candidates run a strong risk of appearing bland and lacking clarity in their stated issue positions.  Their tendency to parse language so as to incorporate elements from all perspectives makes them unattractive to many if not most voters. Hillary Clinton is a textbook example of this problem.

As recent research on European voting by political scientist Toni Rodon  shows, “centrist” voters (his term) are not inclined to vote for centrist candidates. They are more attracted to candidates that are ideologically distinct, that is, have a strong opinion on issues important to that voter. That is not actually a new observation. Far from it. Ronald Reagan’s senior strategist, Richard Wirthlin, observed this phenomenon in the 1970s as he helped shaped Reagan’s message going into the 1980 presidential election.

Reagan’s “No Pale Pastels” speech, which was informed by Wirthlin’s research, called for the GOP to avoid trying to broaden its base by appealing to moderates and to instead make its policy stances clear (and conservative).

So wouldn’t Reagan’s example support the Drutman and Levitz advice to the Democrats to take strong, progressive positions? Unfortunately, no.

While Drutman analyzes public opinion on dozens of issues and shows their frequent alignment with liberal positions, he undercuts his own “America is Liberal” thesis when he also concludes that most voters are not ideologically coherent. He can’t have it both ways.

NuQum.com’s recent analysis of the over 3,642 voters in the 2016 presidential (summarized in the chart below) finds that the vote was driven by party identification and opinions on social spending (primarily health care), ‘conservative groups,’ immigration and defense spending. The Democrats have a strong advantage on social spending (health care) and a slight advantage on party identification. The other significant issues broke in favor of Trump.

The failure of Hillary Clinton’s lackluster “Centrist” strategy in the 2008 nomination race and in the 2016 campaign would seem to argue against the strategy’s utility in 2018 or 2020. But many would say Clinton didn’t run a “Centrist” campaign in 2016 (or 2008, for that matter) as much as she ran a “I’m Not Him” campaign.

More certain is that the 2020 Democratic nomination is going to be fought again along the establishment versus anti-establishment divide within the Democratic Party (Drutman has a nice illustration of this in the 2016 election).

‘The main divide within the Democratic Party electorate is about attitudes toward the establishment and the existing order than it is about specific issue positions (with the exception of trade policy),” Drutman concludes.

If so, Gabbard is clearly on the ‘anti-establishment’ side, but does not come at it from the Left (or Right).

Gabbard does not work in “pale pastels”

She’s a hybrid politician with echoes of Pat Buchanan’s strategic realism combined with the economic populism of Sanders. Moreover, she also stands out from establishment Democrats (and even from Sanders) in her ability to re-direct conversations from hot-button culture war battles back to more inclusive, economic topics.

I recommend you listen to how she answers a question about her support of the LGBTQ community (Listen at the 1:06:20 point in the video).

She’s a woman of mixed heritage that refuses to grind on identity politics to gain support. That’s a good formula for not being embraced by the Democratic Party leadership.

After listening to dozens of Gabbard’s political speeches and TV appearances, if someone didn’t know her party identification, they might think they she’s a moderate Republican circa 1976, along the lines of my home state’s (Iowa) former governor Robert Ray or U.S. congressman Jim Leach. A type of Republican that no longer exists at the national level.

Take the example of Gabbard’s use of the phrase “radical Islamic terrorism.” While considered a heretical act within the Democratic Party, Gabbard refuses to play semantic games when they detract from our basic understanding of the the terrorist threat.

“It is important that you identify your enemy,” Gabbard told Wolf Blitzer. “You need to understand the ideology that is driving them.” This is not a controversial issue with most Americans. Only within the cocoon of the Democrat’s leadership class does it elicit gasps and outrage.

Perhaps its her military training? I don’t know. What I do know is her use of the term isn’t accidental and it casts her farther outside Democratic Party norms.

Where is the Democratic Party going in 2018 and 2020?

Even as the Democratic Party keeps its establishment leaders intact (Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer, Tom Perez, Hillary Clinton) and is promoting its new (or old?) Better Deal economic message, it continues to move leftward. The Democrats’ much maligned identity politics strategy also seems to be alive and well — and with Trump’s new transgender ban in the military (which will likely never become policy) the Democrats have taken the bait and ensure the culture war will be part of the 2018 elections, despite the party’s stated intention to focus on the economy.

As Bill Scher wrote in POLITICO, “In all likelihood, Democrats will have to figure out how to sell the Better Deal while simultaneously defending their commitment to multiculturalism.” The fear among some Democrats is that this approach will once again win the battle (defeat the transgender ban) but still lose the war (2018 midterms).

In attempting to stem the party’s reflexive lurch to the left, Gabbard stands almost alone — both figuratively and literally (see the photo below). There are other congressional Democrats trying to pull the party back into the elusive mainstream — Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan, for one — but their numbers remain insufficient to change the direction of the congressional party as of now.

For her part, Gabbard continues to promote a message of economic progressivism balanced by our nation’s fiscal realities, eschewing the Republican-laid culture war traps, all while she confronts our national security establishment’s “addiction to regime change.”

In my opinion, that is a winning platform for any Democrat almost anywhere in this country.

Gabbard is the most credible and persuasive Democratic voice in the fight to stem the escalation of war in Syria. And while the next Democratic establishment-approved star, California Senator Kamala Harris, prefers to focus on U.S. policy regarding Syrian refugees, demonstrated by her visit to a Syrian refugee camp in Jordan this past April, she shows no inclination or aptitude in critiquing the nation’s military strategy in the region.

Ironically, it is Gabbard, not Harris, trying to pull off the political balancing act that Hillary Clinton tried to master: Being a pragmatist that still appeals to the progressive wing of the Democratic Party without alienating the many disenchanted Republicans and Independents who can no longer live with the GOP’s hate-tolerant center-of-gravity.

Clinton’s failure to pull it off was in part a function of voters’ perceptions that she was a creature of the Washington establishment (…well, she was such a creature, which didn’t help her cause). Obama didn’t have that problem in 2008. After all, he earned his outsider credentials when he beat the Washington establishment candidate, Hillary Clinton.

Harris’ barrier to the White House will be similar to Hillary’s — if she runs in 2020, she will immediately be labeled the ‘establishment candidate,’ and for good reason — she is the establishment’s preferred candidate right now. Being the star attraction at multi-million dollar fundraisers in the Hamptons will give you that reputation.

Forget the current lists of Democrats likely to run. All contain some or most of these names: Warren, Booker, Kaine, Biden, Cuomo, Klobuchar, and Gillibrand. All are good Democrats with absolutely no chance of being the next President of the United States.

Along with Hillary Clinton and Sanders, Harris is the only other Democrat producing any meaningful buzz among the activists. Lets take Clinton at her word that she isn’t planning to run again and assume that, at 75-years-old, Sanders just won’t be capable of doing it with the energy he had in 2016.

That leaves Harris.

History, however, should give sober Democrats some pause before jumping on the Harris bandwagon. The last three Democrats to win the presidency ran their first presidential races as outsiders to the political establishment (Carter, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama).

Drutman’s analysis of 2016 voter survey cited earlier also shows that, within the Democratic Party in particular, the establishment label was the primary driver of support between Sanders and Clinton supporters.

Even if the Trump administration melts down into a holy mess of indicted human slop, the exigency of the ‘outsider’ characteristic is not likely to go away in future presidential elections.

As of today, the Democrats have three nationally known members that fit that description: Bernie Sanders, Tim Ryan and Tulsi Gabbard.

Can the Democratic Establishment and Gabbard Come Together?

For me, the photo below neatly summarizes the Democratic Party’s feelings about Gabbard. In a tribute to the women’s suffrage movement in the early 20th century, and in a quiet protest of the Trump presidency, many congressional Democratic women decided to wear white to Trump’s first state of the union address.

It is probably not a coincidence that Gabbard is at the farthest end of the group photo. Combine this with her uncharacteristic driver’s licence smile and you get a strong sense she is not really part of THAT club. Even her lavender white jacket suggests Gabbard herself may be OK with that fact (…I guess I was wrong about her avoid pale pastels).

Besides being outside the Democratic establishment, if Gabbard intends to be a significant national political figure, she has some other barriers.

She is still a young U.S. House member (36 years old). If she has presidential ambitions, she will only be 38 years old at the start of the 2020 campaign. However, there does not appear to be a short-term path for her into the Hawaii governorship or one of the two U.S. Senate seats. All three of the current occupants are relatively young and unlikely to retire before their next re-election campaign.

That leaves few options for Gabbard in the next 10 years other than at the presidential level. However, we all know that no modern elected president came directly from a U.S. House seat. And while Trump proves that there are no unbreakable rules in presidential politics, I don’t believe any young congresswoman from either party can win the presidency. That is a bridge too far.

But here is my final brainstorm idea on Gabbard’s political future.

A Harris/Gabbard ticket. It brings the establishment together with the anti-establishment. Two women. Two mixed heritage candidates. If only one of them were gay we’d have the major Democratic identity groups covered.

A crazy idea? It will never work, you say?

Take a look at what is going on in the current White House. Crazy ideas are in.


About the author:  Kent Kroeger is a writer and statistical consultant with over 30 -years experience measuring and analyzing public opinion for public and private sector clients. He also spent ten years working for the U.S. Department of Defense’s Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness and the Defense Intelligence Agency. He holds a B.S. degree in Journalism/Political Science from The University of Iowa, and an M.A. in Quantitative Methods from Columbia University (New York, NY).  He lives in Ewing, New Jersey with his wife and son.