Tulsi Gabbard’s Suddenly Cloudy Political Future

The Hawaii Democrat has gained plenty of attention for recent meetings with President Trump and Bashar al-Assad.

Rep. Tulsi Gabbard with Sen. Bernie Sanders during a Sanders campaign rally in Kissimmee, Fla., in March 2016
AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack
Colin Diersing
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Colin Diersing
Feb. 13, 2017, 8 p.m.

Rep. Tulsi Gab­bard of Hawaii con­sist­ently finds her­self lis­ted among young Demo­crats to watch, but a sud­den swirl of con­tro­versy has ob­serv­ers back home start­ing to won­der if one of the party’s fast­est-rising stars flew too close to the sun.

Gab­bard has gained prom­in­ence by her will­ing­ness to buck lead­er­ship, wheth­er by chal­len­ging bet­ter-known can­did­ates in her early races, cri­ti­ciz­ing Pres­id­ent Obama’s ap­proach to IS­IS, or back­ing Bernie Sanders and resign­ing a na­tion­al party post dur­ing the primar­ies.

But in re­cent weeks, strategists said spec­u­la­tion that Gab­bard could join the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion and a trip in which she met with Syr­i­an Pres­id­ent Bashar al-As­sad have raised ques­tions about her polit­ic­al fu­ture and as­pir­a­tions. Hawaii Demo­crats said voters back home are pay­ing at­ten­tion.

“Out of all of the is­sues that have got­ten her in the news so far, this is the most cov­er­age she’s ever got­ten on any single is­sue or in­cid­ent,” said state Sen. Stan­ley Chang, who like Gab­bard was elec­ted to the Hon­olulu City Coun­cil in 2010.

Hawaii news sources echoed the tone of sev­er­al Demo­crats who privately dis­cussed the trip with Na­tion­al Journ­al: con­fu­sion and frus­tra­tion. The Maui News ed­it­or­i­al board wrote that it was “baffled” by Gab­bard’s ac­tions, and the Hon­olulu Civil Beat wrote that she had “crossed the line with a secret trip to Syr­ia.” And on Sunday, a Hon­olulu Star-Ad­vert­iser colum­nist cri­ti­cized Gab­bard for com­par­ing her trip with the late Rep. Patsy Mink’s meet­ings at the Par­is Peace Talks dur­ing the Vi­et­nam War.

“Things like that can come back and haunt her next year,” said one Hawaii Demo­crat­ic strategist who re­ques­ted an­onym­ity to speak can­didly.

Chang, whose com­ments aligned with those of Demo­crat­ic strategists in the state, said that the un­usu­al cir­cum­stances sur­round­ing the trip co­in­cided with Trump’s elec­tion and the rise of a pro­gress­ive act­iv­ist corps in Hawaii to “cre­ate a lot of in­terest in the com­munity” about the trip.

Even if the con­tro­versy over the trip dies down, ob­serv­ers said it raised an im­port­ant ques­tion about Gab­bard’s fu­ture: Can her go-it-alone ap­proach to polit­ics trans­late in an era when Demo­crats around the coun­try seem in­creas­ingly united be­hind an anti-Trump move­ment?

Though she has re­mained pop­u­lar at home while split­ting with Obama and na­tion­al Demo­crats over a vari­ety of is­sues, some ar­gued that the fer­vent anti-Trump en­ergy with­in the Demo­crat­ic Party could make it in­creas­ingly dif­fi­cult for Gab­bard to con­tin­ue on her cur­rent course without back­lash from a deep-blue Hawaii elect­or­ate.

“People have a lot less pa­tience for Demo­crats who are not go­ing to present a united front, par­tic­u­larly people who style them­selves as pro­gress­ive Demo­crats,” said Colin Moore, a pro­fess­or of polit­ic­al sci­ence at the Uni­versity of Hawaii and dir­ect­or of the school’s pub­lic policy cen­ter. “This res­on­ates back home. The cost there is she won’t be con­sidered a trust­worthy ally for the na­tion­al Demo­crat­ic Party.”

Gab­bard, 35, whose fath­er has been a state sen­at­or for the past 10 years, made a name for her­self in 2002 by be­com­ing the young­est wo­man ever elec­ted to the Hawaii state House. Since then, she vol­un­tar­ily de­ployed to Ir­aq in 2006 as a mem­ber of the Hawaii Army Na­tion­al Guard, won a city coun­cil seat, and in 2012 topped a former Hon­olulu may­or in the Demo­crat­ic primary for a seat in Con­gress.

Gab­bard spokes­wo­man Emily Latimer said the law­maker’s de­ploy­ments in the Middle East and her de­sire to in­flu­ence U.S. for­eign policy were mo­tiv­at­ing factors be­hind her ini­tial run for Con­gress. And Gab­bard, Latimer said, “has re­ceived an out­pour­ing of sup­port in Hawaii for her re­cent vis­it to Syr­ia and her con­tin­ued work to pass the Stop Arm­ing Ter­ror­ists Act,” which would crack down on Amer­ic­an funds be­ing used to equip or as­sist cer­tain groups, in­clud­ing IS­IS and al-Qaida.

Gab­bard re­mains a polit­ic­al force to be reckoned with on the is­land, with a strong per­son­al brand and more than $2 mil­lion in her cam­paign ac­count. But her pro­ponents and de­tract­ors are closely watch­ing both her hand­ling of the Syr­ia trip and her re­la­tion­ship with Trump, with an eye to­ward her yet-un­cer­tain but much-talked-about polit­ic­al fu­ture.

Dav­id Nir, the polit­ic­al dir­ect­or of Daily Kos, an elec­tion blog and force for on­line pro­gress­ive or­gan­iz­ing, re­cently called for Gab­bard to face a primary chal­lenge in re­sponse to the Syr­ia trip. In an email with Na­tion­al Journ­al, Nir said Gab­bard is “go­ing to have to an­swer to her con­stitu­ents when they ask her why she hasn’t been on the front lines fight­ing Trump. … A chal­lenger who can put res­ist­ance to Trump front and cen­ter could cause real prob­lems for Gab­bard.”

Oth­er ob­serv­ers said they think Gab­bard is likely safe for reelec­tion, both be­cause of her own strong brand and a dearth of po­ten­tially strong op­pon­ents with demon­strated in­terest in the job. In 2016, a pro­gress­ive primary chal­lenger failed to catch fire.

But strategists all agreed her ac­tions could com­plic­ate ad­vance­ment—par­tic­u­larly a po­ten­tial primary chal­lenge to Sen. Mazie Hirono in 2018, which is a con­stant sub­ject of spec­u­la­tion among Hawaii Demo­crats—in part be­cause she is so will­ing to flout es­tab­lished norms and hier­arch­ies.

“The risk is that she won’t be able to ef­fect­ively chal­lenge Mazie Hirono—that’s al­ways the ru­mor in Hawaii,” said Moore. “She is jeop­ard­iz­ing that, I think.”

One Demo­crat­ic strategist who re­ques­ted an­onym­ity to speak can­didly said that while these is­sues might not do much to dam­age Gab­bard’s pop­ular­ity in the short term, win­ning a po­ten­tial primary against an­oth­er Demo­crat in the state re­quires “not com­mit­ting mis­takes that a skilled op­pon­ent can pro­ject out in­to the world.”

Now, Moore said, the ques­tion is wheth­er Gab­bard can right the ship in a way that puts her back on the path to ca­reer ad­vance­ment, or wheth­er she could, ul­ti­mately, “crash and burn.”

“I think she sees [her in­de­pend­ence] as her strength,” Moore said. “I don’t know how long that can last, though. Nobody really knows, but every­body does know she’s not go­ing to end her ca­reer as the rep­res­ent­at­ive of Hawaii’s 2nd Con­gres­sion­al Dis­trict.”

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