The ill will toward Hawaii Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, who announced Friday that she is running for president, goes a long way toward explaining the political psychosis that has gripped the Democratic Party since Russia intervened in 2016 to elect Donald Trump. In another timeline, Gabbard might be an ideal 2020 candidate: Samoan-American, Hindu, female, an Iraq War veteran, and environmentalist who broke with the D.N.C. to support Bernie Sanders over Hillary Clinton in the primary. But Democratic attitudes have changed since Trump took office. Liberals who once encouraged diverse primaries are now deeply suspicious of alleged spoilers like 2016 Green Party candidate Jill Stein, who has faced questions about her ties to Russia; a party that has traditionally prided itself on skepticism toward military adventurism has since embraced a more muscular, anti-Russia foreign policy. All of which makes Gabbard the odd woman out in a soon-to-be crowded field.
Perhaps the biggest red flag for the Russia-gate crowd is Gabbard’s perplexing coziness with Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, with whom she met in 2017. Gabbard reportedly did not notify her Democratic peers before flying to Syria on the trip. Afterward, Gabbard said she was “skeptical” that Assad had used chemical weapons against his own people, calling the accusations just another round of “pointing fingers.” Critics have accused her of being an “Assad shill” and therefore also a “Putin puppet”—or, as Russian state television network RT put it, “daring to seek firsthand accounts rather than blindly trusting the MSM narrative.”
Gabbard’s foreign-policy heterodoxy might be surmountable if not for a multitude of other original sins. In late 2016, amid rumors that she was being considered for a Trump administration position, Gabbard took a Trump Tower meeting brokered by Steve Bannon, who praised the Democrat for embracing the term “radical Islamic terrorism.” Outside of U.S. politics, Gabbard has offered vociferous support for India’s staunchly nationalist prime minister, Narendra Modi, who, as chief minister of Gujarat, was accused of complicity in a 2002 religious riot against Muslims that killed more than 1,000 people. (Barack Obama, for what it’s worth, had an “unlikely friendship” with Modi, himself.)
Fears that Gabbard might play the Jill Stein–esque spoiler, then, are likely overblown—if only because Gabbard’s presidential aspirations are probably dead on arrival. Over the weekend, the photogenic 37-year-old congresswoman was forced to apologize for working for her father’s anti-gay organization in the early 2000s, which, per CNN, actively opposed same-sex marriage in Hawaii and supported conversion therapy. (As a state representative, Gabbard was not quiet about her beliefs, testifying on a committee in 2004 against “homosexual extremists” pushing for civil unions.) For today’s Democratic Party, no love of surfing, millennial élan, or fondness for leis will be enough to overcome past homophobia or a Trumpian foreign policy. As R.N.C. spokesman Michael Ahrens told Axios: “Liberals think she’s too conservative, conservatives think she’s too liberal, and just about everyone thinks her coziness with Bashar al-Assad is disturbing.” That doesn’t leave many constituents in Gabbard’s corner—except, perhaps, RT.