Meet Tulsi Gabbard, Democratic Presidential Candidate
from The Water's Edge

Meet Tulsi Gabbard, Democratic Presidential Candidate

Tulsi Gabbard greets diners during a campaign stop at the Green Elephant in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.
Tulsi Gabbard greets diners during a campaign stop at the Green Elephant in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. REUTERS/Brian Snyder

Update: Tulsi Gabbard announced on March 19, 2020, that she was ending her campaign.

Most Democrats running for president in 2020 are focused on domestic issues. Not Tulsi Gabbard. The Iraq War veteran and four-term congresswoman from Hawaii is putting foreign policy front and center in her pitch for the White House. She says that “there is one main issue that is central to the rest, and that is the issue of war and peace.” On that score, she believes she has what it takes to be commander in chief. Her campaign websites says that “Congresswoman Gabbard has more foreign affairs experience and understanding than most others who are twice her age.” Her preferred foreign policy in some ways echoes the one Donald Trump laid out in 2016. She wants to be tough on terrorists while reducing America’s military footprint overseas, especially in Afghanistan and Syria. If Gabbard reaches the White House, she would become both the youngest person ever elected president, surpassing John F. Kennedy, and the youngest person ever to become president, surpassing Teddy Roosevelt.

The Basics

More on:

Election 2020

United States

Elections and Voting

Polls and Public Opinion

Name: Tulsi Gabbard

Date of Birth: April 12, 1981

Place of Birth: Leloaloa, American Samoa

Religion: Hindu

Political Party: Democratic Party

More on:

Election 2020

United States

Elections and Voting

Polls and Public Opinion

Marital Status: Divorced (Eduardo Tamayo); Married (Abraham Williams)

Children: None

Alma Mater: Hawaii Pacific University (BSBA)

Career: Hawaii State Representative (2002-2004); Hawaii Army National Guard (2003-present); Honolulu City Councilmember (2011-2012); U.S. Representative (2013-present)

Campaign Website:

Twitter Handle: @TulsiGabbard

Gabbard’s Announcement

Gabbard kicked off her campaign on the lawn of the Hilton Hawaiian Village Waikiki Beach, about three miles from downtown Honolulu. She made foreign policy, and specifically her brand of anti-interventionism, the theme of her announcement.

Gabbard targeted both President Trump and his critics in the foreign policy establishment in her remarks. She thinks the president is misleading the American people: “We must stand up, stand up against this administration that claims to believe in America first, but who sells our troops, our weapons, and our interests to whichever foreign country is the highest bidder.” She thinks that his traditionalist critics are too eager for war: “We must stand up, stand up against powerful politicians from both parties, who sit in their ivory towers, thinking up new wars to wage, new places for people to die, wasting trillions of our taxpayer dollars, hundreds of thousands of lives, and undermining our economy, and our security, and destroying our middle class.”

This foreign policy malpractice, as Gabbard sees it, “is undermining our national security. It is depleting our resources and exhausting our military. As your Commander in Chief, I will work to end the new Cold War and lead us away from the abyss of a nuclear war that could destroy our world in mere minutes.” She plans to avoid Armageddon by working to “build partnerships with other nations based on shared interests, leading with a foreign policy not based on conflict, but instead cooperation.” To this end, she says she “will have the courage, to meet with both friends and adversaries, in the pursuit of peace and our national security. Because, if we lack the courage to meet with those we disagree with, the only alternative is war.”

Gabbard’s Story

Gabbard was born in American Samoa. Her given name is Hindi. It refers to tulasi, a holy basil plant. She grew up in Hawaii with her four siblings. She was homeschooled. Her passions from an early age were surfing and environmentalism. She co-founded the Healthy Hawaii Coalition with her father when she was fifteen.

Gabbard’s parents were both involved in Hawaiian politics and she followed suit. She won a seat in Hawaii State House of Representatives in 2002 at the age of twenty-one. A year into her term, she joined the Hawaii Army National Guard. She then volunteered to deploy on a year-long tour in Iraq as a medical-operations specialist. After returning from Iraq, Gabbard did a stint in Washington, DC, as a legislative aide to U.S. Senator Dan Akaka. She also attended the Accelerated Officer Candidate School at the Alabama Military Academy, where she was commissioned as a second lieutenant. Her second tour of duty took her to Kuwait, where she served as an Army military police officer. Today, Gabbard is a major in the Hawaii Army National Guard.

After completing her second tour, Gabbard jumped back into Hawaiian politics, winning a seat on the Honolulu City Council. In 2012, she ran for the open seat for Hawaii’s 2nd congressional district. It encompasses all of Hawaii outside of Honolulu. She defeated five other candidates for the Democratic nomination. She then won the general election with 81 percent of the vote. The victory made her the first Hindu and the first American Samoan elected to Congress. Voters in the second district have reelected her three times since. She sits on the Armed Services and Foreign Affairs Committees.

During the 2016 campaign, Gabbard resigned her position as a vice-chair of the Democratic National Convention to endorse Senator Bernie Sanders for the Democratic nomination. After the November 2016 election, Gabbard met with president-elect Donald Trump. Some pundits speculated that Trump was considering her for a cabinet post.

Gabbard’s Message

Gabbard often uses the word “Aloha” to describe her political philosophy and message. To her “Aloha is more than just hello and goodbye, Aloha really means that we recognize each other as brothers and sisters.”

Although a Democrat, Gabbard doesn’t fit neatly into any political category. She favors a $15 minimum wage, Medicare for All, and the Green New Deal. While she is pro-choice and pro-same-sex-marriage today, that was not always the case. She claims that her military tours changed her more conservative views on social issues.

She has not been afraid to criticize fellow Democrats or work with Republicans. She is out of step with most Democrats on immigration and gun control. In 2015, she joined with Republicans in voting for the American Security Against Foreign Enemies Act, which added restrictions on refugees from Syria and Iraq applying for entry to the United States. She has been criticized for not joining with other Democrats in co-sponsoring legislation to limit assault weapons and for having taken a $400 campaign contribution from the political arm of the Hawaii Rifle Association when she ran for the Honolulu City Council.

Gabbard’s Foreign Policy Views

Gabbard favors a non-interventionist foreign policy. She did a lengthy interview on “Morning Joe” earlier this month that gives a good flavor of her views.

Gabbard describes herself as both a hawk and a dove: “When it comes to the war against terrorists, I'm a hawk," but "when it comes to counterproductive wars of regime change, I'm a dove." She has also said “One of the main reasons I sought election to Congress was to stop our country's leaders from sending our young men and women into harm's way unless absolutely necessary.”

In keeping with her hawkish side, Gabbard criticized the Obama administration for not using the term “radical Islam” when talking about terrorism and for its handling of Syria. She once tweeted: “Al-Qaeda attacked us on 9/11 and must be defeated. Obama won’t bomb them in Syria. Putin did. #neverforget911.” She has also sponsored a bill known as the Stop Arming Terrorists Act, which she introduced in 2017. It aims to “stop the U.S. government from using taxpayer dollars to directly or indirectly support groups who are allied with and supporting terrorist groups like ISIS and al Qaeda in their war to overthrow the Syrian government.” It didn’t come up for a vote before the 115th Congress ended back in January.

Gabbard has been specific about where she wouldn’t use military force. One such place is Syria, at least when al-Qaeda and the Islamic State aren’t involved. She opposed calls for the United States to unseat the government of President Bashar al-Assad. In January 2017, she travelled to Damascus to meet with Assad as part of what she called a “fact-finding mission.” She defended herself against charges she was legitimating a dictator and war criminal by saying: “We’ve got to be able to meet with anyone that we need to if there is a possibility that we could achieve peace.” Gabbard also opposed President’s Trump missile strikes in Syria over the Assad government’s use of chemical weapons. After the first missile strikes in April 2017, she said that Trump had “taken the advice of war hawks.” She went on to doubt the conclusion of the U.S. intelligence community and other expert observers that Assad had ordered the use of chemical weapons. Gabbard’s views haven’t changed since then. Earlier this month she said “Assad is not the enemy of the United States because Syria does not pose a direct threat to the United States.”

Gabbard also wants to pull U.S. troops out of Afghanistan and has wanted to do so for some time. On the tenth anniversary of the war, she told her hometown newspaper: “We achieved our original goal of entering Afghanistan. We’ve killed Bin Laden, decimated al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, and given the Afghan people the opportunity to have a democratic country if they choose. It is now time for the Afghan people to take responsibility for their own country.” A U.S. withdrawal could lead to the return of the Taliban and with it, al Qaeda. That pairing, of course, is what prompted the U.S. invasion in the first place. Gabbard hasn’t said what she would do to prevent a resurgence of the very terrorist threat she says justifies U.S. military action.

Most Democrats and more than a few Republicans oppose U.S. support for the Saudi-backed war in Yemen. Gabbard agrees. She says that “the U.S. must end its support for Saudi Arabia, and stop waging interventionist wars that increase destruction, death, and suffering around the world, drain our resources here at home, and threaten our own national security.” She feels much the same about Venezuela. In her view “the United States needs to stay out of Venezuela. Let the Venezuelan people determine their future.”

Although Gabbard has been clear that she wants to see fewer U.S. troops in combat zones, she has been less clear about what positive steps she would take overseas. Like many members of the foreign policy establishment she criticizes, Gabbard favors building closer ties with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. She argues that “a partnership between the world's two largest and greatest democracies is necessary for us to successfully address the many global challenges we face, including economic growth, bilateral trade, the environment, terrorism, and security."

Gabbard thinks that President Trump erred in leaving the Iran nuclear deal and that his mistake will have consequences elsewhere. “President Trump, I think, should continue to try to pursue negotiations with North Korea to denuclearize the Korean peninsula. However, he also has to recognize that things like pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal make it less likely that Kim Jong-un or North Korea will take him at his word.” She also thinks that Trump’s decision to leave the INF Treaty is triggering a “new Cold War” and exacerbating a “nuclear arms race.”

Gabbard opposed the Trans Pacific Partnership, saying that the negotiations lacked transparency and speculating that the agreement would cost U.S. jobs.

More on Gabbard

Gabbard has a book coming out in April. It’s called, Is Today the Day? Not Another Political Memoir. It’s advertised as revealing “the lessons she’s learned and the experience she’s gained while living in service to her country.”

Vogue profiled Gabbard in 2013 in light of her “emerging star” status. The profile called her “a woman who takes obvious pride in being a good soldier who approaches things with a blend of stoicism and hope.”

Kelefa Sanneh called Gabbard a “charismatic, unorthodox Democrat” in the New Yorker back in 2017. Sanneh wrote that she “has one of the most important qualities a politician can have: an uncanny ability to make people believe in her, even if they don’t agree with her.”

James Pinkerton wrote in the American Conservative about Gabbard’s foreign policy views. He thinks that “her anti-war candidacy, and Democrats' growing hawkishness, show that the winds are blowing in a new direction.”

Eoin Higgins described Gabbard’s foreign policy focus in New York Magazine, saying “while it was Gabbard’s anti-war bona fides that were both the motivation for her initial run for Congress and the impetus for her rising profile, it is her foreign-policy views that are raising questions on the left.” Higgins adds, “To the extent that there is a coherent foreign policy orthodoxy on the left, Gabbard departs from it. Whether Democrats will overlook that in 2020 is another question.”

Evan Hill criticized Gabbard’s foreign policy views in The Nation. He concluded that “Gabbard’s heterodox views and military service could yet animate a significant number of voters and shift the debate, but not for the better: Taken together, Gabbard’s positions represent almost everything a left foreign policy should avoid.”

Corey Cooper and Elizabeth Lordi assisted in the preparation of this post.

Creative Commons
Creative Commons: Some rights reserved.
This work is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0) License.
View License Detail