HONOLULU — If U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard’s somewhat obscure presidential campaign is ever going to catch fire, this week may be the time.
For many months Gabbard, 38, has spoken out against the bloody and costly “regime change wars” being waged by the United States, using her authoritative voice as an Iraq War veteran.
On Wednesday, Gabbard takes her message to the national stage in Miami during the first televised prime-time Democratic presidential candidate debate, which will be held just days after President Donald Trump ordered airstrikes on Iran in retaliation for the downing of a drone.
Trump later called off the Iran attack — at least for the time being — but Gabbard’s core message is on point: The nation unquestionably is teetering at the edge of a new war in the Middle East.
While most other Democrats running for president in 2020 have focused on health care, climate change, immigration or jobs, political observers say Gabbard has hammered hardest on the issues of foreign policy and war.
But with Gabbard polling consistently at about 1%, it is unclear whether voters are uninterested in her message, disagree with her or perhaps cannot hear her amid the uproar of a crowded primary.
Trump’s on-again, off-again attack on Iran might help Gabbard cut through the political racket Wednesday night.
The increased tension with Iran “would make her message resonate a little bit more because it would be something that is salient for the viewers at that given time,” said Todd Belt, professor and director of political management at George Washington University.
“She’s certainly not in the top tier right now of the candidates who are running, and she’s going to be looking for a way to distance herself from the rest of the second-tier candidates, and one of those ways I expect will be her focus on foreign policy,” he said.
Gabbard’s anti-war message is familiar in Hawaii. At the state Democratic Convention in Waikoloa last year, she was applauded when she told delegates she is fighting “to bring an end to our country’s addiction to interventionist regime change wars around the world.”
Her campaign has pressed forward with that message since then. For example, one of her online fundraising pitches in May was based almost entirely on her attack on U.S. foreign policy.
“Since we invaded Iraq in 2003, the United States has spent trillions of taxpayer dollars on regime change wars around the world. These wars — in places like Iraq, Libya and Syria — have undermined our national security and dishonored the sacrifice of our troops,” according to Gabbard’s campaign bulletin. “They have also caused the growth of terrorist groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda, and the suffering and displacement of millions in the countries where we wage these wars.”
“As commander in chief, I will end these counterproductive wasteful regime change wars and work to end the new Cold War and nuclear arms race, and use our precious resources to care for the needs of the American people,” Gabbard says in another campaign video.
She pledged to apply those resources to “quality health care, protecting our environment, improving education, rebuilding our infrastructure and so much more.”
More recently Gabbard promised in another statement to discuss “the very real possibility of nuclear war” during the Wednesday debate.
“The stakes really are this high,” according to Gabbard’s June 11 fundraising pitch. “Military and political leaders who have carried the heavy responsibility of the nuclear football are outspoken about how immediate the threat of nuclear war really is. And every day, President Trump, national security advisor John Bolton and the State Department push us closer to a war with other nuclear powers like Russia, China or North Korea that would have catastrophic consequences.”
Erin McCallum, a senior adviser to Gabbard’s presidential campaign, said she expects the warlike rumbling from the Trump White House will prompt other candidates to echo some of Gabbard’s concerns Wednesday and Thursday. But Gabbard will be “the only person standing on that stage Wednesday night who put boots on the ground in Iraq,” she said.
“You can start to see what she’s talking about, what she’s been talking about since she entered Congress six years ago, is already having an impact. We’re seeing other candidates converging on her views about ending regime change war, and the need to reevaluate the decades of failed U.S. interventionist policy,” McCallum said. “She’s really leading this important national conversation, and has been for a long time.”
Belt said Gabbard’s foreign policy focus gives her “a signature issue, and that’s important, but this issue isn’t really high up on the minds of Democrats.” National polls show the Democrats are above all most concerned this year with ousting Donald Trump from office.
As a result, Belt said he expects to see much discussion during the Democrats’ candidate forum of “why Trump is unfit for office,” including the immigration furor and the scathing report by Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller III.
“The debate is absolutely crucial for Tulsi,” said Colin Moore, director of the Public Policy Center at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. He predicted Gabbard will seize every opportunity to shift the debate focus to foreign policy “since she’s one of the only Democratic candidates who’s really even talking about it.”
“If she can do that successfully, then this is her opportunity to get noticed by a lot of the public who really have never heard of her before,” Moore said. Many of the second-tier candidates will sound a lot alike, which will give Gabbard an opportunity to stand out, he said.
DEBATES TO BE TELEVISED
Two Democratic debates will be carried on MSNBC and Telemundo this week.
• When: Wednesday, 3 p.m. Hawaii time
• Who: Tulsi Gabbard, Bill de Blasio, Tim Ryan, Julian Castro, Cory Booker, Elizabeth Warren, Beto O’Rourke, Amy Klobuchar, Jay Inslee and John Delaney
• When: Thursday, 3 p.m. Hawaii time
• Who: Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden, Marianne Williamson, John Hickenlooper, Andrew Yang, Pete Buttigieg, Kamala Harris, Kirsten Gillibrand, Michael Bennet and Eric Swalwell