Tulsi Gabbard, United States Representative from Hawaii, has announced her bid to run for the Democratic Presidential nomination in 2020. She comes to the race with legitimate progressive credentials. As Alex Cameron wrote on Politico in October 2018, “Gabbard became a darling of the left in 2016 when she resigned as a vice chair of the Democratic National Committee after fighting against a primary debate schedule that seemed designed to give Hillary Clinton an advantage. She was one of the first members of Congress to endorse [Bernie] Sanders.”
When you combine that with some pretty heavy approval ratings from groups such as the NEA, the Planned Parenthood Action Fund, the ACLU, and the AFL-CIO, she seems to be exactly the type of candidate that would play to the leftward movement of the Democratic party base. There are some dents in that leftist resume, such as an F grade from Progressive Punch and some recent questions based on her previous opposition to same-sex marriage which she claims to have now “evolved” on. She is obviously a polarizing figure within the Democratic Party.
It is therefore quite fascinating to read her recent editorial on The Hill entitled, “Elected leaders who weaponize religion are playing a dangerous game.” In the course of outlining a relatively moderate defense of religious liberty, Gabbard goes on to call out members of her own party such as Dianne Feinstein and says that, “No American should be asked to renounce his or her faith or membership in a faith-based, service organization in order to hold public office.” She does avoid the more contentious issue regarding the extent to which personal beliefs should or should not impact policy decisions. Her editorial also does not sufficiently differentiate between freedom to practice and freedom to worship, but it is nevertheless a relatively good defense of religious liberty especially coming from a politician on the left.
The question has to be asked. What would motivate a generally progressive Democrat who has voted consistently left to take a much more moderate position on an issue where many members of her party are going the way of Feinstein or Bernie Sanders?
One answer simply could be that she recognizes the fundamental importance of religious liberty to the American experience. At least there is some recognition that religious liberty is necessary for our national experiment to succeed. We can hope for that.
However, it would not be a presidential election if there was not some political positioning going on as well. In 2016, the fire of the Democratic Party ran to the left. Bernie Sanders, and Gabbard herself, championed a left-wing movement of Democratic Socialism. As Democrats took control of the House of Representatives on 2018, new representatives such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez moved the party even further to the left.
Although the field is far from set in 2020, there will be pressure to move the party to the left. Whether or not Sanders jumps back in, Elizabeth Warren is already in, bringing her progressive brand of politics to the national stage for the first time. With all of the momentum moving towards that wing, it seems like Gabbard is trying to chart a different course. She is centering herself, at least on this issue.
Where would this be politically advantageous?
In a primary where there are expected to be approximately 20 candidates or more in the field, there’s going to be a lot said to try to court the party base, and particularly the progressive base. Like Republicans found in 2016, when you fight too hard over the same group of voters, all you do is subdivide that support and ultimately cause someone who is able to appeal to a solid, different block of voters to rise. We saw that with Donald Trump, grabbing approximately a minority the vote and just letting everyone else fight over the remaining majority. His minority was enough to out ride the subdivided majority.
It would seem that with this type of play Gabbard is looking toward a very similar strategy. Reaching out towards more conservative Democrats, she seems to be reaching for the middle road, perhaps even trying to peel away some never-Trump Republicans, by assuring them that even though she is a Democrat, she is not the type of Democrat that will take away their religious liberty.
Will the strategy be effective?
It ultimately depends on the efficacy of the Democratic field. If the Democrats who are subdividing the field on the left are all in the race long-term and beat each other up as Republicans did in 2016, the strategy may be effective. As long as they undercut each other’s support within the Democratic base, Gabbard may be able to slip by with a play to the center. However, if one progressive who appeals to the base without olive branches to the middle and perhaps right is able to rise, this play will almost certainly fail.
This strategy may also fail if President Trump faces a primary contender who might siphon off some of the never-Trump votes that Gabbard seems to be reaching for in the states that do not require party registration for primary voting. If there is a Republican alternative, these people very well might continue to vote in the Republican primary because they have a candidate they feel reflects their interests, and they will remain with their party if they have someone to support within it.
Naturally this strategy is a risky play, but it is what you have to do in a crowded primary. You have to differentiate yourself and go for a lane where you can grab hold of something and cling to it. If the Democratic Party continues to fly to the left and if Gabbard continues to make moderate appeals like the above, even with her progressive bona fides in her past, she might be able to make some noise in the primaries.
By no means should anyone come to the conclusion that Representative Tulsi Gabbard is a conservative. She is undoubtedly a liberal and runs progressive in many ways. She has indeed staked out a more conservative position on religious liberty than many of her colleagues on the left which seems to be indicative of a strategy of political positioning to the center. It is interesting to see this movement in a primary as opposed to the general. It is difficult to tell if this maneuver will pay off in the increasingly leftist Democratic Party. ځ�hN�