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Rep. Tulsi Gabbard an interesting but flawed candidate for president

Democratic presidential candidate Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, participates

Democratic presidential candidate Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, participates in a Democratic presidential primary debate hosted by CNN/New York Times at Otterbein University on Oct. 15, 2019, in Westerville, Ohio. Credit: AP/John Minchillo

For the past few days, the center of attention in the Democratic race for the presidential nomination has been Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii), who polls at about 2 percent support — probably just enough to make it into the next debate — but is getting a lot of press, especially after Hillary Clinton suggested she was a Russian asset. There are many others who think the 38-year-old congresswoman is a Trojan horse for the far right, if not the Russians. But Gabbard also has passionate fans who think she’s a fresh alternative to both the Trumpified Republican Party and the Democratic establishment.

Those fans are wrong. But given the atrocious state of American politics, they can hardly be blamed for wanting something different. And if the establishment doesn’t treat them with respect, this conflict will become another fiasco for Democrats.

There are genuine reasons to like Gabbard, a charismatic figure in a charisma-challenged field. In the last debate, she scored major points with a message of unity that referenced Clinton’s disastrous 2016 comment about Donald Trump’s “deplorable” fans: “When I look out at our country, I don’t see deplorables. I see fellow Americans, people who I treat with respect even when we disagree and when we disagree strongly.”

Gabbard also struck a conciliatory note on abortion, stressing that it should be “safe, legal and rare,” and that third-trimester abortions should be limited to cases when the pregnancy poses severe health risks to the woman.

So far, so good. However, Gabbard’s conservative and centrist fans should keep in mind that on a lot of issues, her positions are reliably far left. She supports a $15-an-hour federal minimum wage and Medicare for All, policies whose economic fallout may prove disastrous. She wants to ban nuclear power and hydraulic fracturing.

And then there is foreign affairs.

Gabbard is the preferred candidate of those who talk about getting the United States out of “forever wars.” As an Iraq War veteran, she has a unique authority to speak to these issues. But she has the same problem as many other hard-core anti-interventionists (such as former Rep. Ron Paul, the erstwhile maverick Republican presidential contender): They are so opposed to the "warmongers" in Washington that they start to think of America’s adversaries as misunderstood not-so-bad guys.Gabbard’s attitude toward Syrian dictator Bashar Assad, with whom she met in 2017 — after his repeated use of chemical weapons against civilians — is a case in point.

In the last debate, Gabbard rightly said that Trump had “the blood of Kurds on his hands” because of his hasty retreat from Syria. She also blamed other American politicians who had supported the “regime-change war” — but not Assad, Russia’s Vladimir Putin or Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan. It brings to mind Reagan-era diplomat Jeanne Kirkpatrick’s 1984 comment about liberal Democrats who “always blame America first.”

Notably, Gabbard also has sided with Trump’s moves to make it near impossible for Syrian and Iraqi refugees to gain asylum in the United States — an astounding failure of moral leadership.

Some attacks on Gabbard are unfair. She’s been called a bigot by some on the left for naming radical Islamism as a factor in terrorism. She’s been falsely accused of not repudiating her endorsement by former Ku Klux Klan figure David Duke. And, however much the Kremlin propaganda machine might love her, it doesn’t mean she’s being “groomed” by Russia. (Yes, Clinton’s political judgment is really that bad.)

But Gabbard is not the answer to our problems. Yes, the establishment is rotten. Now we need better rebels.

Cathy Young is a contributing editor to Reason magazine.

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