Just three years ago, then-Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard stood on the Democratic presidential debate stage and pitched herself as a leader committed to moving the party forward. That Gabbard is tough to square with the bitter also-ran who told the world on Twitter on Tuesday morning that she was officially leaving the Democratic Party.
Gabbard’s minute-long good riddance video might have been a bigger media surprise had she not spent much of the last two years savaging the Democratic Party and drifting relentlessly rightward. In one Fox News appearance in July, Gabbard loudly accused the Biden administration of “weaponiz[ing] law enforcement into a political hit squad” to protect the president’s friends and harass Republicans. Few Democrats will shed a tear at her self-imposed exile.
“Tulsi Gabbard announcing she’s leaving the Democratic Party is sort of like someone you’ve already broken up with saying ‘that’s it, we’re through,’” snarked former newsman and current Twitter pundit Dan Rather.
Pennsylvania state Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta was more succinct in his snark, tweeting, “Wait, Tulsi Gabbard was a Democrat?”
Gabbard’s reasons for leaving read like a typical Tucker Carlson monologue. In her exit video she claims that Democrats are obsessed with “cowardly wokeness.” They promote “anti-white racism” (though they are led by a white president). Their party (led by a practicing Catholic) is “hostile to people of faith.” Gabbard insists, with vaulting hyperbole but no evidence, that Democrats are “dragging us ever closer to nuclear war.”
Sure enough, one of Gabbard’s first stops after making her announcement was Carlson’s primetime Fox News show, where she speculated she’d no longer be invited to the “cool kids’ parties” in Washington.
She also wasn’t invited to the parties of many Democrats outside of D.C., either. Her effort in 2020 didn’t quite pan out: Democrats roundly rejected her anti-establishment isolationism, which often took the form of smearing her fellow Democrats as warmongers. Her coziness with Syrian president and alleged war criminal Bashar al-Assad also raised serious concerns about her judgment.
In the end, Gabbard earned just 0.85% of the vote in Washington state, 1.7% in Oklahoma, just over 1% in South Carolina and an embarrassing 0% in the Mississippi Democratic Primary before she dropped out in March 2020.
Gabbard’s terrible showing wasn’t due to a “woke” Democratic Party rejecting her end-the-wars rhetoric — Biden was also sharply critical of America’s ineffective military adventurism in the Middle East when he won the nomination on an unapologetically moderate platform. Nor were Democrats in thrall to the Bernie Bro left. Centrist candidate Pete Buttigieg became a rising political star after narrowly winning the Iowa Democratic caucus.
Instead of taking her loss in stride and building internal party support, as Buttigieg did after his own primary withdrawal, Gabbard spent months bashing the Democrats as “hypocrites,” co-hosting Carlson’s Fox News show and suing Hillary Clinton for making a joke at her expense.
Those antics made Gabbard the rare presidential candidate not to be invited to the Democratic National Convention in Milwaukee in 2020, and furthered the impression that she was more interested in burnishing her own media brand than in having a real conversation about the direction of the party.
After all, alienation was a logical outcome of Gabbard’s willingness to torch Democrats who disagreed with her as bad-faith hacks as much as her isolationist streak or her persecution complex. Punditry, with its lack of accountability to voters, seems to have simply been easier for Gabbard than politics.
Now the American people will be subjected to her second act as a right-leaning “independent” with an axe to grind. On Wednesday, just a day after announcing her departure from the Democratic Party, Gabbard announced the launch of “The Tulsi Gabbard Show” on Apple Podcasts. Listeners can expect more of the same tirades against Democratic “wokeness” and liberal softness.
Gabbard has made clear in her myriad Fox News appearances that she’s catering to a mostly conservative audience. Her public image is increasingly one of strident anti-Bidenism. She trashed Biden’s Build Back Better plan as being wasteful, attacked Democrats for allegedly opening the southern border to a flood of “gangs, cartels and human traffickers” and even spoke at the far-right Conservative Political Action Conference, better known as CPAC. In just a few years’ time, Gabbard has gone from a prominent Trump critic to a faithful backer.
There’s just one problem: No one in the vanishingly small Gabbardverse has ever explained why Republican voters would choose her over an actual Republican candidate. Despite Newsmax touting the idea of Gabbard as Trump’s 2024 vice presidential pick, the far right already has more established rising stars, including Arizona gubernatorial hopeful Kari Lake and Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia. In a movement that demands unflinching loyalty, Gabbard’s early criticisms of Trump are likely disqualifying to many hard-liners.
So perhaps Gabbard’s gambit isn’t about entering the White House so much as using the spectacle of a primary campaign to find a more permanent home in the lucrative right-wing cable news world.
Gabbard wouldn’t be the first Washington player to try out a second career in the cable news industry. Former Rep. Trey Gowdy jumped from Congress to a cushy pundit chair at Fox News in 2019. Even former Speaker Paul D. Ryan parlayed his Beltway chops into a role on Fox’s Board of Directors after leaving politics. On the Democratic side, Symone D. Sanders, former senior adviser to Vice President Kamala Harris, left the White House to anchor an MSNBC weekend show. And Biden press secretary Jen Psaki moved from the White House into an on-air role at the same network.
But in a world in which our politicians are increasingly performance artists and our pundits shock jocks, Gabbard’s final split with the Democratic Party commits the unforgivable sins of being both uninspiring and underwhelming.