Her bid makes sense on its face: Democrats swept the 2018 midterm elections with a crop of young candidates like Gabbard, many of them with public service backgrounds and from historically underrepresented communities. (She is a military veteran and was the first Hindu member of Congress.) Much of the party also associates her with the ongoing revolt against its establishment. In 2016, she surrendered a plum Democratic National Committee post so she could endorse Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and argue top Democrats were unfairly helping former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton secure the party’s presidential nomination.
Progressives are already welcoming the news: “Let them make their case and we’ll find out who has the most compelling narrative,” commentator Cenk Uygur said of Gabbard’s taking on left favorites Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), whose 2020 plans are already in motion.
But the mythos linking the congresswoman to the party’s rising left wing collapses over the critical question of how to handle the world beyond America’s shores. Like Sanders and Warren, Gabbard is acutely attuned to the left’s frustration with endless wars. What she’s offering, however, is a fatalist view starkly different from the optimistic global vision of progress they’ve been pushing into the national conversation.
On domestic matters, Gabbard is in line with her counterparts: She supports a $15 minimum wage and single-payer health care, and she says Democrats need to do more to resist money from corporations and billionaires. Yet on foreign policy, she’s gone rogue, tying the anti-intervention rhetoric adopted by nearly every Democrat (and Republicans like President Donald Trump) to embracing global leaders who flout international human rights standards and complain of persecution by American empire.
Gabbard’s language is that of the old left, holding up the U.S. government as obsessed with unwisely projecting its influence, often for the sake of monied interests ― and, she asserts, in secretive risky ways ― while neglecting its own people at home. It’s a mode that echoes the kind of anti-elite talk that Trump built his campaign around while he lied about his past position on the invasion of Iraq. (Why have politicians of both parties gotten Americans trapped in these far-away places?)
And it connects seamlessly to another Trump-style view: a deep skepticism of foreigners, particularly Muslims. Gabbard has voted to make it harder for refugees from Iraq and Syria to enter the U.S., courted Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, despite his links to anti-Muslim violence that killed hundreds, and spent years as a Fox News darling for her willingness to claim President Barack Obama was making Americans less safe by supporting Arab rebels in Syria and not using the phrase “radical Islam.” (Obama aides and many experts warn that language risks implying a problem inherent in a religion followed by 1.6 billion people; Gabbard and Trump argue the language is essential to explain the rise of groups like the Islamic State.)
What Sanders and Warren have tried to do, notably in a series of recent speeches, is offer a vision of a new left that addresses voters’ deep skepticism of U.S. adventurism abroad without veering toward the idea that the world can’t be fixed and that’s just not Americans’ problem. They’re rejecting too the old-school internationalism associated with Clinton and many Republicans — the idea that U.S.-led diplomacy combined with “smart” limited use of force is the key to world order. They have challenged the notion that it’s essential to appear tough in the face of traditional adversaries like Russia for the sake of American global standing. Instead, they’re talking about multilateral efforts to improve the lives of U.S. citizens as well as people abroad.
The Sanders/Warren narrative seeks to unite a global left against a status quo in which oligarchs with disproportionate political power are tied to the national security state and brutal military missteps — both in the U.S. and in rivals like Russia and China. In that view, challenging the status quo of American foreign policy doesn’t mean prioritizing dialogue with anyone no matter their track record, as Gabbard did with brutal Syrian dictator Bashar Assad ― it means reconsidering relationships with entire societies and trying to address their concerns in just ways, whether under anti-American regimes like Assad’s or U.S. partners like Saudi Arabia.
“The fight is going on on the left of the party, and you have the two better-established candidates from the left of the party trying to define a new kind of internationalism,” said Heather Hurlburt of the New America think tank.
“Gabbard’s views are more a left hard-realist direction,” she added, referring to a school of national security thought that suggests it’s a waste of time for the U.S. and others to try to prioritize principles like inalienable human rights in global affairs.
“The fight is going on on the left of the party, and you have the two better-established candidates from the left of the party trying to define a new kind of internationalism. Gabbard’s views are more a left hard-realist direction.”
To Hurlburt, a longtime follower of the debate over how Democrats should talk about foreign policy, it’s difficult to see who Gabbard will appeal to.
“There’s a mass feeling across the public… that Trump has walked away from what are perceived as American values, and that’s gotten a huge reception both from people who were organized and active in politics and people who weren’t,” Hurlburt said. She sees Sanders and Warren seeking to wed that concern to the issue they are best known for highlighting domestically, economic inequality.
As the race takes shape, Gabbard’s rivals ― of whom there are likely to be many ― will know they can make political hay of her controversial views and over episodes like her visit to Assad amid his devastating campaign against his own people.
What’s unclear is how those politically close to her will handle what will be an internecine battle. Gabbard has developed deep roots in the party’s left wing, working with the Sanders Institute, founded by the senator’s wife, Jane Sanders, and frequently posturing as the Democrats’ leading antiwar voice when more mainstream members of the party succumb to militarism the party’s base dislikes, as when they endorsed Trump’s strike against Assad in 2017.
The quiet hope among backers of Sanders and Warren so far is that her campaign will ultimately fizzle out before things have to get ugly.
But that’s far from assured, given that many of Gabbard’s supporters ― particularly in parts of the peace movement ― are fervent and have been hoping for this kind of announcement by her for years.
“The left realists are present in a lot of places and are able to be spoilers quite effectively,” Hurlburt said. Though their numbers are vanishingly small, “they’re loud and articulate, and they have a critique that can be very resonant when you look at some of the disasters going on around us.”
How the contest evolves will determine how serious that fight gets ― and for now, it hasn’t even officially begun.
“There’s no incentive for anyone to make any point out of attacking Gabbard loudly and publicly unless she starts to get some traction,” Hurlburt said.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misidentified Gabbard’s role at the Sanders Institute.