This weekend was peppered with the sound of exploding verbal grenades as Hillary Clinton and Democratic candidate Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) lobbed accusations back and forth on podcasts, Twitter and even Fox News.
If The Nesting Doll Fits…
The feud started early last week when Clinton alluded to Gabbard being a “Russian asset” on the Campaign HQ podcast.
“I’m not making any predictions, but I think they’ve got their eye on somebody who is currently in the Democratic primary and are grooming her to be the third-party candidate. She’s the favorite of the Russians,” Clinton said. “They have a bunch of sites and bots and other ways of supporting her so far. And that’s assuming Jill Stein will give it up, which she might not because she’s also a Russian asset. She’s a Russian asset, I mean, totally. They know they can’t win without a third party candidate.”
Gabbard responded Friday with full fire power.
… concerted campaign to destroy my reputation. We wondered who was behind it and why. Now we know — it was always you, through your proxies and …
— Tulsi Gabbard (@TulsiGabbard) October 18, 2019
… powerful allies in the corporate media and war machine, afraid of the threat I pose.
It’s now clear that this primary is between you and me. Don’t cowardly hide behind your proxies. Join the race directly.
— Tulsi Gabbard (@TulsiGabbard) October 18, 2019
Nick Merrill, a Clinton spokesperson, responded in a statement to CNN.
“Divisive language filled with vitriol and conspiracy theories? Can’t imagine a better proof point than this,” he said. When asked earlier if Clinton was referring to Gabbard, he’d quipped: “if the nesting doll fits.”
Gabbard latched onto the insults — and the rare opportunity to see her name in headlines — after sending out her tweet fusillade, making her supporters wait for over an hour at a rally in Iowa while she did a live hit on Fox News’ “Tucker Carlson Tonight.”
“She can’t control me,” Gabbard said smiling from what appeared to be a dimly lit parking lot. “I stand against everything that she represents.”
Gabbard, who has long been polling in the low single digits and who failed to make the September debate stage, quickly started fundraising off the fracas.
“I was warned by many that my endorsement of Bernie Sanders over Hillary Clinton in 2016 would be the end of my “political career,”’ reads one email from her campaign. “I was told she will never forget. That her rich and powerful friends in the media and Democratic Party would try to destroy me. To that I say: Bring it. They will not intimidate us. They will not silence us.”
Trump joined the fray Monday during a Cabinet meeting at the White House, asserting that Gabbard is “not a Russian agent,” and that Clinton smears all of her opponents thusly. “These people are sick,” he added. Trump, lest we forget, was not cleared of obstructing justice to help Russia’s election tampering during former special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation.
Support From Strange Places
A few Democratic nominees have called out Clinton for her instigation, condemning her for firing off such an allegation without proof.
But no one can fairly critique Clinton for pointing out one of the most bizarre dynamics afoot in the Democratic primary.
Gabbard’s campaign has been featured in Russian outlets like RT from the beginning of her bid. Bots have been boosting her on social media, and 4chan dwellers rush instant online polls, like the Drudge Report’s, after debates to vote Gabbard the winner. Some of Trump’s most odious supporters — think Steve Bannon or former KKK leader David Duke — have given her their seal of approval.
These contingents likely gravitate toward Gabbard due to two factors: she’s outside of the Democratic mainstream, and she holds some odd policy stances that match up with Russia’s.
Gabbard set herself apart back during the Obama administration, when she eagerly criticized the President’s foreign policy, particularly joining with Republicans to demand that Obama use the phrase “radical Islam.”
In 2016, she made more anti-establishment waves by very publicly resigning her seat as vice chair of the DNC to throw her support behind Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT).
Perhaps most famously, she has repeatedly refused to condemn Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, actually meeting with him in person in January 2017 on a “fact-finding mission.” The UN has found Assad overwhelmingly guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity for his actions against the Syrian people.
She also had a high-profile meeting with Trump very soon after his election, one of the first lawmakers to do so.
Presidential Candidate Gabbard
Since joining the 2020 Democratic primary, Gabbard’s been equally unpredictable. During the debates, she has thrown out stinging barbs at her fellow candidates, seemingly without any consistent strategy.
During the second debate, she attacked Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) for her actions when she was attorney general of California: “The people who suffered under your reign as prosecutor — you owe them an apology,” Gabbard thundered.
When Gabbard made the stage again in October, she went after Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) with one of her most bizarre platform planks, citing again and again the “regime war in Syria” and challenging the Massachusetts senator to adopt her position on it.
For clarity’s sake, this “regime-change war,” an Assad talking point, is not what the U.S. is (or was) doing in Syria. American troops were helping Kurdish fighters beat back ISIS in the northern part of the country, and protecting them from Syrian or Turkish aggression. The military pullback ordered by Trump has allowed Turkish forces, who see the Kurds as terrorists, to invade and attack because they don’t want any kind of Kurdish state on their border.
During the same debate, Gabbard also went after CNN and the New York Times, the co-hosts of the event.
“The New York Times and CNN have also smeared veterans like myself for calling for an end to this regime change war,” she said. “Just two days ago, The New York Times put out an article saying that I’m a Russian asset and an Assad apologist, and all these different smears.”
Neither outlet ever called her a Russian asset — they merely pointed out the resonance her candidacy is having in Russia propaganda circles.
So, What’s Her Game?
As ever, it’s not clear what Gabbard is after. She conclusively ruled out a third-party bid, and has now pledged to an AP reporter that she will bring her fight all the way to the nominating convention, even if she doesn’t have enough delegates to win. Incidentally, the convention is after the filing deadline for her House seat. She could run for both positions at the same time, though the optics wouldn’t be great for an incumbent with a serious challenger back home.
Some of Gabbard’s policy positions seem as odd as they are at odds with the rest of the Democratic field. And perhaps most concerning to Democrats like Clinton are some of the groups that seem particularly receptive to her message. A support base that includes white supremacists and Russian propaganda outlets is not what critics meant when they lambasted Clinton’s lackluster coalition building.