Tulsi Gabbard made her first official 2020 campaign stops in New Hampshire last weekend. Following a visit to Iowa, Gabbard criss-crossed the Granite State for a series of town hall forums and meet-and-greets at pubs, cafes, bistros and diners.
At that time, the runner-up of the 2016 Democratic primary -- and perhaps the real winner that year had it not been for collusion between the Clinton campaign and the DNC -- Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders had not yet announced that he would be running again.
On the weekend of February 16, Tulsi was still (arguably) the only true leftist in the race. Arguable, of course, because Tulsi has -- among other things -- been hammered for making offensive statements against the LGBTQ community early in her career and for her alleged "ties to Hindu nationalists".
Yet considering that Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren has her own political baggage and that Warren also just gave Trump a standing ovation when he declared that "America will never be a socialist country," the fact that Gabbard has at least been among the most anti-imperialist voices in Congress has made her a favorite of the anti-war left.
Upon hearing that Gabbard was going to be in New Hampshire last weekend, I knew I had to make my way up from the Nutmeg State to the Granite State on the morning of Saturday the 16th. The spectacle of a true anti-war voice campaigning for the Democratic nomination in the post-Obama era was a sight that I had to see with my own eyes. Would her message actually resonate, or would it immediately cast her to the Nader/Stein fringe? Did today's Democrats -- the same Democrats who rightly decried all of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney's crimes 15 years ago -- still tolerate noninterventionist voices in their Party? Did any liberals still want a President that would bring our troops home?
What's more, in this time of unhinged Russia hysteria, could #TheResistance tolerate a candidate saying that we need to end the "New Cold War" before it ends us? Or perhaps this truly is the age of indignant Wolf Blitzer and Rachel Maddow clones -- millions of bloodthirsty zombies, minds wiped clean of all sensibility after staring at screens for 18 hours a day, all rabidly shrieking that we need to nuke Moscow, Damascus, Caracas, Pyongyang, and maybe even Beijing for good measure.
Did anyone on the Blue Team still want to give peace a chance? Or had they all just given in to the fact that Armageddon is inevitable and that this planet isn't really worth saving anymore anyway?
Too late to see Tulsi speak in the libertarian hotbed of Keene, I decided to catch up with her at the True Brew Barista Cafe in Concord. The True Brew is a fairly hip spot, tucked away in a strange brick alley called Odd Fellows Ave. It was packed with trendy Yankees sipping IPAs and just as easily could have been in Burlington, VT as Concord, NH.
I set up my tripod in the corner, next to a table where some New Hampshire state representative and his entourage were camped out. They seemed to only be half-interested in the affair. It was something to do on a Saturday night. Political rallies are old hat in New Hampshire, regardless of the message. This week it was Tulsi Gabbard. Maybe next week it would be Joe Biden and the week after Vermin Supreme. What the hell. Every fourth year was like this.
There were lots of vocal Tulsi-backers in the audience. They seemed to be a mixture of disaffected Millennials and old hippies. At least one was wearing a shirt reading NeoLiberalism Sucks.
Eventually, one of the old hippies came up to me.
"Who are you with?" he asked.
"I have my own podcast and YouTube channel," I said. "It's called PRIMO NUTMEG. It's based on the fact that Connecticut -- where I'm from -- is the Nutmeg State."
"Yeah, but are you with Tulsi?" he asked. "You support her?"
"Well, as a journalist, it's my solemn oath to be unbiased," I said. "But, sure, I like Tulsi."
"She's the only chance we have," he replied before I finished speaking. "She's really the only one who I think can get elected."
"Yeah, well..." there was an awkward pause. "We'll see."
"So you're a nutmeg?" he asked. "What's that like?"
Eventually Tulsi's crew arrived. One of these individuals was Tulsi's husband and videographer, Abraham Williams. From my vantage point, I could see Abraham come scope out the bar and then go get Tulsi. He filmed her as she walked down Odd Fellows Ave, then followed her in as she made her way around the C-shaped cafe all the way over to the stage. As a professional cinematographer, Williams is constantly filming his wife with his Steadicam. The end result is a series of high-quality campaign videos that have an added person touch.
Watching Gabbard's speech in Concord last Saturday was like watching a comedian perfecting a routine before filming a Netflix special -- or perhaps like watching a professional wrestler working through the choreography of a match at the live show before the TV taping.
As one very subtle example of this, at the start of her speech, Tulsi asked if the people in the back of the room could hear her voice. When they collectively answered in the affirmative, her instinctual response was a joking, "Allriigght..."
If you watch Gabbard's face after she gives this joking response, it seems as though she catches herself doing something wrong. She holds her eyes shut for longer than a blink and pivots into, "Aloha means so much more than 'hello' and 'goodbye'..." It's as if she went off-script for a second, acted a little too unprofessional. Immediately she goes back on track and goes into a routine that she must have practiced dozens of times.
Similarly, in Tulsi's speech was the (very true) reminder that we are all living under the constant threat of nuclear war. She repeated a story that she recited on the Joe Rogan Experience last summer, about what it was like when Hawaii received a false alarm regarding a missile attack. In itself, the story serves to jolt all of us that -- just like in 1962 -- the entire planet could literally blow up at any minute... and that the past two years of McCarthyist sensationalism coming from CNN and MSNBC isn't helping things.
But in the context of her campaign, the recitation of the story also serves as a good example of just how remarkably careful Tulsi Gabbard is -- and perhaps has to be -- when addressing the public. After facing constant, ridiculous claims that she is an Assad apologist and also conspiracy theories that Russia supports her, Gabbard has seemingly responded by choosing each word as carefully as possible. The fact that the false alarm story comes out almost identically-phrased each time shows the extent to which Tulsi has used her military poise to perfect her peace message. In fact, less than 24 hours later, she recited the story again during an event in Portsmouth, NH.
Yet, given the fact that the war pigs in Washington despise that message, it is understandable that she can't leave anything open to interpretation. She has to be incredibly explicit in what she's trying to say, or else the corporate media will try to spin it to make the combat veteran look less-than-wholesome.
After Tulsi's initial speech, she took questions from the audience. One was regarding how the US government is persecuting Julian Assange.
Given the controversial nature of the question -- especially considering WikiLeaks' role in releasing John Podesta's emails in 2016 -- Gabbard was guarded in her response. She said she as unfamiliar with what Trump was doing against Assange and that, "Obviously, the information that has been put out has exposed a lot of things that have been happening that the American people were not aware of and have spurred some necessary change there."
It was not an overly-specific answer. It lacked any real detail and pretty much avoided the subject of Julian Assange as a person and what should be done about him (if anything). Yet that didn't stop the Washington Times from running the story as "Tulsi Gabbard defends WikiLeaks: 'It spurred some necessary change'".
Days later, Gabbard suffered similar attacks during an appearance on ABC's The View. Meghan McCain -- daughter of 2008 Republican Presidential nominee John McCain -- said that when she heard Gabbard's name she thought "Assad apologist." Similarly, Ana Navarro pressed Gabbard on not wanting to back a coup in Venezuela.
McCain's criticism caused Gabbard to respond that, “There is no disputing the fact that Bashar al-Assad and Syria is a brutal dictator. There's no disputing the fact that he has used chemical weapons and other weapons against his people."
This was an odd response for Gabbard, given that she was previously vocal in her uncertainty over whether Assad used chemical weapons.
In response to the Venezuela situation, Gabbard answered:
"Every time the United States, and particularly in Latin America, has gotten involved in regime change, using different tools to enact that regime change, there have been both short and long-term devastating impacts. If there are ways that we can work with surrounding countries to try to get humanitarian aid in to people there, then we should be doing that.
"But for the United States to go in and choose who should be the leader of Venezuela, that is not something that serves the interests of the Venezuelan people. That's something that they need to determine themselves."
The day before Gabbard's appearance on The View, Bernie Sanders announced that he would be running for President as well. Given his name recognition and the infrastructure of support left over from 2016, Sanders immediately became the unlikely front-runner in the race.
Like Gabbard, Sanders has also been hit by centrist Democrats for his foreign policy, and especially on Venezuela. Given that Venezuela's "socialist" government is coming into question, and Sanders notoriously identifies as a "democratic socialist," the Corpos been quick to call Sanders soft on Maduro.
In response to this criticism, Sanders tweeted yesterday that, "The people of Venezuela are enduring a serious humanitarian crisis. The Maduro government must put the needs of its people first, allow humanitarian aid into the country, and refrain from violence against protesters."
The anti-war left immediately condemned Sanders' equivocation on Venezuela. Notably, musician Roger Waters (of Pink Floyd fame) responded to Sanders' tweet:
"Bernie, are you f-ing kidding me! if you buy the Trump, Bolton, Abrams, Rubio line, “humanitarian intervention” and collude in the destruction of Venezuela, you cannot be credible candidate for President of the USA. Or, maybe you can, maybe you’re the perfect stooge for the 1 %."
Similarly, left-wing and anti-war figures like Abby Martin and Max Blumenthal offered their own disappointed responses.
Carrying the torch of the anti-war left, of course, cannot be an easy task. The fact of the matter is that both Gabbard and Sanders are deeply-flawed candidates. Neither of them are perfect as anti-war figures, nor even as real leftists. Both have made many poor decisions over their lives that will absolutely haunt them throughout the campaign trail and that will, inevitably, be used by Donald Trump should they ever share the debate stage with the Orange Orangutan.
Because of this, both Tulsi and Bernie are likely to continue making seemingly (if not actually) contradictory statements on foreign policy matters, all in search of that ever-elusive theoretical sweet-spot that wouldn't alienate their base while also not giving the corporate intelligentsia and donor class fodder to paint them as anti-American radicals.
The question that Gabbard and Sanders must eventually face, however, is if that is even possible.
Can a Democratic candidate be even slightly antiwar in the year 2019 without being cast as some kind of communist traitor?
Or is it just a fact that spreading any peace message -- even while also giving the military-industrial complex everything it wants -- means that people like Rachel Maddow will spend every waking moment trying to prove that you must be a Manchurian candidate, and you must be stopped at all costs?