It was the defining moment that shouldn’t have been. US Senator Kamala Harris blew audiences away during the first Democratic Party debates, leaving a shocked Joe Biden looking like a deer in headlights as she blasted his civil-rights record. In that moment, few seemed more poised to take on the incumbent, Donald Trump.
But the second round of debates in July brought a surprise.
Representative Tulsi Gabbard challenged Harris’ own record during her time as attorney general of California, offering precise examples of how she had used her power against the most vulnerable defendants in the US prison system, including mass prosecutions for marijuana.
“Her entire campaign is based on a lie,” Gabbard said, unflinching.
In the moment, Harris, now a US senator from California, said she was not interested in “fancy speeches” and had “done the work” of reforming the criminal justice system in the state. The audience, which had cheered for Gabbard, did not react.
The exchange might have compelled Harris to defend or perhaps criticize the decisions she felt compelled to make within the system in which she was working.
Instead, when asked about the exchange, the former prosecutor opted for a red herring: Gabbard’s views on Syria.
“This [is] coming from someone who has been an apologist for an individual, Assad, who has murdered the people of his country like cockroaches,” Harris said coolly.
As a “top tier candidate,” Harris said, “I can only take what she says and her opinion so seriously.”
For the former prosecutor, the case was closed. For Democratic voters, it is not.
A ‘disqualifying’ issue
In the United States today, black and white people use drugs at similar rates, and yet blacks are statistically far more likely to be jailed for drug offenses. The nation’s ballooning prison population of more than 2 million people, and the inequities of the system, should be cause for alarm and debate – not brushed aside.
“I think it’s unfortunate and a disservice to voters in this country that she resorts to cheap smears rather than actually addressing her record,” Gabbard said of Harris. And she is right.
While Gabbard’s 2017 trip to Damascus and meeting with President Bashar al-Assad was of questionable value to diplomacy, it should not have been used to distract from a real domestic issue. And it should be seen in the context of the congresswoman’s overarching views on foreign policy.
The 38-year-old congresswoman, who served in a US Army field medical unit in Iraq from 2004 to 2005, has spoken candidly about seeing her fellow soldiers maimed and killed and has lambasted the false pretenses that preceded the invasion.
“We the American people were lied to. Our leaders then sent us to go fight in a war in Iraq to go topple a brutal dictator Saddam Hussein because they said he was working with al-Qaeda, they have weapons of mass destruction, they’re gonna come after us,” she told an audience this week.
“The only alternative to war is diplomacy,” she said. “If that means meeting with a brutal dictator in the pursuit of national security … then I will do so.”
The Hawaii representative has made non-intervention, except in cases of the United States being under direct threat, a pillar of her political career.
She has stated there is “no doubt” Assad used chemical weapons against his own people, but she has also expressed skepticism over government culpability in the case of two recent attacks.
That skepticism should be seen as the reasonable instinct of a person who put her life on the line for a war that she now believes was a mistake. Gabbard sees the push to topple Assad in Syria as an expensive continuation of a military-industrial complex and a dangerous, if well-meaning, attempt at regime change.
To go to war on humanitarian grounds against any and all bloody dictators, she argues, is neither possible not desirable.
The talking heads
Gabbard’s views resonate with Americans of various political persuasions, who see her as a patriot – someone who would put pragmatism before world policing.
These views have also earned her the eye rolls and ire of prominent media personalities, who seem stuck on this issue to a degree disproportionate to its relevance for voters.
In an op-ed for The Washington Post, columnist Josh Rogin wrote that Gabbard’s Syria record alone was enough to disqualify her from the race.
Meghan McCain could barely contain her revulsion for Gabbard during a February appearance on the US talk show The View.
“When I heard the name Tulsi Gabbard, I think Assad apologist,” McCain said, challenging the congresswoman to label Assad an enemy of the United States.
“An enemy of the United States is someone who threatens our safety and security,” Gabbard responded.
“There is no disputing the fact he has used chemical weapons and other weapons against his people,” she added. “This is an unfortunate thing that wrenches at every one of our hearts. But since the US started waging a covert regime-change war in Syria starting in 2011, the lives of the Syrian people have not improved.”
Al-Qaeda, she points out, is stronger now in Syria than before the war started.
“You would think she came out for pedophilia or something,” said progressive Democratic commentator Kyle Kulinski last month, referring to the attacks on Gabbard’s Syria position.
“No, it’s just a principled belief that the US should not do offensive wars against countries that don’t attack us,” he said.
For many Americans, Gabbard’s message resonates. Her policy positions and views warrant debate. But she should not be sequestered to the fringe.