As something of an outsider in her own political party, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D–Hawaii) seems to understand what drove Rep. Justin Amash (I–Mich.) to leave the Republican Party—though she does not have plans to break with the Democrats.
"He's had a lot of challenges within his own party. And, frankly, I wasn't surprised by his announcement," Gabbard told The NPR Politics Podcast this week, referring to Amash's announcement on July 4 that he was becoming a political independent. In announcing that move, Amash decried the "partisan death spiral" of American politics, writing in The Washington Post that "the two-party system has evolved into an existential threat to American principles and institutions."
The squelching of different opinions and ideas within political parties is harmful, Gabbard told NPR.
"The outsized power that the political parties hold can often be used in the wrong way to squelch our democracy and dissenting voices even within our own parties," she says.
It's not the first time Gabbard has spoken out against the problems created by the United States' hyper-partisan, binary political system. And, like Amash, she has earned a reputation as a rare freethinker within Congress. She's publicly split with the Democratic National Committee (DNC)—in 2016, she resigned her post as vice chairwoman of the DNC over what she saw as efforts by the committee to favor Hillary Clinton's candidacy over that of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I–Vt.). She later endorsed Sanders.
That's not quite the same as leaving the party altogether, of course, but in a different world—one where Clinton is president instead of Donald Trump, perhaps—it's not difficult to imagine Gabbard playing a role equivalent to Amash's: as a principled voice shouting over the partisan tumult.
But Gabbard says she has not seriously considered leaving the Democratic Party. Instead, she's focused on making changes within the DNC. She wants to abolish the use of so-called "superdelegates"—party luminaries who get to vote at the nominating convention regardless of the results of the primaries. "Taking that power away from the very few and making sure that every single person's voice is heard," she says, will improve the party and American democracy as a whole.
Amash sounded a similar note during an interview with CNN's Jake Tapper on Sunday, saying that political party power structures prevent members of Congress from actively participating in the lawmaking process.
"It's pretty rigid. It's top-down. It comes down from leadership to the bottom," Amash told Tapper. "And over the years it's gotten more rigid. It's more difficult now to change the process than it was a few years ago."
It's also possible that Gabbard and Amash are misdiagnosing the problem—or at least part of it. There's a good argument to be made for the view that today's political parties aren't too strong, but actually too weak. The GOP establishment was unable to stop Roy Moore from running for Senate in Alabama—not once, but twice!—or, for that matter, to derail Trump's march to the presidency in 2016, despite a cornucopia of more qualified alternatives. In that view, the Republican Party has so easily become defined by populist Trumpism because the party is now too weak to maintain any other unifying identity. By extension, Amash's split with the Republican Party is probably best explained by his break with Trump himself.
If so, one might worry that further breaking down party power by, for example, eliminating the DNC's super-delegates may continue the trend of weakening the parties—and, by extension, hand more political opportunities to populist insurgents like Trump, but on the left.
Regardless, Gabbard's willingness to buck the two-party system is likely one of two major reasons—the other being her equally principled stance opposing regime-change wars—why the congresswoman has attracted an eclectic mix of fans. Former Republican congressman and Libertarian presidential candidate Ron Paul has called Gabbard "the very best" Democrat in the 2020 field, and paleoconservative icon Pat Buchanan has called for Trump to hire Gabbard to replace John Bolton as national security adviser. On the NPR podcast, New Hampshire–based reporter Josh Rogers notes that the largest political sign in his town calls for Gabbard's election. It stands on the property of a self-identified libertarian, he says.
Gabbard is attracting interest from those corners of American politics despite the fact that she's pretty far to the left on economic issues. Her campaign is also advocating for "breaking up the big banks" and "healthcare for all." Without her foreign policy views, Gabbard would likely have a hard time finding much agreement with Paul, Buchanan, or Amash.
"We can have differences, sometimes big differences, on many issues," says Gabbard. "But people are coming together because they are recognizing the need to end these wasteful regime-change wars that our country's been waging for far too long—that have proven to be so costly."
That's going to be the central message of her campaign—however long it lasts. Gabbard "won" the first primary debate last month and enjoyed a brief uptick in Google search results, after obliterating Rep. Tim Ryan (D–Ohio) and the case for war with Iran. Still, she's polling at less than 2 percent.
But she's clearly putting in the effort to play retail politics in New Hampshire—the early primary state where she might have the best shot at a breakthrough next year. Gabbard walked in four Fourth of July parades as she spent a long, hot weekend campaigning across the state, NPR notes.
Her central message about the need for a more humble foreign policy is impossible to disconnect from her criticisms of Democratic leadership. Gabbard's candidacy is best understood as an attempt to break the bipartisan agreement on interventionist foreign policy and to restore the Democratic Party's anti-war wing.
"This has been the problem with our foreign policy for so long: leaders in this country, from both political parties, looking around the world and picking and choosing which bad dictators to overthrow, sending our military into harm's way," she told NPR. "It's proven to have been a failure."