All this week, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) has been in a nasty back and forth with the Democratic National Committee where she serves as vice chairwoman about whether its chairwoman, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), suggested Gabbard shouldn't go to Tuesday's Las Vegas debate. The she-said, she-said came shortly after Gabbard suggested on MSNBC that the DNC should host more than the current six debates (many have accused the DNC of holding fewer debates to help Hillary Clinton). DNC officials told the the New York Times, which broke the story, that Gabbard's debate drama would have been a "distraction" from the candidates on stage.
But if you thought this was an isolated incident, you haven't been paying attention to Tulsi Gabbard. In fact, this week's drama has plenty to do with the party's young, outspoken star's demonstrated willingness to speak out in ways her party would rather she not. Gabbard is a wildcard who has given Democrats as many headaches in her nearly three years in Congress as she has blessings.
Gabbard's resume is a political operative's dream. She is the first American Samoan elected to Congress. She was the first elected Hindu (she took her oath of office Bhagavad Gita) and one of two female combat veterans to join Congress in 2013. Oh, and the then-31-year old was also the youngest woman in Congress at the time.
Back home in her Democratic-heavy, rural Oahu district, Gabbard is clearly in command of her political future. She won re-election to a second term with close to 79 percent of the vote. A gauzy 2013 Vogue profile on Gabbard, "Making A Splash," describes her appearance at a local maritime barbecue:
She takes the stage and calmly expresses her support for the shipping policies that matter so much to her audience, making no attempt to rev up the crowd—this is a barbecue, after all, not a campaign rally. Still, when she finishes, the listeners explode into applause. Gabbard steps from the dais, and audience members rush to hug her and urge her to run for governor or senator.
“She’s our rock star,” says a man in an expensive suit, who hastily adds, “Don’t quote me.” He hands me his card and I understand why: He works for a rival Democratic politician.
In Washington, Democrats no doubt noticed how great Gabbard looks on paper and television. She was elevated quickly to top jobs like vice chair of the DNC and to important committee assignments that fit with her military experience. “I think she’s wonderful,” House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer (Md.) told Vogue.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) told Vogue that Gabbard is "an emerging star" and invited the then-congressional candidate to speak at the 2012 Democratic National Convention. “Some fresh recruits stay and some go," Pelosi said. "It’s hard to tell what route she'll choose.”
So far, Gabbard is choosing her own route, and it's not one Democrats hoping to groom her for leadership would have her take. Especially with regard to foreign policy, Gabbard often sounds more like a hawkish Republican than a potential future Democratic leader. She has blasted President Obama for failing to talk about Islamic extremism. And she recently tweeted this criticism of the president's perceived weakness and hypocrisy in Syria:
Needless to say, for Democrats it's awkward to have one of their most visible stars and a top DNC official saying things like this. In that sense, Gabbard is really a singular figure in her party.
What's more, Gabbard has been glorified in the conservative media. Her criticism of Obama's failure to cite "Islamic extremism" earned her appearances on Fox News, and in April, the conservative National Review wrote a glowing profile about the "beautiful, tough young" Democrat "who's challenging Obama's foreign policy" (though the magazine's adjective-heavy headline didn't earn them any favors with feminists).
This shouldn't be a complete surprise though. Gabbard's political background is non-traditional. Her conservative Democratic state senator father led the charge in Hawaii against same-sex marriage. Gabbard said she generally aligned with social conservatism until she deployed twice to Iraq with the Hawaii Army National Guard. In 2012, she described what Honolulu Civil Beat called her "leftward journey" to the paper:
“Some of these experiences living and working in oppressive countries, not only witnessing firsthand but actually experiencing myself what happens when a government basically attempts to act as a moral arbiter."
Gabbard seems happy to soak up the spotlight from both sides, but it's gotten her in trouble at least once. During the 2014 August recess, she went "extreme surfing" with Yahoo's Chris Moody and sent out the clip as a fundraiser.
Meanwhile, the Honolulu Civil Beat noted that while Gabbard was out on the water, she missed a Veterans Affairs hearing into the VA clinic care crisis.
Gabbard's office blamed traffic but was largely unapologetic about missing the hearing.
And that's Gabbard in a nutshell. She's shown that she's not likely to back down from a fight, even when it's with a party that would very much like to promote her.
Democrats no doubt appreciate the diversity and charisma that their newest recruit brings, but lately it has come with a price. The question now for party leaders is how they handle a young, rising star who is as much a wildcard as just about anybody in their party.
This post has been updated with more of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi's (D-Calif.) comments about Rep. Gabbard.