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U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii was eyed as a rising political star even before she was elected to Congress in 2012 — she spoke at the Democratic National Convention that year just weeks after winning a primary election.
But her profile on the national stage has risen to a new level in recent months.
It comes in large part through multiple appearances on cable and network television news programs including CNN, ABC and Fox News, and in interviews with and reports by national and international press such as The New York Times, The Atlantic and The Economic Times.
As a military veteran who served in the Middle East, Gabbard is sought out for her views on U.S. foreign policy in the region. As the only Hindu-American in the Congress, she is a point of pride for many in India and America.
In office for barely two years, she has made a point to work closely with Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives. And she is the rare Democrat willing to openly criticize her party’s leader, President Barack Obama, who also hails from Hawaii.
In June 2014, for example, Gabbard said it “makes no sense” for the United States to resume military operations in Iraq to combat the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, and that she would oppose U.S. airstrikes in the region.
That same month, Gabbard told then Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel that she opposed a Taliban prisoner swap to recover Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, saying it risked national security. In September, Gabbard was one of 22 House Democrats who voted with all Republicans to condemn the Obama administration for not giving advance notice of the exchange of Bergdahl.
Two months earlier, in July, Gabbard expressed reservations about a request from the Obama administration for a counterterrorism fund. She asked for the administration to define the nation’s objectives before committing troops to the Iraq-Syria region. By August, Gabbard had sharpened her critique, telling ABC News that the mission in the Middle East was “lost” and that Obama should be “doing more to stop the Islamic State in Iraq.”
— Darren Shiroma (@DarrenShiroma) February 4, 2015
In January, the congresswoman’s criticism of Obama intensified. She told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer about her frustration that the administration “refuses to recognize who our enemy is. And unless and until that happens, then it’s impossible to come up with a strategy to defeat that enemy. We have to recognize that this is about radical Islam.”
Later that month she shared much the same argument with Greta Van Susteren on Fox News. She singled out Secretary of State John Kerry for saying that the Islamic State and al Qaeda are engaging in “criminal conduct rooted in alienation, poverty, thrill seeking and other factors.”
Gabbard said, “Now if we really look at what he’s saying and if that’s really the cause, then the solution would be to give them a trophy, give them a hug, give them a good-paying job, $10,000, and a skateboard so they can go and get their thrills and say, ‘OK, great, they’re going to be happy and they won’t be fighting anymore.’”
The comments were noticed by conservatives.
“Finally, someone on the Left gets it,” wrote Matthew Clark on RedState. “You won’t hear me say that often, but when someone is right, they’re right.”
“Obama refuses to recognize who our enemy is. And unless and until that happens, then it’s impossible to come up with a strategy to defeat that enemy.” — Rep. Tulsi Gabbard
Meanwhile, John McCormack’s blog in The Weekly Standard had this headline: “Dem Congresswoman Mocks Kerry’s Terrorism Speech.”
In February, Gabbard appeared again on Fox News, reiterating her views on “radical Islamic ideology” and assailing Obama for his remarks that Christians have their own troubled history regarding religion and war — in particular, the Crusades of the Middle Ages.
And, in late February, Gabbard told CNN that she was “mind-boggled” by the Pentagon’s announcement of an upcoming military plan to retake Mosul from ISIS.
Gabbard’s judgments of the president were also noticed by local media. Columnists for the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, MidWeek and Honolulu Civil Beat each published opinion pieces criticizing the congresswoman.
Gabbard’s profile has risen in another significant way: through her support of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
In May 2014, she called Modi to congratulate him on his election to lead the world’s second-largest nation.
“I look forward to working with Mr. Modi and other members of the Indian government toward our mutual goals of peace, stability, and economic growth in the Asia-Pacific region,” she later said in a press release. “A partnership between the world’s two largest and greatest democracies is necessary for us to successfully address the many global challenges we face, including economic growth, bilateral trade, the environment, terrorism, and security.”
In September, Gabbard was among the 18,000 people in attendance for Modi’s speech at Madison Square Garden in the week that he visited the United Nations. Describing the energy in the arena as “electric, inspiring, positive,” Gabbard called Modi’s speech “incredible.”
— Tulsi Gabbard (@TulsiGabbard) January 2, 2015
Gabbard then greeted Modi after the speech, telling him that she would “take the lead in Congress to pass a resolution in support of the Prime Minister’s appeal to the UN to create an ‘International Yoga Day.’”
During their meeting, the two “spoke of the priorities shared by India and the U.S., including defeating the threat posed by ISIS and other Islamic extremists, cooperating to address environmental concerns, and maximizing economic opportunities.” She also gave Modi her personal copy of the Bhagavad-Gita.
Then, in December, Gabbard accepted an invitation from Modi to visit India. As reported by The Economic Times and other publications, she said at the time, “He is a leader whose example and dedication to the people he serves should be an inspiration to elected officials everywhere.”
Gabbard’s office later explained, “She is traveling at no expense to U.S. taxpayers/U.S. government. All travel and itinerary arrangements have been coordinated and cleared with the State Department and House Ethics.”
Gabbard’s enthusiasm for Modi and India predate Modi’s election. In December 2013, she voiced her opposition to a House resolution that praised India’s “rich religious diversity and commitment to tolerance and equality” but reaffirmed “the need to protect the rights and freedoms of religious minorities.”
Gabbard said in a statement, “India is a democratic multi-cultural and multi-faith society, and shares many common values and strategic interests with the United States. It is critically important that we focus on strengthening the ties between the two nations, and I do not believe that H.Res. 417 accomplishes this.”
In her statement opposing the House resolution, however, Gabbard did not address what the resolution said about Modi. It specifically referred to incidents of deadly violence against minority Muslims in the Indian state of Gujarat in 2002, when Modi was the state’s chief minister.
“Modi is a leader whose example and dedication to the people he serves should be an inspiration to elected officials everywhere.” — Rep. Tulsi Gabbard
The text of the resolution goes into further detail regarding Modi, stating that the Indian magazine Tehelka reported that “many of the people who participated in the violence said it was possible only because of the connivance of the state police and Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi.”
The resolution also says that, 10 years after the violence took place, Human Rights Watch reported that “Modi has acted against whistleblowers while making no effort to prosecute those responsible for the anti-Muslim violence.”
Accordingly, the resolution commends the U.S. government “for exercising its authority in 2005 under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 to deny a U.S. visa to Narendra Modi on the grounds of religious freedom violations.”
The resolution had 51 co-sponsors that included both prominent liberals and conservatives. It’s not clear if Gabbard is aware of what happened in Gujarat, but there were vocal protesters about the incident outside Madison Square Garden when Modi spoke.
Back at home, meanwhile, Gabbard benefitted from the support of Indian-Americans, who have given generously to her campaign coffers.
Shortly after taking office in Washington in 2013, the Democratic National Committee voted unanimously for Gabbard to serve as vice chair of the party. As Project Vote Smart shows, Gabbard’s ratings and endorsements demonstrate her support of Democratic issues and policy regarding abortion rights, gay marriage, retired Americans, environmental groups, education, labor and immigration.
In Congress, Gabbard generally — but not always — votes with her party. Last March, for example, she was one of just 27 Democrats who sided with House Republicans to pass “a bill to delay tax penalties for failing to buy health insurance this year under ObamaCare.”
Gabbard said in a press release at the time, “People continue to face difficulties signing up for new health plans, and the security of their personal information online is still in question. Those who have been unable to sign up for their health plan due to circumstances outside their control should not be unfairly punished with a penalty.”
U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa, Hawaii’s other Democrat in the House at the time, voted against the measure, stating, “This marks the House GOP’s 50th vote to weaken, undermine, or repeal the Affordable Care Act, and we just voted on a bill identical to this one back in July. This is a waste of time and taxpayer dollars.”
Meanwhile, Gabbard has often expressed the need for bipartisan approaches to governance, and some have wondered whether she aligns more with independents and Republicans. During the 2015 State of the Union address, Gabbard was among about 70 members of Congress wearing a No Labels’ Problem Solver lapel pin. The group is self-described as “a citizens’ movement of Democrats, Republicans and independents dedicated to a new politics of problem solving.”
On a number of occasions Gabbard has introduced bills with Republicans, including Aaron Schock of Illinois. Like Gabbard, Schock is young and a political climber.
He has also been in the news a lot lately, too, but not for flattering reasons, as Politico reports: there are serious concerns about his “lavish lifestyle and seemingly lax accounting of his spending of taxpayer and campaign dollars.” The controversy with Schock includes his decision to decorate his new office in the Rayburn Office Building to resemble the dining room of the PBS show “Downton Abbey.”
Last April, Gabbard’s office announced that she would be part of a bipartisan group traveling to Japan, South Korea and China. But Gabbard was the only Democrat in the group, which included Schock, then-House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia and Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the Republican vice presidential nominee in 2012.
Gabbard has often expressed the need for bipartisan approaches to governance, and some have wondered whether she aligns more with independents and Republicans.
Gabbard expresses her bipartisan credentials in other ways, too. Last July, the New York Times reported she was part of a regular workout group doing a “mix of CrossFit and circuit training” in the members-only gym of the House of Representatives.
“Representing the Republican side: Representatives Kevin McCarthy of California, the majority leader; Todd Rokita of Indiana; Aaron Schock of Illinois; and Jason Smith of Missouri,” the Times reported. “And on the Democratic side: Representatives Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii and Joe Kennedy of Massachusetts.”
Gabbard and Schock were scheduled to be on a South by Southwest Interactive Festival 2015 panel titled “Millennials: The Unstoppable Force.” (Late Friday, The Hill reported that Schock pulled out of the panel and was replaced by Rep. Will Hurd, a Republican from Texas.)
“Too often, political bickering in Washington overshadows the issues that this generation of Americans are concerned about,” said Gabbard said in a press release promoting the panel. “Millennials care less about party labels and blind partisanship, and care more about getting things done.”
To be sure, Gabbard has other interests besides bonding with the GOP, attacking Obama and praising Modi. She continues her advocacy for the rights of fellow military veterans. And last week, she was back home in Hawaii for a full slate of meetings with constituents and officials.
But it would appear that the person representing the 2nd Congressional District in Washington also has interests far beyond Hawaii’s shore.
Editor’s note: Rep. Gabbard’s office declined several requests to meet with Civil Beat’s Chad Blair to discuss her agenda in Congress.