Tulsi Gabbard is full of surprises. Like the fact that she’s actually running for president.
Unfortunately for her, the biggest surprise may be this: She has lost valuable political skills just when she needs them the most.
Her current lack of mojo has roots tracing back to soon after she was elected to Congress.
When Gabbard first ran for Congress in 2012, she became a shining star very dramatically and very fast, coming out of nowhere to beat former Honolulu mayor Mufi Hannemann. She convinced Democrats that she no longer held her anti-gay marriage views and that she was a true progressive.
Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard made her presidential candidacy official with an appearance at the Hilton Hawaiian Village on Saturday, but her political mojo had already faded.
Cory Lum/Civil Beat
At the time, no Hawaii politician was better at communicating. Gabbard was telegenic, well prepared, and ran circles around any other politician when it came to getting her message across.
There was a real openness there, a no-bullshit willingness to engage and a kind of a jump-the-line rebelliousness that pissed off a lot of pols but was well received by the public.
That’s all pretty much gone. She still says a lot of outrageous and surprising things. But what she does with these statements, how she justifies them (or more accurately how she does not justify them), does not seem to be working any more.
Gabbard has become closed-off, managed, overly defensive and secretive. Good luck acting that way during the pressures of a presidential race.
The odds against Gabbard getting the nomination are bad, but that’s no reason for us to be dismissive.
For people in Hawaii her campaign will be especially relevant because of what it will tell us about Gabbard herself.
Her presidential campaign is off to a stumbling start. Despite the glitz, Gabbard seems to lack the ability to deal with the early stages of a presidential campaign.
The Crucial Early Days
Two important things happen during this early stage: advertising and scrutinizing.
The advertising stage is absolutely essential for lesser known candidates like Gabbard. It’s pretty easy. Your very candidacy creates a buzz. Hey Fresh Face, we in the media world are waiting for you.
Remember Herman Cain’s presidential campaign in 2012? Essentially a media discovery. A flash out of nowhere.
You don’t remember Herman? That’s because this honeymoon stage doesn’t last long.
Gabbard has developed a tin ear and substitutes exaggerated, off-putting phrases for real engagement.
It’s the scrutinizing stage that makes or breaks candidates like Gabbard. In this social media age, that stage begins about as quickly as it takes Kirk Caldwell to say sunny things about rail.
Presidential candidates who are nationally known already have the chops. They know how to respond to the metric tons of information about them that is now all over the news. Joe Biden is a good example.
Less experienced candidates often go boom and disappear under this scrutiny because their flaws come out and they are too politically inept to keep the scrutiny from doing lasting damage.
So off they go even before primary season, never able to regain the momentum necessary to stay in the race.
Herman Cain, flash in the pan.
Gabbard has already received an enormous amount of scrutiny, most of it negative.
Much of it is rehashing stuff about her religious beliefs, her former views about gay marriage or her visit to Syria.
Will she be able to explain herself and avoid becoming Herman Cained? Probably not.
Like that line that Ricky supposedly said to Lucy, Gabbard sure is going to have a lot of ‘splainin’ to do. And like Lucy, Tulsi is not a good ‘splainer.
Downward Communicative Spiral
Consider religious issues, which have always been a hot button for Gabbard. On religious matters, Gabbard is typically either ham-handed or unavailable.
Since she first ran for office, critics have been after Gabbard about her religious beliefs, particularly her association with Chris Butler, also known as Jagad Guru Siddhaswarupananda Paramahamsa, which they labeled as cultish.
“Cult” is a word that many experts on religion don’t use because of its brainwashing connotations. It’s an insensitive and misleading term.
So when Gabbard calls these criticism “religious bigotry,” she is right, but only a little.
In today’s politics, the terms “religious bigotry” and “weaponizing religion” are dog whistles for religious conservatives.
Simply calling it “bigotry” is a clumsy way to respond. It’s an excuse to avoid discussing her religious beliefs, which many potential Democratic voters and party elites are going to want to do whether she likes it or not.
Recently Gabbard attacked Sen. Mazie Hirono and other Democratic senators for asking a judicial nominee whether his membership in the Catholic anti-abortion group Knights of Columbus would bias his view of abortion cases.
Gabbard accused those senators of having “weaponized religion for their own selfish gain.”
Oh please. First of all, that’s a perfectly common and justifiable kind of question asked by both Republicans and Democrats.
Second, in today’s politics, the terms “religious bigotry” and “weaponizing religion” are dog whistles for religious conservatives.
More dog whistling, just what we need.
More to the campaign point, it’s just plain dumb for Gabbard to do what she did when — how obvious is this? — right now she needs to appeal almost solely to Democrats.
But in this case it’s not all that surprising. Because of her downward communicative spiral, she has developed a tin ear and substitutes exaggerated, off-putting phrases for real engagement.
In its story about Gabbard’s attack on those senators, The Hill reported that “a spokeswoman for Gabbard did not respond to a request for comment.”
How well do you think that kind of response is going to work in a presidential race?
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Neal Milner is a former political science professor at the University of Hawaii where he taught for 40 years. He is a political analyst for KITV and is a regular contributor to Hawaii Public Radio's "The Conversation." His most recent book is The Gift of Underpants. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.