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WASHINGTON — Hawaii Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard will forever have a spot in the history books next to Donald Trump, America’s 45th president.
The Hawaii Democrat is the only person ever to vote “present” during an impeachment vote. She said that while Trump was guilty of wrongdoing, she declined to vote for his impeachment last week because the whole process has become hyper-partisan.
“Gabbard will be remembered for that,” said Casey Burgat, a senior governance fellow at the nonpartisan R Street Institute in Washington, D.C. “She’s now the answer at every Capitol Hill trivia night from here going forward to the question, ‘Who is the only member of Congress to vote ‘present’ during an impeachment vote?’”
The move by Gabbard, who is running a long-shot campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, gathered a lot of attention, including sharp criticism from colleagues in her own party, a mocking on Saturday Night Live and some praise from Trump.
“Present” votes are rare in Congress, and typically only used to send a message, said Burgat.
When Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell called for a vote on the Green New Deal in March, Democrats saw it as a ploy to sow division within the caucus. Forty-three Democrats voted “present” as a protest to the politicking and to signal to their progressive colleagues they still supported the intent of the climate bill.
In Gabbard’s case on the Trump impeachment, she stood alone. To Burgat, that indicates she wanted all eyes on her.
“A ‘present’ vote is strategic,” he said. “It’s not that you see the merits on both sides of a particular argument, it’s that you have a bigger message in play. You want the attention of being that singular defector.”
In the race for the Democratic nomination, Gabbard barely registers in national polls and is averaging about 1.7% support among likely Democratic primary voters, according to Real Clear Politics. While she does better in the early primary state of New Hampshire, where she’s currently renting a home, she trails well behind frontrunners, including Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.
During the Wednesday impeachment vote, Gabbard was a no-show for much of the day. She skipped out on a series of early procedural votes and was absent throughout six hours of rancorous floor debate.
During the roll call vote on the first article of impeachment, Gabbard waited until nearly all her colleagues had lined up along party lines to defend the president or ask that he be removed from office to say she was “present.”
The vote raised a lot of eyebrows.
On MSNBC, host Brian Williams turned to his guest, former U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, to ask the Missouri Democrat what Gabbard’s “present” vote might mean.
“That’s just stupid,” McCaskill responded. “I mean, what is the point?”
The vote didn’t sit well with U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the high-profile freshman New York congresswoman who has been a champion of progressive causes on the left, either.
After Wednesday’s vote, Ocasio-Cortez, who backs U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders for president, was critical of Gabbard, saying there were a lot of Democratic voters who wanted Congress to hold Trump accountable.
“Today was very consequential, and to not take a stand one way or another, on a day of such great consequence to this country, I think is quite difficult,” Ocasio-Cortez said. “We are sent here to lead.”
But on The View, co-host Meghan McCain, who’s the daughter of late Republican Sen. John McCain, stuck up for Gabbard, saying she had “absolute balls of steel to vote present because that’s what I would have done if I were her as well.”
And Trump offered words of praise for Gabbard’s stance during a speech this past weekend in Florida. “She didn’t vote the other day. I give her a lot of respect, because she knew it was wrong,” Trump said.
Gabbard’s campaign did not respond to Civil Beat’s request for comment for this story.
Gabbard made a quick exit after the impeachment vote and didn’t talk to the press.
She issued a lengthy statement through her campaign, saying that while she felt Trump was “guilty of wrongdoing” she couldn’t vote to impeach him if it was part of a sharply partisan process “fueled by tribal animosities that have so gravely divided our country.”
“I am standing in the center,” she said.
Gabbard added she would have preferred to censure Trump rather than forcibly remove him from office, a decision that should be left up to voters.
A few hours later Gabbard’s campaign sent an e-blast to supporters that linked to a copy of the full statement on her website with a bright red “Donate” displayed in the top right-hand corner. In recent days, the campaign has been pushing to raise another $1 million by the end of the year to “stay competitive.”
Colin Moore, who is the director of the Public Policy Center at the University of Hawaii and an associate professor of political science, said of Gabbard’s impeachment vote, “This is kind of the perfect vote because it doesn’t mean anything.”
“As we all know it’s hard to understand exactly what Tulsi Gabbard is trying to do with this presidential campaign, but she knows she’s not going to be successful playing by the traditional rules,” Moore said. “This is the move you make if you’re trying to stay relevant for another three months, and I think that’s the goal.”
Gabbard’s vote won’t win her the Democratic nomination, Moore said, but it also doesn’t alienate her from her base, which includes a mix of liberals, conservatives and independents who don’t necessarily feel comfortable in either party. She also doesn’t have to worry about answering to her own constituents in Hawaii’s 2nd Congressional District because she’s already announced she won’t run for re-election.
At the end of the day, he believes Gabbard’s vote is “pure political calculation,” something he finds ironic given that a main plank of her campaign platform is that she doesn’t engage in that type of political gamesmanship.
Gabbard was the last 2020 Democrat to support the House impeachment inquiry into Donald Trump, and up until Wednesday’s vote she had said she was “undecided.”
On Tuesday, Gabbard introduced a resolution to censure Trump. The legislation had no co-sponsors. Civil Beat made repeated requests Wednesday before the impeachment votes for the text of Gabbard’s censure resolution, and even visited the congresswoman’s Washington office where her staffers said they did not have a copy of the legislation that they could share.
But less than 20 minutes after Gabbard cast her “present” vote on two articles of impeachment, the congresswoman’s office issued a press release about her censure resolution that included the full text.
In it, Gabbard echoed the allegations House Democrats had been making for months that Trump abused his power as president to try to get Ukraine to meddle in America’s 2020 election by launching an investigation into a political rival, former Vice President Joe Biden.
The censure resolution also said the president “undermined America’s national security and the safety of our people with a growing list of unconstitutional and reckless actions.”
Specifically, she said he was “illegally and unconstitutionally using U.S. military forces to occupy and pillage oilfield reserves of Syria” and “recklessly enabling” Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan to invade the northern part of the country to “conduct ethnic cleansing of Syrian Kurds.” The resolution blasted the president for his continued support of Saudi Arabia and its genocidal war in Yemen. Gabbard also criticized the president for “recklessly abandoning” nuclear agreements and treaties with Russia and Iran.
The resolution closely follows Gabbard’s frustrations with U.S. foreign policy that form the foundation of her presidential campaign as an anti-establishment peace candidate.
Todd Belt, director of the Political Management program at George Washington University and former UH Hilo professor, said it’s hard to separate Gabbard’s impeachment vote from her presidential ambitions.
“She’s trying to make herself into the mavericky Democrat,” Belt said. “Part of her presidential campaign has been to set herself apart as somebody who will break with her party.”
Gabbard’s political pitch resonates with some non-traditional Democratic primary voters, including libertarian-leaning independents and people who cast ballots for Trump in 2016.
Belt said it’s unclear what constituency she’s hoping to win over with her impeachment vote, considering just how distinctly the party lines were drawn.
“As we all know it’s hard to understand exactly what Tulsi Gabbard is trying to do with this presidential campaign, but she knows she’s not going to be successful playing by the traditional rules.” — Colin Moore, director of the Public Policy Center at UH Manoa
Belt noted that Gabbard is known for throwing political Hail Marys, whether it’s suing Google for $50 million, demanding an apology from former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton or delivering body blows to U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris during the Democratic primary debates.
The spat with Clinton, in particular, appeared to give Gabbard a bump in the polls and help her make the debate stage in November. Since then she’s continued to struggle to break through.
“She looks like she’s fading, but maybe this vote will help her get more attention,” Belt said. “But the party is so behind impeachment that I don’t see this being particularly helpful with the Democratic base.”
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