ANAMOSA, Iowa — “Aloha.”
Tulsi Gabbard is running for president, but she also is from Hawaii, so she does some explaining.
“There’s a reason why people think aloha means hello or goodbye, or some say it means I love you. There’s a lot of confusion what aloha actually means,” she tells the crowd in Anamosa, population 5,000. “What it means is I come to you with an open heart. I come to you with respect. (For me) it means I recognize that we are all connected. We are brothers and sisters. We are all children of God.”
It is a unique beginning to a presidential stump speech, but then again, in the largest and most diverse candidate field in Democratic Party history, Tulsi Gabbard may be the most unique candidate.
The 38-year-old is a four-term congresswoman but was born in American Somoa and is a practicing Hindu. She is a major in the Hawaii Army National Guard and has served tours of duty in Iraq and Kuwait — her campaign slogan is “A Soldier’s Heart.” She is a physical fitness buff who surfs, teaches martial arts and can be seen on YouTube doing grueling early-morning workouts in small hotel gyms while she’s on the campaign trail.
But what really sets her apart from the 15 other candidates in the field is that she has made foreign policy the centerpiece — the raison d'être — of her campaign. Following a long line of Democratic presidential contenders — from Eugene McCarthy to George McGovern to Howard Dean — she is the clear anti-war candidate in the 2020 race. It is a stance that is building her a diverse following of libertarians, veterans and anti-war activists in Iowa and the other early voting state of New Hampshire, but has also brought her intense controversy within her own party.
Gabbard tells the folks at Darrell’s Restaurant in Monticello, Iowa, “As president I will end these counterproductive regime change wars, work to end this new Cold War immediately, calling for a summit between the United States, Russia and China to begin to de-escalate the tensions that we are seeing.”
She notes that her campaign is completely different from other candidates.
“I recognize that our country’s foreign policy is probably not the thing that’s keeping you up at night,” she admits. “But the reality is that foreign policy is central to every other issue that we face,” arguing that the money spent on what she calls “never-ending regime change wars” could be used on American domestic priorities — “whether we’re talking about health care, education, infrastructure, criminal justice reform, immigration reform or agriculture.”
She asserts that the U.S. can take its “precious taxpayer dollars” and redirect them “back towards serving the needs of our people here at home.”
In Anamosa, she says: “Every single dollar that has been spent on these wasteful wars is a dollar that comes out of our classrooms, out of our health care system, out of our communities. Where has it gone? Even today we are still spending $4 billion a month in Afghanistan.”
Specifically, Gabbard wants to:
• Bring home American troops from Syria and Afghanistan, arguing that their presence has only emboldened terrorist groups in the region
• Work with nuclear-armed nations to “begin to de-escalate tensions and walk us back from the brink of nuclear catastrophe”
• Pass legislation that curtails the authority of the president to commit troops to conflicts without congressional authorization
• Kick Turkey out of NATO
• Stop using American resources to defend Saudi Arabia’s oil and infrastructure. “Handing off our sovereignty and our military to be used by another country? That’s not why we take this oath to serve. We take this oath to protect and defend our country. I’m running to end this insanity.”
Gabbard does have positions on the other big issues in the Democratic primary, including supporting a “Medicare for All” health care plan and eliminating the ban on Medicare to negotiate down drug prices; ending the federal marijuana prohibition; fixing what she calls the “deeply broken immigration system” by fully funding asylum judges and enhancing border security. “If we don’t have secure borders, we don’t have a nation," she said. "I’m not a proponent for open borders, but instead, smart, secure borders.”
She also wants to increase tax rates on the “richest Americans, big corporations and Wall Street” and direct that money into health care and student debt loan forgiveness.
But it is Gabbard’s foreign policy views — especially criticizing America’s involvement in Syria — which has enveloped her in controversy from within her party.
On Oct. 17, Hillary Clinton said that a Republican strategy in 2020 would be to siphon votes from the Democratic nominee with a third-party candidate, and that the GOP was “grooming” someone right now. The implication was that someone is Tulsi Gabbard. Clinton also suggested that a certain foreign power would also love that candidate — presumably because of Gabbard’s Syria views — saying, “She is a favorite of the Russians.”
Gabbard responded with a harsh tweet, calling Clinton “the queen of warmongers, embodiment of corruption and personification of the rot that has sickened the Democratic Party.”
However, she also announced that she would not run as a third-party candidate.
So, Tulsi Gabbard continues her unique quest for the Democratic nomination, with recent controversies showing the yin and the yang of her candidacy: the woman from Hawaii who explains in Anamosa that her candidacy is about “coming together, unifying our country, recognizing that we shouldn’t be afraid to sit down and have a conversation with someone who disagrees with us,” but also stresses in Des Moines, Iowa, “You deserve a president who will fight for you, who will put your well-being ahead of the interests of profit.”
Despite the talk of fighting, and yes, the ugliness of the feud with Hillary Clinton, Gabbard is ultimately banking on the good people of Iowa to validate her unique campaign in the upcoming Feb. 3 caucuses. In Monticello, before she leaves for her next event, she says this: “We Hawaiians talk a lot about the aloha spirit, which is really about respect and kindness to all people. They call it something different here in Iowa, but it’s really the same thing. They call it Iowa nice.”