It’s no great mystery why Tulsi Gabbard chose to focus her ire on Kamala Harris last night in Detroit. For months, Harris has gotten away with empty identity-related sloganeering and shallow performative stunts, like the one she pulled on Joe Biden in the previous round of debates – which of course was received rapturously by much of the media, leading to bogus claims of a Harris ‘surge.’ Meanwhile, left unexamined was the phony central conceit of Harris’s campaign: that she is a ‘progressive prosecutor’ and therefore supremely well-qualified to make the case against Trump. This mantra has long been ripe for a proper dissection, given its utter ridiculousness. Unfortunately for Biden, though, his cognitive faculties aren’t exactly in the greatest shape and challenging Harris effectively seems well outside his scope of competence at this point. So into the void stepped Tulsi.
It had been simmering for some time. In one of the first synopses of the Democratic candidates from January of this year, The New York Times chose to highlight the ‘history-making potential’ of Harris on account of her unique identity status, yet Tulsi – despite also being a woman, in addition to a racial and religious minority – did not receive the ‘history-making’ moniker. Tulsi was aware of the disparity. So this wasn’t some sudden strategic calculation, which you’d know if you were paying attention (although I realize that’s a big ask for much of the media). In a podcast discussion with me several months ago, for instance, Tulsi made a point of criticizing Harris by name. Biden is constantly being sniped at by the other candidates, usually to no real effect, so it made perfect sense for Tulsi to focus on Harris’s under-examined liabilities. There was nothing ‘progressive’ about Harris’s record as a prosecutor, except that she had labeled it thus. In just a few succinct sentences, Tulsi revealed as much to the country.
Apparently flabbergasted that someone had finally dared to question her record, Harris had no rebuttal. She flailed wildly, resorting post-debate to the typical non sequitur that always gets brought up when someone wants to attack Tulsi but has nothing substantive to say: ‘you love Assad!’ The notion that Tulsi ever ‘apologized’ for or ‘cozied up to’ Assad is a tired, easily-debunked, and yet constantly repeated talking point. Tim Ryan, the hapless congressman from Ohio, rattled off the exact same charge after Tulsi skewered him in the previous debate over whether to withdraw troops from Afghanistan. One hallmark of propaganda is endless repetition; the Assad nonsense has been harped on so incessantly that it’s the first thing many simple-minded journalists and politicians think of when they think of Tulsi. Harris simply continued that inane tradition, which ultimately showed she’d lost the exchange. (Tulsi being non-white and non-male posed additional argumentative quandaries for Harris: evidently she hadn’t planned for that exigency.)
Tulsi’s attacks were effective because they weren’t forced or excessively calculated, as Harris’s earlier move on Biden was. She came equipped with the proper research. It was Harris who first raised the endorsement given to her healthcare plan by Kathleen Sebelius, the former Health and Human Services secretary. Tulsi right away had the goods: Sebelius serves on the board of a private for-profit entity that stands to benefit directly from Harris’s plan. Again, instead of engaging on the substance, Harris could only dispute a technicality, claiming that Sebelius didn’t literally write the plan when that made no difference whatsoever to Tulsi’s criticism. (For good measure, multiple reporters later revealed that Sebelius had in fact contributed to the drafting of the plan, and Tulsi was absolutely correct.) Plus, the criticisms of Harris’s zeal to throw people in prison was unimpeachably accurate.
At her campaign after-party in Detroit, Tulsi was clearly in high spirits. Taking up the mantle of media critic, she derided TV pundits for asking her ridiculous questions that elided the substance of her Harris critique and tried to reduce it to mere stagecraft. In a mocking voice, she mimicked their vapid questions: ‘What was your tactical strategy… did you come in planning to take down this person or that person?’ The notably dimwitted CNN personality Gloria Borger best personified this banality when she asked Tulsi in the post-debate spin room: ‘If you had a choice between a Joe Biden and a Kamala Harris, where would you be?’ There is no intelligent response to that question other than to ridicule it, which Tulsi did.
Tulsi’s parents were both in Detroit and regaled the crowd with anecdotes while everyone awaited the candidate’s arrival. Mike Gabbard, also a state senator in Hawaii, relayed the story of how Tulsi was conceived. Perhaps a bit too much information, but amusing. Also conceived last night was a new and improved version of Tulsi, willing to rip into the Democratic party’s sacred cows and ‘rising stars’ on bigger and bigger national stages.