What was Hillary Clinton thinking? The 2016 Democratic nominee, for some reason, felt the need to insert herself into the 2020 race with an attack on Tulsi Gabbard, an oddball Democratic presidential contender who barely registered in polls. The congresswoman from Hawaii is a completely discreditable candidate—more on that in a moment—but Clinton’s accusation that Gabbard is a tool of the Russians was so blunt and clumsy that it has added new life to a primary bid that should never have existed in the first place. Within a day, Gabbard was already fundraising off of it, a development as predictable as a sunrise.
Clinton fired at Gabbard in a recent podcast, during which she made reference to an unnamed Democrat who Clinton believed was readying a third-party challenge. “I’m not making any predictions,” Clinton said, “but I think [the Russians] have got their eye on someone who’s currently in the Democratic primary and are grooming her to be the third-party candidate. She’s the favorite of the Russians. They have a bunch of sites and bots and other ways of supporting her so far.”
Clinton then brought up the 2016 candidate Jill Stein, whom Clinton described as “a Russian asset.” Or, more accurately, as also a Russian asset, in addition to the mysterious Democrat canoodling with the Kremlin. When asked if Clinton was referring to Gabbard, the Clinton aide Nick Merrill said, “If the nesting doll fits …”
Even if one shares Clinton’s suspicions of Stein and Gabbard—and, as a longtime observer of Soviet and Russian government, I do—her decision to inject herself into the 2020 election was a mistake. It was exactly the kind of clumsy, self-absorbed move that, despite Clinton’s lifetime in the public eye, revealed a total misunderstanding of how politics work. Far from exposing or thwarting Gabbard, as Clinton loyalists want to believe, the former secretary of state overshot the mark by making an accusation without proof. Gabbard will now dismiss real concerns about her as just so much conspiracy theorizing.
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Clinton is right that there is plenty to worry about with Gabbard. Indeed, debate moderators and other Democratic candidates should have never let her escape the first debates without direct questions about her unnatural fluency with both Syrian and Russian talking points. Gabbard even emulates the stiff, unnatural cadences of Russian rhetoric, as when she referred to Clinton on Twitter as the “queen of the warmongers”—the Russians used to refer to the close Clinton ally Madeleine Albright as “Madam War.” She repeatedly echoes pro–Bashar al-Assad propaganda in using the phrase regime-change war to describe the U.S. presence in Syria.
Moreover, Clinton is also right that both Stein and Gabbard are favorites of the Russian government, which has rushed social-media bots and state-controlled media to their defense at various times. Stein even got a seat at a dinner with Vladimir Putin, an honor one might think is a bit out of the weight class of a super-minor American candidate. The fact that Stein was sitting at the same table as Putin, along with the retired general, future Donald Trump appointee, and current felon Michael Flynn, should have raised alarm bells because Putin never wastes a minute of his day on people who cannot be of use to him. But once Trump was in the race, Russia focused its efforts on getting him elected, and Stein was left to do what damage she could as a third-party spoiler.
At this point, three years after the 2016 election, dwelling on Stein’s relationship with Russia is just crying over spilled vodka. Clinton’s mistake was to raise Gabbard’s profile, and then to throw around the term Russian asset.
To call someone a Russian asset implies willful coordination and awareness. It is not the same thing as being friendly to the Russian point of view. Nor is it akin to being compromised by knowing that the Russians have damaging material—as so many have speculated is the case with President Trump. Think of being a Russian asset as something in between cluelessness and conspiracy. But without further evidence, all Clinton managed to do was prepare the ground for Gabbard to dismiss all future accusations or revelations as just more grandstanding from a defeated and bitter 2016 nominee.
Clinton’s defenders claim that it was good to expose Gabbard and to prevent a third-party run. This is wishful thinking. Hillary Clinton is not the arbiter of Democratic Party politics. And a third-party challenge isn’t the only way to damage the eventual Democratic nominee.
Gabbard herself has already ruled out such a challenge, but that is beside the point. Gabbard has now vowed to take her fight to the convention, where she might argue that the nominee, whom Clinton will applaud and support, is just another tool of the Democratic, neoconservative, neoliberal, warmongering, globalist establishment.
This is where Gabbard’s efforts, Trump’s strategy, and Russian hopes will coincide. The goal will not be to turn Democratic voters into Gabbard voters or Trump voters. It will be to confuse them, dispirit them, and alienate them from their own party—and then persuade them to stay home. This will strike at the Democratic Party’s two most exposed weaknesses: turnout, and the inefficient distribution of Democratic voters in the Electoral College. If Gabbard can convince enough voters that “Russia” is just something cranky losers chant whenever things don’t go their way, she can strike directly at these weaknesses and do material damage to the nominee.
So, to use a famous Soviet expression, what is to be done? If Gabbard shows up at the Democratic convention, she should be greeted politely—and then resolutely ignored otherwise. But that should also be the strategy right now. As a former Republican who will vote for the Democratic nominee again in 2020, I hope that I never have to talk about Tulsi Gabbard again. I can only hope that enough Democratic Party leaders can convince Hillary Clinton to feel the same way.