Hawaii Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard officially kicked off her presidential campaign Saturday with an ominous message about an increasingly dangerous world in which the United States sits on the “precipice of nuclear war” amid worsening international tensions.
Speaking for nearly a half hour before a few hundred people on the Great Lawn at the Hilton Hawaiian Village in Waikiki, Gabbard also called President Donald Trump’s administration a “cesspool of corruption” and laid out her support for a progressive domestic agenda that includes Medicare-type health insurance coverage for all and legalization of marijuana.
While her domestic policies and criticism of the Republican incumbent should appeal to the Democratic Party’s base, Gabbard’s military background and views on foreign policy will likely be what distinguishes her among a growing field of candidates in the Democratic primary.
So far nine candidates have said they are running for the Democratic nomination in 2020, including Sens. Cory Booker of New Jersey, Kamala Harris of California, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.
A major in the Army National Guard, Gabbard, 37, served two tours of duty in the Middle East before being elected to Congress in 2012, experience she drew on during Saturday’s speech.
Gabbard criticized Trump for campaigning against “regime change wars” when he ran for president in 2016 and then reversing course and bowing “to the wishes of neo-cons that surround him.”
“These powerful politicians dishonor the sacrifices made by every one of my brothers and sisters in uniform and their families, as they are the ones who pay the price of these wars,” she said. “In fact, every American pays the price for these wars that cost us trillions of dollars since 9/11.”
She accused politicians of ratcheting up strained relations with nuclear-armed countries like Russia and China. While tensions were supposed to have eased with the dissolution of the Soviet Union, she said, “today we face a greater risk of nuclear catastrophe than ever before in history.”
“As your commander in chief, I will work to end the new Cold War and lead us away from the abyss of a nuclear war that could destroy our world in mere minutes.”
With her domestic agenda, Gabbard struck a populist tone, saying it was time to stand up to powerful and corrupt politicians and big corporations.
“We must stand up. We must fight for the soul of our country. Stand up against bought-and-paid-for politicians who kowtow to special interests, selling their votes to the highest bidder,” she said. “Instead of draining the swamp, our president has turned it into a cesspool of corruption.”
Gabbard emphasized her support for “Medicare for all,” environmental protections and the legalization of marijuana, while criticizing the private prison system and big pharmaceutical companies.
“We must stand up against private prisons that are profiting off the backs of those who are caught up in a broken criminal justice system, a system that puts people in prison for smoking marijuana while allowing corporations like Purdue Pharma who are responsible for the opioid-related deaths of thousands of people to walk away scot-free with their coffers full,” she said.
The candidate ended her speech with a message of unity, which has already become a central theme of her campaign.
“What our country needs now more than ever is the spirit of aloha, that spirit of respect and love for one another and for our country,” Gabbard said. “This is the most precious gift that Hawaii has to offer to our country and the world.”
Other than Kealii Lopez, chairwoman of the Hawaii Democratic Party, there were scant sightings of local politicians or party leaders among the Gabbard supporters wearing shirts that read “Tulsi 2020.”
Lopez said she couldn’t speculate on why more Democrats didn’t turn out. Since announcing she would run for president several weeks ago, Gabbard has been criticized for her past stances on LGBT issues and a trip to Syria that was interpreted by some as showing support for dictator Bashar Assad.
She also has confronted criticism locally for accusing U.S. Sens. Harris and Mazie Hirono of religious bigotry in their questioning of a judicial nominee.
Last week, Politico reported disarray in Gabbard’s campaign, noting campaign manager Rania Batrice and her consulting firm, Revolution Messaging, were set to leave after this weekend’s event. But if Gabbard was feeling any stress from the tough campaign rollout, she didn’t show it during her speech.
“I think for a lot of those that haven’t heard or seen Tulsi, I think they’d be blown away,” said Lopez after the speech.
“I wanted to be here and support a local girl stepping up and wanting to serve. And I think that is something that we all should feel good about.”
A number of those at the event said they were impressed by Gabbard’s military service and her less conventional approach to politics that may appeal to people across the political spectrum.
Nicholas Kaleikini, 29, said he found Gabbard “very genuine.”
“Though she is a Democrat, she had a lot of different views that cover various spectrums,” he said.
Former state Rep. Matt LoPresti and Chris Damitio, a local author, both said they were at the event, in part, because they thought it would be good for their young daughters.
“The main thing that brought me out is girl power,” said Damitio, who was there with his 7-year-old daughter. “For her, it’s nice to see that nothing is off limits.”