If it wasn’t obvious from the new picket signs or the van with her name and face on it, Democratic presidential candidate Tulsi Gabbard had business to attend to in the Elm City Tuesday afternoon.
Before holding a town-hall event at the Keene Public Library, the Hawaii congresswoman sat down with The Sentinel’s editorial board to make the case for her vision of a less aggressive, more diplomatic America on the world stage.
Gabbard, 38, said her first deployment to Iraq in 2004 changed not only some of her politics, but her very selfhood.
“It changed my life tremendously,” Gabbard said. “I came home from that first deployment to Iraq unable to go back to the life that I had left behind.”
As a member of the Army National Guard — to which she still belongs — Gabbard was a medical specialist in the Iraq War for an infantry brigade. There, she said she witnessed the horrors of war firsthand, starting her mornings combing through a log of Americans who’d lost their lives the previous day.
Gabbard said that experience has informed her anti-interventionalist politics.
She noted that she is not an isolationist, but rather in favor of cutting military spending and shifting America’s presence abroad to a more diplomatic one while focusing more funding on domestic issues.
At several points, Gabbard cited her experience in Congress negotiating bills as a reason not to get pinned down on what she referred to as “arbitrary numbers” on what programs to cut or how much her initiatives would cost, since that all gets hashed out on Capitol Hill.
The core of Gabbard’s pitch for the presidency is that her experience as a veteran, coupled with her inclination toward bipartisanship, could make a reduction in military spending the linchpin of improved domestic policies.
Her version of a Medicare For All health care plan, for example, is something she touted as ripe for bipartisan support. It would not eliminate private insurance and would not be a government-run system, but rather “single payer-plus,” as she described it.
Every American would get a government health insurance plan for providers to bill, and they could buy into additional private plans as they wish.
Gabbard said she looked to model her plan off of the Australian universal health care model.
Having spent significant time campaigning in the Granite State, Gabbard said the opioid crisis in New Hampshire has struck a chord with her.
“This is literally why I’ve appreciated so much being able to spend time here — and going and visiting recovery centers and recovery homes, speaking with both providers as well as people who are working their way through recovery now — is to get that feedback about where are the shortages and where are the gaps,” Gabbard said.
The immediate focus of federal spending on the opioid epidemic should be on the availability of beds for those in immediate need of treatment, she said.
However, Gabbard reflected on what broader root causes are behind the thousands of fatal overdoses nationwide.
Offering more mental health services beyond just people who have good health insurance would be key, Gabbard said, in addition to funding more holistic options such as equine therapy to help people find a treatment path that works for them.
With high ambitions for shifting the federal government’s spending priorities away from overseas, Gabbard emphasized that the next president cannot try to push the limits of executive power or attempt to get rid of the filibuster, which protects minority interests in the Senate by effectively requiring 60 votes instead of 51 to pass most legislation.
“It’s not constructive to have this discussion through a partisan lens, and I’ve been there long enough to see the Senate change hands, and you will see that the party in the minority is the one that’s pushing for these reforms, and then once the power shifts again, then they’re not quite so vocal in calling for those same changes, for, I think, obvious reasons,” she said.
Gabbard has drawn criticism ever since meeting with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in 2017 in a sit-down brokered by former Congressman Dennis Kucinich.
On Tuesday, she reiterated her rationale that it is far better to meet with dictators than to escalate conflicts into war.
A reoccurring issue Gabbard said she finds with American foreign policy is how self-purported experts are overly influenced by emotion when deciding how to proceed diplomatically or militarily.
Assad has been accused by the United Nations and other organizations of using chemical weapons on his own people, including children, on multiple occasions since 2014. The particular chemical, sarin gas, is a nerve agent that paralyzes the lungs and other central nervous system functions, killing slowly by asphyxiation.
As she’s done on many occasions on the record, Gabbard refused to call Assad a war criminal Tuesday, saying she does not consider the U.N. investigations to be conclusive.
“I think it’s important, first of all, to make sure that we get the facts,” Gabbard said, criticizing President Donald Trump for his military strikes on Syria and comparing the intelligence behind the chemical weapons attacks to the misleading claims of weapons of mass destruction that led to the Iraq War.
“I had no reason not to believe [the Bush administration] as a young soldier who really looked up to, to people like Hillary Clinton and to people who I believed would not lie to the American people, yet they did,” Gabbard said.
“And so I think it’s every leader’s responsibility to make sure that we are very careful, and that we examine all of the evidence before making these decisions.”