One of the most perplexing minor dramas in the impeachment saga came during the impeachment vote on the House floor when Tulsi Gabbard voted “present” instead of voting for or against impeachment. She was the only politician to vote this way, and the backlash was swift and vigorous. Democrats across the spectrum decried her betrayal as a concrete example of her cowardice and a confirmation of the rumors that she is in league with Putin. The outrage across the social media universe was extreme and nearly unanimous. The charge against her was that she had failed to do her duty to America and her Democratic Party by refusing to vote for an impeachment that is so clearly warranted. How could she alone out of all of the Democrats in the room still be unsure of the facts and the conclusions they imply? Even Democrats from swing districts by and large fell in line with the Party narrative and one guy who didn’t has signaled that he will be switching parties. Gabbard does not even represent a swing district, so what is her excuse? Perhaps she too should switch parties, some said.
The explanation that Gabbard gave for her actions was actually a fairly reasonable one from the perspective of epistemic responsibility. She essentially said that she had reviewed the facts and that she was not prepared to reach a conclusion one way or the other. On its own, out of context, that is a perfectly acceptable reason to vote present. And there are some solid points on her side. After all, the impeachment process has unfolded at breathtaking speed. In only 3 months, the House went from beginning an inquiry into the grounds for impeachment based on a whistleblower complaint that surfaced in September to an impeachment vote. In contrast, previous impeachments unfolded over the course of years’ long investigations. She can argue that 3 months just isn’t enough time to decide whether a President should be impeached or not. Moreover, due to White House stonewalling, not all of the relevant witnesses have testified, not all of the facts are known, and therefore not all of the information that would be needed in order to gain a full picture of what exactly happened regarding the President Trump’s dealings with Ukraine have come to light. Gabbard said that, due to these considerations as well as a general feeling that the impeachment is divisive and that she wants to promote unity instead, she voted “present.”
The problem here is that all of her reasons break down under the sheer weight of the evidence that actually has come to light. Almost every Democrat agrees that the facts that are known do support the conclusion that President Trump committed impeachable acts. The fact that the impeachment process has unfolded at such remarkable speeds and with such a paucity of evidence speaks to the persuasiveness of the arguments for impeachment: in such a short amount of time, and with such limited access to White House staff and documents, the House has been able to show that Trump deserves to be impeached. The implication here is that with more time and more evidence, the case against the president would only grow stronger, not weaker. Why is she the only Democrat or Republican who has not been able to reason to a conclusion? What makes her so special. If Gabbard weren’t so clearly a shrewd and calculating politician, one would be tempted to conclude that perhaps her inability to arrive at a conclusion on impeachment is reflective of her own personal limitations, rather than a lack of evidence or time to consider such evidence. But, of course, she is not limited in powers of reasoning. So some other explanation for her move must be available.
The only explanation that really fits here is that she happens to be a candidate for president running in the Democratic primary, and that voting ‘present’ helps her in that effort. That makes sense. Gabbard’s supporters are by and large not really enthusiastic about impeachment. It’s not that they have a special feeling for or against Trump, though many of her supporters are Trump voters and conservative independents who like Trump as well. Instead, her supporters either just don’t think Trump did anything wrong, and if they do, they don’t think he deserves to be impeached for what he did. He might at most deserve a slap on the wrist of some sort, in their view, but Trump certainly does not deserve to be shamed and removed from office. They tend to think that Democrats are making mountains out of molehills, so to speak, on the issue of impeachment. That’s what Gabbard’s supporters who pay attention to politics think. Her supporters who do not pay attention do not even really have an opinion one way or the other on impeachment. Therefore, given these sentiments among her base of support in the presidential race, it makes sense that she voted ‘present.’ That’s exactly what her supporters would do themselves and it was they would want her to do as well.
In this sense, then, Democrats’ gripe with Gabbard is really a gripe with the conservative Democrats and independents who they need to win in 2020. These are the fabled swing voters that Democrats worry so much about. Liberals know they need to win these swing voters in swing states and they have spent the past 3 years reading the polls and survey data for insights into what these voters want. But the irony is that when Gabbard tells Democrats about these voters, they not only ignore her, they shame her. If Democrats really wanted to win the middle and to build a coalition with white working-class men who voted for Obama and then voted for Trump in 2016, they would pay very close attention to Gabbard’s ‘present’ vote. Far from shaming her, they would try desperately to understand why she did what she did and what that signals about the viability of their own political strategies. Instead, many Democrats saw Gabbard’s vote as proof that she is a Russian agent just as Clinton said she was, and then they dismissed her. To quote Rick Wilson quoting Ice Cube, Democrats essentially have said, “Bye, Felicia.”
If Gabbard deserves to be criticized for one thing, it’s the abandonment of her constituents in Hawaii. By voting present, she removed any chance they had for their voices to be heard through the impeachment process. Gabbard has already been polling badly in Hawaii due to the widespread perception that she has been absent for most of her term while she focusses on running for President. This is a common problem that politicians who run for office face. But in voting ‘present,’ Gabbard confirmed the truth of that critique by swapping the will of her constituents out and replacing it with the will of her presidential supporters. In essence, her supporters got two votes in the impeachment vote.