Support The Bulwark and subscribe today.
  Join Now

Trump-Tulsi 2020?

Tulsi Gabbard voted “present” on impeachment. Is she running for president, or for Mike Pence’s job?
December 19, 2019
Trump-Tulsi 2020?
The greatest face turn ever?

No one seems to have noticed, but Tulsi Gabbard voted “present” on impeachment.

I’m not sure what game she’s playing, but it’s an interesting one.

She’s obviously not running to be the Democratic nominee—you simply cannot win the nomination in this cycle as a House member who voted “present” on impeachment. But she’s running for something. In October she announced that she’s giving up her seat in the House, yet she’s still in the Democratic presidential primary. If she was going to step away from politics altogether, she would have dropped out of the primary when she announced her retirement.

So if she’s not leaving politics, then what is she running for?

Three possibilities:

1) She is trying to position herself to run in the future as a Democrat, either for one of Hawaii’s Senate seats or for the presidency in 2024.

2) She is creating space to run as a third-party candidate in 2020.

3) She is courting Trump as a possible replacement for Mike Pence on the Republican ticket.

Of those three, the third-party option seems the most likely explanation. Her continued future as a Democrat is the least likely option.

The most interesting possibility is her joining Trump.

It’s a crazy idea, of course. But maybe not that crazy?

Imagine a world where it’s July 2020 and Trump is down 10 points to Joe Biden. (Which is where he has been for almost a year.) Mike Pence is obviously a net-zero on the ticket. No one hates him, but no one loves him. He may have been necessary to reassure nervous evangelicals in 2016, but at this point, their fealty to Trump is complete.

Mike Pence may be a wonderful human being and a great family man, but exactly no one would miss him on the ticket.

In this scenario, Trump could see Gabbard as a way to try to break out of his box with hard-core supporters and get to the sort of Ron Paul-ish Democrats on the far left who are maybe reluctant Dem voters or maybe the kinds of people who don’t normally show up to vote. Maybe Gabbard even helps him get a point or two back with women.

The point is: If the race is essentially static and locked in to where it’s been since the spring of 2020, Trump will need to destabilize it in the hopes that some chaos allows him to improve his position. Trump-Tulsi would destabilize the race.

It would be a long-shot and it could have negative fallout. But think about the idea the way Trump thinks: Putting Gabbard on the ticket would create a giant media sensation—a VP being dumped from the ticket, plus a party switch, plus a female vice-presidential nominee? It’s a quick way to dominate media coverage. The crowds would be huge.

And Gabbard looks great on television, which has, historically, been a big selling point for this president.

I’m not saying that Trump-Tulsi is going to happen.

But I am saying that Tulsi Gabbard voting “present” on impeachment was a necessary precondition for it to potentially happen.

Jonathan V. Last

Jonathan V. Last is editor of The Bulwark.