Tulsi Gabbard and the Democrats' Quality Control Problem | Opinion

When Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (formerly D-HI) announced Tuesday on Twitter that she was leaving the Democratic Party, she was met with a flurry of "Bye, Felicias" and other, more unprintable sobriquets from party enthusiasts who won't miss her. Despite her unintentional hilarity, Gabbard's acrimonious, public departure from the party is another reminder that Democrats must exercise a modicum of quality control for their next contested presidential nomination.

The 2019-2020 Democratic primary debates might have been fun at the time for liberals desperate for a breather from the Trump administration's perpetual debasement machine, but they have aged into a complete disaster for the party. Terrified of complaints from the party's left flank that the rules would be exclusionary, Democratic National Committee Chair Tom Perez set the bar far too low to get into the early presidential debates. From the audience, it looked like anyone could qualify.

And by anyone, I mean anyone. A crackpot lifestyle guru, a Silicon Valley dingbat with no meaningful history with the party, an obscure former congressman whose name recognition was probably 10 percent in his own district, two dull billionaires with absolutely no constituency whatsoever, and possibly the worst of the lot—Gabbard herself. Gabbard sported the look of someone who would bolt from the party at the drop of a hat. Her entire appeal was drawn from her prominent support of Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.) in his 2016 bid for the nomination against Hillary Clinton.

Tulsi Gabbard at a 2020 Debate
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) speaks as Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) (center) and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) listen during the Democratic Presidential Debate at Tyler Perry Studios on Nov. 20, 2019 in Atlanta, Georgia. Alex Wong/Getty Images

None of these unctuous gadflies got within a light year of winning a primary or caucus, let alone capturing the nomination. But several of them have done incalculable damage to the Democratic Party and its brand. Just the sight of the loopy Marianne Williamson up on stage with governors, senators and the former vice president was a completely needless embarrassment. Andrew Yang, the onetime mastermind of the Universal Basic Income, dropped out of the race in January 2020, ran unsuccessfully and preposterously to be the mayor of New York City and then decamped from the fold altogether to start the Forward Party with New Jersey's formerly Republican governor Christine Whitman.

Tom Steyer and Michael Bloomberg, the plutocrats, lit more than a billion dollars of their own money on fire fruitlessly chasing the fame of a presidential nomination. That's cash that could've been funneled to party-building, getting out the vote and other crucial activities in what turned out to be a close race with former President Donald Trump.

And now there's Gabbard, whose one memorable moment in the campaign was a lame and misleading attack on Kamala Harris's record as a prosecutor. Unlike Sen. Elizabeth Warren's gruesome dismemberment of Bloomberg, Gabbard barely landed the punch and then disappeared from the radar of most sensible people. Harris, of course, is now the vice president.

Gabbard's bizarre announcement, in which she assailed Democrats as "an elite cabal of warmongers driven by cowardly wokeness" is clearly a stepping stone to a long career in right-wing media. For the rest of her life, she'll be hailed as the "former Democratic presidential candidate" who turned hard right, and she'll cash easy checks for showing up and playing the part of the anti-woke anti-imperialist. Oh look, she immediately popped up on Tucker Carlson's show last night. Quelle surprise.

This is on party leadership. The Democratic Party does not need to invite every interested person off the street to participate in their nominating processes. It's the most important decision the party makes, every four years, and somehow party elites treated it like an ice cream social. Anyone who hit 1 percent in three polls could crash the first debate and indelibly associate themselves with one of America's two gigantic political parties—the one which currently has the unenviable task of thwarting an authoritarian takeover of American democracy.

This is why there is currently a handful of crackpots gallivanting around the country with the party's imprimatur, making everyone look bad. Democrats need to learn from this debacle and at the least make it dramatically harder to participate in presidential debates. Higher qualification thresholds are one of the only mechanisms the party has left to exercise any control over who gets to represent the Democratic Party.

Allowing such absurd people on the stage did nothing to heal the wounds of the bitter 2016 nominating contest. It didn't net them a single vote. And if Democrats want this to be the last oddball eruption from its ensemble cast of never-going-to-be-presidents from 2020, they need to make sure they never again make it so easy for grifters to get into the big tent.

David Faris is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Roosevelt University and the author of It's Time to Fight Dirty: How Democrats Can Build a Lasting Majority in American Politics. His writing has appeared in The Week, The Washington Post, The New Republic, Washington Monthly and more. You can find him on Twitter @davidmfaris.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.