Gabbard under fire for 'present' vote on impeachment

Rep. Tulsi GabbardTulsi GabbardSanders leads Biden in latest Nevada poll Yang: NYC should implement universal basic income The Hill's 12:30 Report: New Hampshire fallout MORE (D-Hawaii) is facing fierce backlash from her party after the presidential candidate was the only lawmaker to vote “present” on impeaching President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump administration eyes proposal to block jet engine sales to China: report Trump takes track to open Daytona 500 Brazile 'extremely dismayed' by Bloomberg record MORE.

Her Democratic colleagues in Congress called her vote a “cop-out,” “difficult” and “beyond anything that you can really understand.”

While Democrats expressed some sympathy for the handful of vulnerable members in competitive districts who voted against impeachment, they appeared to be mystified and irritated by Gabbard’s vote. 

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Strategists said that Gabbard’s position is unlikely to play well in the Democratic presidential primary, where she was already considered a long shot. She failed to make Thursday’s debate after falling one poll short of the qualification requirements.

Gabbard has repeatedly framed her position to vote "present" on impeachment as an attempt to rise above the partisan fray — a stance that has again prompted questions of whether she will try to run as a third-party candidate.

Gabbard dismissed the idea that she would run as a third-party candidate, telling Hill.TV in an interview that the suggestion was “ridiculous.”

“It’s ridiculous. It’s absolutely baseless. People should actually listen, listen to the words that I’m saying and how I came to this decision,” she said. 

Gabbard claimed that she was “standing in the center” with her vote and called on lawmakers to consider her resolution to censure Trump instead.

While she said that she believes Trump is “guilty of wrongdoing,” she added that she “could not in good conscience vote for impeachment because removal of a sitting president must not be the culmination of a partisan process.”

But Democratic lawmakers and strategists were all scratching their heads over Gabbard’s campaign strategy.

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Gabbard is the lone Democratic presidential candidate to not back impeachment, as well as the only House member remaining in the race. She has said she will not seek reelection to Congress to focus on her presidential bid.

Only three other Democrats — including New Jersey Rep. Jefferson Van Drew, who switched to the GOP the next day — did not vote for both articles of impeachment. But all represent swing districts that Trump carried in 2016.

Rep. Collin PetersonCollin Clark PetersonSenate votes to acquit Trump on articles of impeachment Biden leads 2020 pack in congressional endorsements The Hill's Morning Report - Dems to lay out impeachment case to senators next week MORE (D-Minn.) voted against both articles of impeachment, while freshman Rep. Jared Golden (D-Maine) voted for the article of impeachment accusing Trump of abusing his power in pressuring Ukraine to investigate his political opponents but not for the other on obstructing Congress during lawmakers’ inquiry. 

Rep. Steve CohenStephen (Steve) Ira CohenClinton advises checking your voter registration during Trump's State of the Union Ocasio-Cortez, Pressley to boycott State of the Union 10 Democrats to boycott Trump State of the Union address MORE (D-Tenn.) reacted to Gabbard’s position late Wednesday night just off the House floor by saying it was “beyond anything that you can really understand.”

By contrast, Cohen expressed more sympathy when asked about Golden splitting his votes.

“He's got a tough district, I can understand that,” Cohen said.

But he warned that Golden’s position risked alienating both parties by only partly backing the impeachment articles, saying that “if he was trying to find a middle path I think he found a worse [one].”

“And that's unfortunate because he's a nice guy,” Cohen added.

Gabbard’s independent streak frequently pits her against the establishment and has not made her especially popular among congressional Democrats. 

She raised eyebrows after traveling to Syria in 2017 to meet with the nation's president, Bashar Assad, and for meeting with Trump after his election in 2016.

And she clashed with Sen. Mazie HironoMazie Keiko HironoSenate Dems blast Barr for 'clear violation' of duty in Stone case, urge him to resign What the impeachment vote looked like from inside the chamber Pavlich: The Senate defends its integrity MORE (D-Hawaii) earlier this year after implicitly accusing her home-state senator and other Democrats in an op-ed published in The Hill of having “weaponized religion for their own selfish gain” in their questioning of a judicial nominee.

Hirono was similarly unimpressed by Gabbard’s vote on impeachment.

“She apparently can't decide whether the president has shaken down the president of another country for his own political purposes,” Hirono told The Hill as she walked to Senate votes on Thursday. “She hasn't been able to decide whether that's okay or not.”

When asked if she was concerned that Gabbard might try to launch a third-party bid for president, Hirono replied dismissively, “I don't worry too much about whatever she's doing.”

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Rep. Pramila JayapalPramila JayapalBand Portugal. The Man to join Sanders at campaign event in Tacoma Bloomberg builds momentum on Capitol Hill with new endorsements House Democrats' immigration bill would use tax dollars to import crime to America MORE (D-Wash.), a co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said she thought Gabbard’s vote was “a bit of a cop-out.”

“Voting ‘present’ on the most consequential vote in our recent history — and probably in future history — seems like a very bad political decision at a minimum,” Jayapal said.

Another top progressive, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-CortezAlexandria Ocasio-CortezJulián Castro endorses Rep. Cuellar's primary opponent in Texas Overnight Energy: Controversial Trump adviser reportedly returning to EPA | Delta aims to be first carbon neutral airline | Dem senator gives EPA D-minus on 'forever chemicals' Intercept Bureau Chief: Culinary Union concerns over "Medicare for All" are faulty MORE (D-N.Y.), said that “to not take a stand in a moment that is so consequential I think is quite difficult.”

Strategists said that Democratic primary voters — who by and large back impeachment — are also unlikely to rally behind Gabbard.

“It makes her look indecisive and in some ways very weak,” said Democratic strategist Basil Smike Jr. “I don’t think that this helps her presidential aspirations at all.”

Strategist Jon Reinish agreed, saying her decision makes “literally zip, zero, zilch sense” for either her congressional district or Democratic presidential primary aspirations and said he believed it was meant to be “disruptive.”

“It’s absolutely purposeful to sow confusion and chaos,” Reinish said. 

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Gabbard has struggled to break out of the crowded Democratic presidential field and is polling at less than 2 percent nationally, according to polling aggregation website RealClearPolitics

It’s not the first time she has made waves in the race. Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonThe 'Palmetto Promise': South Carolina will decide the race Alabama Senate contender hits Sessions in new ad: 'Hillary still ain't in jail' Worries grow as moderates split Democratic vote MORE suggested in a podcast interview that Gabbard is “the favorite of the Russians,” drawing a sharp rebuke from Gabbard, who accused the 2016 Democratic nominee of being the “personification of the rot that has sickened the Democratic Party for so long.”

Strategist Michael Starr Hopkins, who worked on the campaigns of both Hillary Clinton and Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaThe 'Palmetto Promise': South Carolina will decide the race Obama remembers Kobe Bryant in speech to NBA All-Stars: 'Nothing is more heartbreaking' Warren highlights work with Obama, Harry Reid in new Nevada ad MORE, said that between Gabbard’s “present” vote and her frequent clashes with other Democrats, he doesn’t believe she has a future within the party. 

“What she did was literally show up and do nothing,” Starr, a contributor to The Hill, said of her impeachment vote. “I think this is a signal that she will not be a Democrat in the long term.”

Gabbard defended herself against the backlash in a video posted on Facebook, arguing that “my ‘present’ vote was not passive.” 

“It was an active protest against the terrible fallout of this zero-sum mindset that the two opposing political parties have trapped America in,” Gabbard said.