(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")
TAMARA KEITH, HOST:
Hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Tamara Keith. Throughout the summer, we are taking you on the road to meet the 2020 presidential candidates...
Test, test, test, test, test, test, test, test - hey. Yep. OK.
...Which is why New Hampshire Public Radio's lead political reporter Josh Rogers and I were speed walking next to a highway trying to catch up with a parade.
JOSH ROGERS, BYLINE: It's a hot day here in Franconia - post-Fourth of July Fourth of July parade.
KEITH: And we are coming to find Tulsi Gabbard. She is a congresswoman from the state of Hawaii, and she's running for president.
ROGERS: She's been logging some time here. And if you drive around New Hampshire, you see many, many Tulsi Gabbard signs. Supporters are less conspicuous than the signs at this point.
KEITH: All right. So we are coming up on - it must be the political section of this parade because I see Biden signs, Amy for America signs and Tulsi Gabbard signs, and Gabbard herself is here.
TULSI GABBARD: How are you?
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Good. How are you?
GABBARD: I'm Tulsi Gabbard, running for president. Nice to meet you. Enjoy the parade.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Thank you.
KEITH: Even after a viral moment at the first Democratic debate got people Googling her name, Gabbard is only polling around 1%. She's the first Hindu elected to Congress, a major in the Hawaii Army National Guard, a surfer and no stranger to parades.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: There she is, Tulsi, 2020. Come on down.
KEITH: This was her fourth of the long weekend.
GABBARD: Nice to meet you.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Where are you from - Alaska?
GABBARD: From Hawaii - the other one, the other one (laughter). Have a great weekend.
KEITH: Josh and I sat down with Representative Gabbard in a house a little outside of town.
So where are we? Is this an Airbnb? Is this house of a...
GABBARD: No. It is a supporter's friend's house.
KEITH: OK. Cool. So let's do this thing. Welcome to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.
GABBARD: Thank you.
KEITH: Do you have strategies for dealing with, you know, parades and other...
KEITH: I mean, the campaign trail can be rough.
GABBARD: Well, it's all relative.
KEITH: Yeah, I guess that's...
GABBARD: No, it was great. We were - on the Fourth of July, we started out in Amherst, then went to Merrimack and ended up in Laconia. And it was a good thing I had my bags in the car with me because after each parade, my clothes top to bottom were drenched...
KEITH: Oh, my God.
GABBARD: ...So did a quick changeover after each parade, stayed very hydrated. But, look; I'm from Hawaii. We're used to heat and humidity, and serving in Iraq in the summer with full battle rattle body armor - it's relative.
ROGERS: So Congresswoman, in the town that I live in in New Hampshire, the largest political sign in town is yours. You'll be pleased to hear. It's on the property of a libertarian. You know, you were once vice chair of the DNC, but you've been regularly praised by figures on the right and far right, including David Duke, whose praise you denounced, but also people like Pat Buchanan, Ron Paul, Steve Bannon Why do you think that is?
GABBARD: Well, what we're seeing and what we're hearing from people across New Hampshire and in different states across the country is people from across party lines are coming to our town halls, and they're drawn to the message that I'm bringing and the leadership that I'm offering in this bid to run for president to serve as commander in chief. We can have differences - sometimes big differences - on many issues, but people are coming together because they're recognizing the need to end these wasteful regime change wars that our country has been waging for far too long that have proven to be so costly.
KEITH: I want to get to something that you did that's been fairly controversial related to foreign policy. You went to Syria. You met with the country's leader, Bashar al Assad. You know, he is responsible for killing thousands of people, and hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced. He's used chemical weapons. I know that you defend going there because it - you went in the name of peace. But do you think that he should still be in power?
GABBARD: The United States needs to get out of the regime change business. The United States needs to stop trying to act as the policeman of the world. This has been the problem with our foreign policy for so long, leaders in this country from both political parties looking around the world and picking and choosing which bad dictator they want to overthrow, sending our military into harm's way and then trying to export some American model of democracy that may or may not be welcome by the people in those countries. And it's proven to have been a failure. The reality is...
KEITH: Do you...
GABBARD: The reality is that the leader of our country must have the courage to meet with adversaries, potential adversaries and others, in the name of pursuit of our national security, of keeping the American people safe and in the pursuit of peace. And we've seen throughout history many different examples of how this was necessary.
KEITH: Do you think that President Trump should meet with Assad?
GABBARD: I think that the leader of this country should meet with whomever is necessary in the pursuit of peace and the safety of the American people. This is why I think it's important that President Trump took that step to meet with Kim Jong Un in North Korea, something I had encouraged President Obama to do as we pursued the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. It was a good thing that Trump met with him. I think it's seriously problematic that Trump's own foreign policy is undermining any ability for him to actually negotiate a deal with Kim Jong Un. You know, you can't go in and tell Kim Jong Un, hey, we're not going to overthrow you and we want to make a deal while at the same time he's torn up the Iran nuclear agreement and pursuing regime change efforts in other countries like Venezuela and Iran.
ROGERS: Your opposition to regime change wars is clear, but what do you believe is a justifiable use of American military force?
GABBARD: To keep the American people safe. To keep the American people safe. That's why I enlisted after al-Qaida attacked us on 9/11, like so many Americans across this country, to serve the American people and to do whatever we could to go after those who attacked us and caused the lives of thousands of people on that day - what to speak of the many who died and continue to suffer - the first responders. So many people were impacted by that. And whether we like it or not, that is a war that is continuing, the threat that al-Qaida and terrorist groups like ISIS pose to us.
KEITH: In American history, what are instances where you feel that U.S. intervention or involvement was justified?
GABBARD: You know, well, obviously, World War II - a global response to the atrocities that were occurring during that time. Unfortunately, there are very few examples of this justified use of military force. I think it's very telling that the last time Congress officially declared war was World War II.
ROGERS: I'm going to shift to potential failures of America's two-party system. Justin Amash announced he's leaving the Republican Party, decrying our political system, saying modern politics is trapped in what he describes as a partisan death spiral. You've also decried the party system as being rigged. Do you agree with your congressional colleague's assessment?
GABBARD: Look; he's had a lot of challenges within his own party. And, frankly, I wasn't surprised by his announcement. I think that the power that the political parties hold gets in the way of - I would say the outsized power that the political parties hold can often be used in the wrong way to squelch our democracy and dissenting voices even within our own party. We saw that in the 2016 elections at the local level and some at the national level. And I think it is counter to what we stand for in this democracy where we can have different ideas and different ways that we want to approach things and solve problems. And that should be welcomed.
ROGERS: Have you ever considered leaving the Democratic Party?
GABBARD: No, no. I've been working for reforms within our party - after 2016, actively working to try to get these rule changes within the DNC - open primaries, I think, encourage participation, getting rid of superdelegates, taking that power away from the very few and making sure that every single person's voice is heard as we make this very important choice of who'll be our president and commander in chief. And I think there are continued changes and improvements that we should strive for to strengthen both our party and to strengthen our democracy.
KEITH: You recently visited the Homestead migrant detention facility. You couldn't get in, but you got up on one of the ladders and looked in. What would you do if you were president tomorrow to solve what is now very clearly a humanitarian crisis and a system, like, pushed beyond its ability to handle it?
GABBARD: Yeah. It was heartbreaking. This has got to end. The atrocious conditions at these different detention camps for these kids is something that every one of us in this country should stand up and speak out about. It is unacceptable. As president tomorrow, we've got to do everything possible to get these kids back with their parents. I think that's the first and the most important thing. We've got to dedicate more resources - far more resources - to deal with this humanitarian crisis that's happening here in our own country. And I think it's important that we're shining a light on what is actually happening there at the border.
And it speaks to obviously greater issues with our immigration policy with how much more we can be doing to help provide support directly to people in the countries where so many people are fleeing, to help improve things for them there so they don't have to feel like they're in a position where they've got to walk over a thousand miles and make this treacherous journey, risking their own lives to escape something far worse. So there are many changes that need to be made to our immigration policy, both with what's at the border, how we're dealing with the border, as well as our broken legal immigration system. But I think this is an urgent crisis that has to be dealt with right away.
KEITH: So the Mueller report had a lot in it, including a lot about efforts that Russia undertook to interfere in the 2016 presidential election. And sort of the biggest thing there was its pretty effective strategy of spreading misinformation that aimed to divide Americans.
KEITH: So if you're elected president of the United States, what would you do about that?
GABBARD: Well, I think we, people who are running for office and elected leaders as well as the American people at large, we have to be concerned with any kind of disinformation campaign, any kind of interference and be aware of what's happening. If we're aware of what's happening - you know, I trust the American people. They're not stupid (laughter). They can see what's going on. And I think we've got to trust that they're going to be able to make the right decisions for our country.
KEITH: Do you - I mean, it seems like there are a lot of bots and other things...
KEITH: ...Still doing a lot of things right now.
GABBARD: Yeah, yeah. Well, there's a whole - again, I think we've got to look at this problem in the full scope that it is. So you've got other folks coming in - and whether it's bots or putting out false information or whatever it is or you have people here at home who are doing the very same thing. Now we're dealing with different algorithms - both on Facebook and Google. How are those being used? - either to squelch someone's message or to amplify another. These are all things I think we've all got to be extremely concerned about because, ultimately, it places the power into the hands of very few who have the ability to do these things and could end up influencing people in one way or another.
KEITH: From there, we asked Congresswoman Gabbard about how she came to change her opinion on same-sex marriage, her faith and her superhero alter ego, WaterWoman. All that after this quick break.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
KEITH: And we're back. And we wanted to know more about where Tulsi Gabbard came from, so NHPR's Josh Rogers asked her about her formative years.
ROGERS: So is there an event or moment from your childhood that shapes how you see government?
GABBARD: Growing up in Hawaii, it may not surprise you that my playground was in the ocean and in the mountains. And I spent so much time just outside. And I think the thing that really made an impact on me about why I started thinking about how government works was just going to the beach and paddling out to surf and seeing a lot of trash on the beach or in the water and getting kind of pissed off about it because this is my home, you know. This is our playground. And so, for me, that started with just trying to get my friends together and saying, hey, let's go and clean up the beach. We'd go and do that on the weekends, and then come back the next weekend. There's more trash there. I said, OK, well, this is something we can do, but it's not enough.
Ultimately, I started - co-founded an environmental nonprofit called Healthy Hawai'i Coalition, thinking that if we could take this message to kids, elementary school kids, across the state about why you shouldn't just throw your trash out the car window as you're driving down the street. And so I wrote a skit called "The Adventures Of WaterWoman."
KEITH: You made yourself a superhero.
GABBARD: I made myself a superhero. I was the original WaterWoman...
GABBARD: ...With a blue cape and all.
ROGERS: Did WaterWoman have a catchphrase or some sort of call to arms?
GABBARD: Gosh, you know...
KEITH: Or a superpower?
KEITH: ...She didn't. But the superpower was Oily Al was going about his business every day and making the wrong choice, one after the other after the other. And just in the nick of time, WaterWoman just happened to be there and save the day and stop him from, you know, pouring his dirty car oil down the storm drain, knowing that that would get out to the fish and the marine life and the ocean. And it was just an incredible thing to - and it was so much fun to be in the classrooms with these kids and, you know, kind of see the light bulb go off in their eyes as they're like, oh, yeah. These are things that they could relate to and why it was not a good thing.
KEITH: I read that you were super introverted. Did...
KEITH: Did WaterWoman...
GABBARD: In a crippling way.
KEITH: So did getting into that superhero suit let you come out?
GABBARD: Maybe. You know, I - fourth of five kids. I was by far the shyest, and I didn't have a problem with it. I just liked to keep my head in the books, go surfing, hang out with my friends. No big deal. I don't have to talk to anybody else. So the first time we went out and did this play, I was very, very nervous, but then I got into it, and I started having fun. And, you know, how can you not have fun with a bunch of kids?
ROGERS: You got into politics young, as you mentioned.
ROGERS: And you've described being raised in a socially conservative setting. When you first got into the public sphere, you opposed abortion rights, civil unions and same-sex marriage, campaigning against same-sex marriage. You've since said you were wrong.
ROGERS: Are those still views that are held by members of your family? And do you discuss that with them? Is it difficult to break those divides?
GABBARD: Some of them. Some of them. Yeah. We love each other very much. And, you know, there are certain things that we agree to disagree on. You know, my own personal journey has brought me to a place where I'm proud of the record that I have throughout my over six years in Congress - both continuing to fight for and to preserve a woman's right to choose, as well as fighting for equality, you know, for LGBT Americans all across this country.
ROGERS: What's it like to change your mind on issues like that? Not a lot of politicians do to the extent that you seem to have.
KEITH: Or admit it.
GABBARD: I think it's important, whether you're talking about these issues or others, to be open, to learning from, you know, your own experiences and to be willing to admit when you're wrong. If you're not willing to have those conversations or if you're stuck in a corner saying I'm right and all y'all are wrong, then we have no hope for making progress in the right direction and towards a bright future.
KEITH: So we've been asking a lot of candidates about faith. And you have attributed a lot of, you know, those previous views to your conservative, religious upbringing. And I'm curious how your relationship with your religion and your faith has changed over time as your views have also changed?
GABBARD: Well, I was - my dad's Catholic and my mom's a practicing Hindu. And so, you know, we grew up in that kind of multi-faith home - both, you know, hearing bedtime stories from the New Testament about Jesus Christ as well as from the Bhagavad-Gita about Krishna's teachings to Arjuna. And that may sound weird to some people. Like, how does that even work? But for us in our house, this was - the teachings from these Scriptures is how - is what we grew up with and never having to be faced with a choice between one or the other but really focusing on the teachings of these Scriptures, which comes down to love for God and love for others. And so it is those universal teachings, that universal truth, that I really have taken to heart and has and continues to motivate and inspire me.
ROGERS: So we're asking all the candidates - is there a time in your life when you failed at something, not an election, and it needn't be something too, too personal but a failure that you learned from?
GABBARD: Yeah, and this is personal. But I was married very young. And, unfortunately, our marriage ended up failing. And I think that we thought that we could do it all, and we could have it all. But, ultimately, my decision to join the military, leave home for - gosh, I was probably gone for about six months during the training, then came home for a few months, and then left on an 18-month-long deployment. It was really, really tough for both of us. And, you know, I learned a lot. And, unfortunately, our marriage became a casualty of that deployment to Iraq in 2005, came home in 2006. And it was a challenge for me and my then-husband. And I learned a lot of lessons about being practical and balance and doing my best to be able to focus on what I can do and to do it well. And so I'm grateful now. My husband is travelling with us on the road. He's a cinematographer, so he's filming all of our town halls...
KEITH: That works out. Yeah.
GABBARD: ...And putting out videos on social media. And so it's really special and important for both of us that we're able to both share in this journey but also bring our own skills and talents towards this mission that we both really believe in, which is service to the American people.
KEITH: So we end our podcast with something called Can't Let It Go...
KEITH: ...Where we talk about one thing we cannot stop thinking about - politics or otherwise. We would like you to talk about an otherwise because I'm pretty sure you can't let go of politics.
GABBARD: The other day, on the Fourth of July, after I think our second parade, we stopped at a Dunkin' Donuts, needed to get a cold drink or two. And the woman behind the counter, her name was Leslie (ph). She said, hey, you're Tulsi Gabbard. I get off in 10 minutes. I want to talk to you. She wanted to know more about me, but ultimately she ended up really just sharing more about herself. And she started talking about her daughter and how her daughter's a victim of the opioid crisis, how her daughter moved from opioids to heroin, how she served almost four years in prison, how she is now eight months sober, but how her mother is also struggling with opioid addiction because of chronic pain. And Leslie and I had just met, but at this point, she had tears streaming down her face, asking for help, asking for help because their family has been ravaged and torn apart by this crisis like so many people and further highlighting what we as leaders, what we as a country need to do about this because there are so many people just like Leslie who are suffering so much as a result of this - both in holding the people responsible, whether they be doctors who are getting kickbacks from Big Pharma or the opioid - you know, Purdue Pharma, these big companies - but also really dedicating the resources that we need to towards treatment, not treating people like criminals because of this addiction but actually getting them the help that they need.
ROGERS: Representative Tulsi Gabbard, thanks for joining us on the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.
GABBARD: Thank you. Great to talk to you guys. Have a great day.
KEITH: That was the seventh episode in our series of interviews with the 2020 presidential candidates. You can find the previous interviews in your podcast feed, including our chats with Senators Bernie Sanders and Kamala Harris and Mayor Pete Buttigieg. The series is a partnership between the NPR POLITICS PODCAST, New Hampshire Public Radio and Iowa Public Radio. We'll be back as soon as there's political news you need to know about. I'm Tamara Keith. And thank you for listening to NPR POLITICS PODCAST.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.