Campaigns

Tulsi Gabbard is back from active duty after being cut off from her campaign

Pentagon guidelines forbid candidates on active duty from all campaign activity

Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard had to take two weeks off from the presidential campaign while on active duty with the Hawaii Army National Guard. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, the first female combat veteran to run for president, has returned to the campaign trail from two weeks of active duty service overseas with the Army National Guard.

That may be welcome news for the Democrat’s team, which was required to run her campaign without her — and without any communication with her about the campaign — since she deployed to Indonesia on Aug. 14. 

Department of Defense guidelines forbid active-duty members of the military from actively campaigning. Gabbard, who has served in the Army National Guard for 16 years, was on a joint training exercise with the Indonesian military.

Gabbard has made her military service a key part of her bid for the presidency, but the deployment meant that she had to relinquish the campaign reins when the window to qualify for next month’s debate was closing.

The four-term lawmaker has polled consistently in the low single digits — she was at 1 percent in a Quinnipiac University survey released Wednesday — and did not qualify for the Sept. 12 debate on ABC.

“Some people are telling me, ‘Gosh, this is a terrible time to be leaving the campaign. Can’t you find a way out of it?’ You know, that’s not really what this is about. I’m not really thinking about how this will impact my campaign,” Gabbard told CBS News before leaving. 

Her unique situation may have provided more opportunity for earned media, like the CBS News interview. Upon returning from deployment, she was on CNN on Thursday, where Jake Tapper told viewers she had just completed two weeks of service abroad before asking her what she heard from members of the military. She said they were looking for “strong leadership” in 2020. 

Those opportunities are something she had to give up while she was gone. A 2008 Defense Department directive forbids active duty personnel from “open and active campaigning,” which includes attending events and doing interviews. Her campaign alerted media that surrogates would be available while she was gone.

Those Pentagon prohibitions also extend to “all behind-the-scenes activities.” Under those guidelines, Gabbard wasn’t allowed to publish or sign off on partisan political materials. Her social media maintained an active presence while she was gone — but messages weren’t supposed to be from her.

On Aug. 12, Gabbard’s political account tweeted using the first person. But after that, presumably after she deployed, her account mostly referred to her in the third person, while “TeamTulsi” or “V” — Gabbard's sister — signed the tweets.

On Aug. 17, the campaign tweeted that it had reached 162,648 donors and asked supporters to surprise her by reaching 170,000 donors by the time she returned from active duty. The account still tweeted videos of Gabbard and quoted her. Some of those tweets were signed “TeamTulsi,” while others were not. Her husband provided some “National Dog Day” content to her thread.

On her Instagram account, her campaign publicized Gabbard’s deployment with a photo of her in uniform and the caption, “We miss you, sister. Come home!”

Especially when it comes to websites and social media, the rules are murky about what a campaign can do when the candidate is on active duty.

The Pentagon directive says active-duty military members must “take all reasonable efforts to prevent current or anticipated advertisements that they (the nominees or candidates) control from being publicly displayed or running in any media.”

That includes campaign websites, which, if created before the candidate goes on active duty, cannot be updated or revised while they’re gone. But campaigns have argued that staff can control these platforms independently of the candidate, and therefore still update them.

Gabbard is hardly the only candidate whose campaign has had to plan around a deployment. Candidates and members of Congress sometimes have to step away from campaign or official responsibilities for reserve duty or training for a weekend or a few weeks. (The Constitution forbids active-duty military members from serving in Congress.)

That obligation — and the inability to campaign that comes with it — can be a problem in a competitive race. In 2018, a deployment from February to June meant Tennessee Democrat Matt Reel couldn’t campaign for the 7th District Democratic nomination until two months before the primary. He had to hand his campaign over to his staff, who didn’t even know where he was deployed.

Also in Tennessee last cycle, Republican Ashley Nickloes — the only woman in a seven-way GOP primary in the 2nd District — was deployed to the Middle East while her opponents were getting their campaigns up and running. She attracted outside support and the endorsement of the Knoxville News Sentinel, but she had a shorter time frame to raise her name recognition — and money. She eventually finished third, which ensured Tennessee would once again have an all-male House delegation

When running for Senate in 2016, Nevada Rep. Joe Heck had to step away from the campaign trail for active duty with the Army Reserve in October, at the height of a competitive race that he eventually lost by 3 points. 

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