Major Gabbard finally surrendered.
Like an awkward party straggler that stays past dozens that’ve departed—and with only the host couple remaining—Tulsi Gabbard became the talk of the town for those wondering when she would finally drop out of the race for the Democratic presidential nomination. But while most suggested she leave because she wouldn’t be the nominee, there’s another powerful principle that should have pushed her to exit.
Candidate Gabbard is also Maj. Gabbard, a serving military officer in the National Guard. As an officer, she’s oath-bound to uphold several ethical codes her candidacy broke in her prolonged pursuit of the presidency. Her campaign harmed the very soldiers it claimed to revere, and demonstrated why no serving military member—whether active duty, Reserve, or member of the National Guard should ever be permitted to run a campaign against the current commander-in-chief.
By regulation, though troops are encouraged to vote privately, the US military is thoroughly non-partisan in public. Officers in particular, like Maj. Gabbard, are charged to prevent partisan politics from dividing troops from within and separating the military from segments of society. This enables the military to bring together diverse people in uniform without being ripped apart by political divisions.
During the campaign this past August, Maj. Gabbard donned her uniform for two weeks on active duty. On return, CNN’s Jim Sciutto asked Gabbard about that time: “As you’re speaking to [other soldiers], as a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, what are they telling you their priorities are, going into 2020?” Instead of politely reminding Sciutto that US Army soldiers aren’t allowed to campaign while on active duty—she responded that her fellow soldiers are “looking for strong leadership.” This statement itself is at least an indirect admission Gabbard had campaign conversations while in uniform and likely injected partisanship into an active military unit overseas.
Gabbard’s active duty time while campaigning for president was a page pulled right from “The West Wing’s” playbook. In a 2005 episode, candidate Matt Santos (Jimmy Smits) deliberately uses a similar military training stint in the Marine Corps reserve to boost his bid for the White House.
In the show, Santos’s top political operative, Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford), spots the opportunity: “Its Christmas in July. Deck the halls with guns and ammo…before anybody in the press gets a chance to take a shot at us the whole country sees you in uniform.”
Life imitated art in the Gabbard campaign, which shouldn’t be a shock. Co-opting the uniform as a political prop is something Gabbard’s done often. While a member of Congress, she has routinely delivered partisan political speeches while wearing her US Army uniform.
More broadly, how can you be loyal to an organization when you’re publicly seeking to topple its top leader? A serving major taking on the sitting commander-in-chief bears more than a passing resemblance to mutiny.
Of course, Gabbard isn’t the first. It’s been a problem on both sides of the aisle. Maj. Gen. George McClellan challenged President Abraham Lincoln at the height of the Civil War as a Democrat, Maj. Gen. Leonard Wood campaigned in uniform and led the 1920 Republican National Convention’s first four ballots, and Gen. Douglas MacArthur directly undermined President Harry Truman’s authority in his indirect run for the presidency during the Cold War’s early years.
The problem’s the same—public political attacks erode the chain of command’s authority and degrade the discipline on which the military relies.
Famously, McClellan called Lincoln “an idiot,” and “the original gorilla.” Gabbard has called the current commander-in-chief “despicable, a “pimp,” and fired off a particularly foul-language-filled bombardment. While common in politics, such tirades arguably breach American military law’s prohibition on contempt toward high officials, and it certainly divides the military organization Maj. Gabbard represents in uniform. Those words alienate her from others in her own unit as well as large swaths of the American public.
If military members in any capacity want to run for president, they should first choose to take the uniform off, just as Gen. George Washington did before assuming the presidency. They’ll still benefit from their valuable experiences and veteran status.
But for those that don’t self-select to uphold the core principle of non-partisanship, the remedy is policy. Through military regulation, or the Uniform Code of Military Justice, serving members of the military should be formally and completely barred from any run for the Oval Office. No exceptions, no loopholes.
Call it the Sherman Doctrine, in honor of Civil War-era Union Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman, who emphatically stated while in uniform “that I never have been and never will be a candidate for president; that if nominated by either party, I should peremptorily decline; and even if unanimously elected I should decline to serve.”
Gabbard’s campaign hoped to make history as the first female president. While that laudable goal is gone, with any luck her effort will still make history—as the final candidate-in-camo to run against a commander-in-chief.
US Army Lt. Col. ML Cavanaugh, PhD, is a senior fellow with the Modern War Institute at West Point. These views are the author’s alone.