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Editor’s Note: Jill Filipovic is a journalist based in Washington and author of the book “The H-Spot: The Feminist Pursuit of Happiness.” Follow her on Twitter. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely her own. View more opinion articles on CNN.

(CNN) —  

Here’s a 2020 election story I didn’t see coming: Hillary Clinton suggesting that Tulsi Gabbard is a Russian asset, and Gabbard, who is polling at just over 1%, responding by saying Clinton is secretly running against her for president and that “it’s now clear that this primary is between you and me.”

Jill Filipovic
Jill Filipovic
PHOTO: Courtesy of Jill Filipovic

It was obviously a mistake for Clinton to say what she did. She may not have used Gabbard’s name, but she said that one candidate was “a favorite of the Russians,” implied that she’s an asset, and said that the candidate (clearly Gabbard), was prepping for a third-party spoiler run.

She may be right on the last point, and one can hope that this takes some of the wind out of Gabbard’s third-party sails, if she is indeed mulling such a thing. Still, it’s not great for American democracy when former secretaries of state are running around accusing congresswomen of working for the Russians.

The pedants among the pundits will point out that Clinton didn’t say Gabbard was working for the Russians, that there’s a difference between being an agent and being an asset. An asset is simply someone the Russians think they can compromise or exploit for their benefit, and on that front, Gabbard may fit the bill.

She uses Kremlin talking points on Syria, repeating the RT-approved phrase “regime change war” nine times in the last Democratic debate.

She is a defender of several of the world’s strongmen, perhaps most notably India’s Narendra Modi, a Hindu nationalist accused of failing to stop a mass slaughter of Muslims, and Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, whose regime has killed and tortured hundreds of thousands of his own people.

She is the candidate of global retreat, nearly Trumpian in her insistence that America step back from the global stage. Her isolationism, coupled with her tolerance for some of the world’s most visible tyrants, would effectively cede influence to powers like China and Russia, and erode the defense of human rights and liberal democracy.

A number of Gabbard’s views are disturbing. And it is clear that bad actors are using Gabbard’s candidacy to continue to sow disinformation and division among the American public generally and the American left specifically, a tactic that proved remarkably successful in 2016.

It’s doubtful that the average American grasps those nuances, instead hearing “Russian asset,” with respect to Gabbard, as “working for the Russians.” There are better ways Clinton might have explained the issue: focusing on Russia as the bad actor and emphasizing its efforts to interfere with American democracy; pointing out that Russia’s bolstering of the Gabbard campaign is one data point in this larger effort (it’s certainly not the only one).

That’s the route Clinton should have taken. Instead, she turned the spotlight on a relatively inconsequential congresswoman, and opened up an opportunity for right-wing media scavengers to elevate her.

But if Clinton’s initial comment was politically tone-deaf, Gabbard’s response was a deafening scream. After calling Clinton “the queen of warmongers,” Gabbard said Clinton was the one behind “a concerted campaign” to destroy the Hawaii Democrat’s reputation through “powerful allies in the corporate media and war machine, afraid of the threat I pose.” To top off the crazy, Gabbard concluded, “It’s now clear that this primary is between you and me. Don’t cowardly hide behind your proxies. Join the race directly.”

Gabbard, it should be noted, is polling so badly that she hasn’t yet qualified for the November Democratic primary debate. Hillary Clinton, it shouldn’t need to be said, is not running for president, and not even in a position to be puppeteering the race from behind the scenes.

Yes, Clinton erred in her phrasing. But the central message – that Tulsi Gabbard is not only wildly unqualified for the presidency, but a loose cannon whose political ambitions are amplified by shady operators – holds true.

And Gabbard’s response to Clinton’s comments demonstrates just how temperamentally, politically, and psychologically unqualified she is to sit in the Oval Office (not that such an outcome is in any danger of becoming a reality).

Gabbard may very well launch a third-party run, quietly backed by all kinds of nefarious troublemakers. But that run will only be a threat if Gabbard has some fire behind her campaign. Right now, she’s flaming out. Best to not give her any more oxygen.