The future fortunes of the Democratic Party will be closely intertwined with the fate of the swing-district suburban House freshmen who brought Speaker Nancy Pelosi back into the majority. These Democrats capitalized on widespread anti-Trump sentiment in their districts, but they also distanced themselves from the ascendant progressivism within their party—to the point where many said they wouldn’t even support Pelosi as leader.
But in the opening months of the new Congress, it’s becoming clear that left-wing members such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar hold more power within the caucus than the party’s majority-makers. Members in leadership and the committee chairs hold immeasurable influence, at least on paper. But the soft power of like-minded social-media followers and the allure of identity politics is proving to be more consequential political currency in today’s Democratic Party.
The inability for Democrats to muster a firm response against a member who has repeatedly used anti-Semitic language to attack America’s close alliance with Israel is a telling sign of this emerging dynamic. Omar’s perpetual use of these bigoted tropes was so poisonous that even former KKK Grand Wizard David Duke rushed to praise the congresswoman in a tweet as “NOW the most important Member of the US Congress!”
After Omar’s latest charge of dual loyalty against Israel supporters, Pelosi recognized the gravity of the situation. Senior Democrats rushed to draft a symbolic resolution condemning anti-Semitism, making reference to the bigoted tropes that Omar has used but without criticizing her by name. House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Eliot Engel slammed Omar for invoking “a vile anti-Semitic slur” even as the freshman congresswoman sits on his committee.
But as progressives got word of the impending punishment, a fierce backlash ensued. Many members in the party’s progressive wing and black caucus rushed to defend Omar, believing she was unfairly singled out. Omar’s supporters engaged in whataboutisms, referencing instances of Republican intolerance as excuses to avoid criticizing her anti-Semitic remarks. The resulting legislation that passed through the House was a watered-down resolution condemning hate of all types, a resolution that was neutered enough to even win Omar’s support. In the end, Pelosi didn’t even ask Omar to apologize for her charged rhetoric as she has done in the past, claiming she was confident the congresswoman wasn’t anti-Semitic.
Make no mistake: Omar and her progressive allies won this battle. Engel, who called on Omar to apologize, will now be dealing with an emboldened member on his committee who escaped any consequences for her behavior. The process offered no incentive for the congresswoman to change. Instead, it exposed the many pro-Israel members of the party as feckless in the face of left-wing resistance. The influence of committee chairs such as Engel, Nita Lowey, and Jerrold Nadler meant little when compared to the power of a social-media-fueled progressive pushback. They all could face serious competition from the Left in next year’s House primaries.
What’s instructive about this episode is that it shows the limited clout of the more-moderate members of the freshman Democratic class, the ones who will determine whether Pelosi can hold her volatile majority past 2020. Given Trump’s enduring unpopularity in these suburban battleground districts, Democrats looked to be in strong shape. But after running against Trump’s history of bigoted remarks, few expected their own party to be struggling to handle a high-profile case of anti-Semitism in their own ranks.
One of the few Clinton-district House races that Democrats lost in the 2018 midterms featured a self-funded Democratic candidate with a history of anti-Israel activism. The results, in a suburban Philadelphia swing district, demonstrated the political toxicity of anti-Israel sentiment—even without the anti-Semitic tropes thrown in. There wasn’t just a backlash from Jewish-Americans, but the significant majority of the public that views Israel favorably. It’s a political warning for the type of backlash that threatens the party if leaders fail to effectively police the isolated cases of anti-Semitism in their caucus.
As the controversy over Omar hit a boiling point, three of the leading 2020 Democratic presidential contenders—Kamala Harris, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren—put out statements that offered no criticism of the congresswoman’s remarks. They all expressed more concern about the backlash to Omar’s comments than the statement itself.
It’s a sign of how extreme views are now tolerated in a party that’s long stood strongly against Trump’s blatant bigotry. And it’s a reminder of how Democrats could blow a very winnable presidential election, by taking a page from Trump’s own playbook.