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Tuesday, March 26, 2024

Opinion The House’s left was right about Gaza. That could cost them their seats.

Opinion The House’s left was right about Gaza. That could cost them their seats.

Democratic Reps. Cori Bush (Mo.), Delia C. Ramirez (Ill.), Ilhan Omar (Minn.) and Ayanna Pressley (Mass.) hold signs calling for a cease-fire in Gaza at the Capitol on March 7. (Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters)

“Some of the best members of Congress could be ousted this year. They are facing huge spending campaigns against them, as punishment for taking positions not shared by the wealthy and powerful, most notably their strong opposition to Israel’s military actions in Gaza.

I hope these members survive. They are the kind of politicians America really needs.

Eighteen members of the House, all Democrats, started calling for a cease-fire months ago, as it became clear Israel’s response to the attacks by Hamas on Oct. 7 would be full-scale destruction of Gaza. This bloc included Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.) and the three other original members of the so-called Squad, who were first elected in 2018, as well as several progressives elected in the past two election cycles, such as Missouri’s Cori Bush and Pennsylvania’s Summer Lee.

All 18 of these members are Americans of color. Several were elected with the help of leftist groups such as Justice Democrats and the Working Families Party.

With President Biden and most other leaders in both parties largely defending Israel, particularly in the first few months after Oct. 7, these House members have been an important counterweight.

The very pro-Israel American Israel Public Affairs Committee seems to think these members are having an effect, too — and therefore it wants them out of office. AIPAC has recruited more moderate Democrats to run against these progressives in primaries and will reportedly back those challengers with tens of millions of dollars.

New York’s Jamaal Bowman, Minnesota’s Ilhan Omar, Bush and Lee in particular are facing major campaigns against them.

These members are in real danger of losing. They are very liberal on economic issues, too, calling for higher taxes on the wealthy and more regulations on corporations. So there isn’t going to be a heavily funded super PAC coming in on their side to save them. In fact, usually challengers lose because incumbents are able to raise and spend much more on their campaigns. But these progressive incumbents will likely have far less money for TV commercials and other campaign activities in their districts compared with their opposition (AIPAC and the actual candidates they are running against).

And while AIPAC is motivated by these members’ positions on Israel-Palestinian issues, the committee understands that most Democratic primary voters aren’t ardently pro-Israel. After all, polls show that a clear majority of Democrats support a permanent cease-fire in Gaza. So AIPAC and the candidates it’s backing aren’t making these primaries referendums on Israel policy alone.

For example, Wesley Bell, Bush’s opponent, is criticizing her for voting against the Biden-backed infrastructure legislation that was passed 2½ years ago. He is trying to define Bush as not only hostile to the president, who is well-liked among Democratic primary voters, but also opposed to the universally popular idea of improving America’s roads and bridges. (Bush and several other progressives strategically voted against the infrastructure legislation because they correctly anticipated that Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia would pull his support for the initial Build Back Better Act if the infrastructure bill he helped write was passed first.)

Another problem for members such as Bush and Lee is that they are getting little or halfhearted support from Democratic Party officials, strategists and other parts of the establishment in their districts and nationally. Political parties usually strongly defend incumbents. But these members ran and won by (correctly) lambasting party insiders as too centrist, tied to big donors and out of touch with regular voters. Some of them defeated incumbents themselves. So the establishment is returning the lack of favor — and might actually prefer if these progressives were replaced by moderate Democrats more likely to follow the orders of party leadership.

What’s happening this year is a continuation of a successful campaign against progressives in 2022. In 2018 and 2020, left-wing groups such the Working Families Party looked for deep-blue areas where a progressive candidate could either defeat a more moderate incumbent or win an open seat. Ocasio-Cortez’s defeat of longtime Rep. Joseph Crowley in a primary six years ago is perhaps the most successful example of this strategy.

But two years ago, AIPAC, which is bipartisan, and several centrist Democratic groups spent heavily in Democratic primaries to prevent the election of more AOC-aligned members. It worked. Several progressive candidates lost after centrist groups funded massive ad campaigns against them.

This year, AIPAC is going further — by trying not just to prevent new progressives from getting to Congress but also to shrink the number already there.

“We strongly oppose AIPAC’s attempts to dominate Democratic primary elections. We call on Democratic candidates to not accept AIPAC network funding,” a group of more than 100 liberal Jewish activists wrote in a joint letter that was released last week. One of the most prominent signatories is Ben & Jerry’s co-founder Ben Cohen.

Even if Bush, Lee and other members survive this cycle, these primary challenges will have a chilling effect. Incumbent Democrats in very blue districts know they have a choice: They can stay silent about how Israel treats Palestinians and rarely face primary challenges — or speak out and face well-funded, intense opposition from fellow Democrats.

And the results of these primaries aren’t important just because of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. These members stand out on a wide range of issues, because most of their colleagues are so mediocre and forgettable. Republican members of Congress support terrible policies and defend a wannabe autocrat (former president Donald Trump) at every turn. Most Democratic members just take whatever position is held by Biden, party leaders in Congress and big donors.

The Congressional Black Caucus describes itself as the “conscience of the Congress.” It used to be. In the 1980s, its members were some of the most prominent critics of South Africa’s White-dominated government, whose treatment of its Black population back then has parallels to Israel’s conduct today. Now, with House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (N.Y.), Rep. James E. Clyburn (S.C.) and other Black members of Congress in powerful positions within the Democratic Party, the caucus is largely an extension of the establishment. Similarly, the Congressional Progressive Caucus is a group of House members who call themselves progressive but mostly just fall in line with party leadership.

These 18 members and a few others who align with them are the real leaders. Ocasio-Cortez called for Trump’s impeachment soon after special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s report detailed the president’s many transgressions, even as many in her party hemmed and hawed. During the 2020 Democratic primaries, these progressives rolled out major proposals, most notably the Green New Deal, that pushed the party’s presidential candidates to be bolder on climate change and other issues.

Once Biden was in office, Bush slept outside of the Capitol for several nights to shame the president into taking more aggressive action to prevent evictions. Rep. Ayanna Pressley (Mass.) relentlessly pushed him to forgive student loans. As Biden has moved to the right on immigration, these progressives have rightly slammed him for backtracking from the more tolerant posture Democrats took when Trump was in office.

During the past few months, while Biden consistently defended Israel’s actions and Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) suggested Israel’s critics are motivated by antisemitism, these members have held their ground. Now Democratic voters, the news media and even Biden and Schumer increasingly sound like the progressives did months ago — critical of Israel for not seeming to value the lives of Palestinian civilians.

During the Gaza conflict, these young new members of Congress have shown the prescience and wisdom that Biden and the rest of the Democratic gerontocracy are always claiming they possess, based on their long tenures in Washington.

Taking courageous stands that turn out to be right should be rewarded, not punished. But that’s not American politics today. AIPAC is likely to defeat at least one of these members this year, if not several. And the country will be worse off.“

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