If you’re wondering why the progressive members of Congress, collectively deemed “the Squad,” have grown bolder in their anti-Semitism and more aggressive in challenging Democratic leadership of late, look no further than House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s appearance on CNN this weekend.
Pelosi was asked about the fallout from Rep. Ilhan Omar’s recent equation of terrorist organizations like Hamas and the Taliban with the United States and Israel. Omar’s claim prompted Jewish Democrats in Congress to issue a statement urging Omar to clarify what she meant, even though, behind the scenes, many of those same members had wanted to issue a harsher condemnation of her words.
Just as she did when she was called upon to respond to previous anti-Semitic statements, Omar at first refused to back down and instead made the issue about her identity as a black Muslim woman. In a nonsensical tweet, Omar said, “It’s shameful for colleagues who call me when they need my support to now put out a statement asking for ‘clarification’ and not just call. The Islamophobic tropes in this statement are offensive. The constant harassment & silencing from the signers of this letter is unbearable.”
Evidently, it was not so unbearable that Omar’s “comms/strategy” staffer couldn’t go wide with this victimization narrative. “Undergirding all the backlash against @IlhanMN is the desire to maintain a global system where the mighty rule,” they claimed, “the powerless have no recourse for justice and those who represent the powerless (both literally and symbolically) are silenced.”
No doubt as a result of a phone call from Democratic leaders, Omar, still insisting that she was being “taken out of context,” conceded that she was “in no way equating terrorist organizations with democratic countries.” The House Democratic leadership then issued a statement saying they “welcome the clarification” by Omar. This is the model Democrats followed in 2019 when Omar made anti-Semitic remarks and Democrats refused to condemn them outright. Instead, they passed a resolution condemning all bigotry, effectively condemning nothing at all. Democratic House leaders have failed to call out Omar’s remarks for what they are: Clear evidence of her unfitness to serve on the House Foreign Relations Committee at the very least, and evidence of her continued poor judgment.
Of course, even this mild non-rebuke was too much for Omar’s fellow wing-women in the Squad.
Rep. Rashida Tlaib raged on Twitter that “Freedom of speech doesn’t exist for Muslim women in Congress. The benefit of the doubt doesn’t exist for Muslim women in Congress. House Democratic leadership should be ashamed of its relentless, exclusive tone policing of Congresswomen of color.”
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez chimed in as well, criticizing her fellow Democrats and saying she was “Pretty sick & tired of the constant vilification, intentional mischaracterization, and public targeting of @IlhanMN coming from our caucus. They have no concept for the danger they put her in by skipping private conversations & leaping to fueling targeted news cycles around her.”
And Rep. Cori Bush added some race-baiting to the mix, saying, “I’m not surprised when Republicans attack Black women for standing up for human rights. But when it’s Democrats, it’s especially hurtful. We’re your colleagues. Talk to us directly. Enough with the anti-Blackness and Islamophobia.” (To be fair, Bush’s Twitter feed is as confused as many of her fellow Squad members’ policy notions; one day she’s tweeting, “We compromise, we die,” and the next it’s “We need Congress to lead with love”).
The Progressive Caucus in the House issued its own statement blaming a “right-wing media echo chamber” for the response to Omar’s remarks and scolded their colleagues for amplifying “such divisive and bad-faith tactics.” The statement unintentionally revealed that the right-wing media echo chamber is perhaps neither as soundproof nor as misguided as the progressive caucus believes if their fellow Democrats are so quick to “amplify” its message regarding Omar.
Which is probably why Pelosi found herself backpedaling on CNN on Sunday, saying of Omar,
“We did not rebuke her. We thank—[she was about to say “thanked”]—we acknowledged that she made a clarification.” Pelosi went on to say Omar is “a valuable member of our caucus” and tried to end the discussion there.
Note to Nancy and the Squad: Criticism of a public official for questionable or misleading statements she made in the course of doing her job isn’t “tone policing” or Islamophobia or racism. It’s part of the job of being a public servant; you have to answer for your public statements.
At least Omar continues to receive plenty of cover for hers from mainstream media outlets. Intellectuals sympathetic to the progressive cause have leaped to her defense. Former New York Times columnist Elizabeth Bruenig, now at the Atlantic, argues that “of course no one should believe” that Omar would equate the Taliban with the U.S. or Hamas with Israel, and paints those who questioned the remarks as acting in bad faith.
There is no “of course” in this situation, however. Given Omar’s history of anti-Semitism and anti-American statements, the burden of proof should be on Omar to explain herself, not on the public to give her the benefit of the doubt every time she says something inflammatory or bigoted.
Bruenig is assessing the situation within the framework of internal Democratic coalition politics, and as such complains that while the Marjorie Taylor Greenes of the world roam free, “Democrats pick off their only honest lefties and coddle their pet right-wingers, such as Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, in hopes of stopping the somewhat further right.”
But should Democrats be embracing these so-called honest lefties? What’s popular among the Squad and the Bruenigs of the world turns out to be not quite as palatable to the average Democratic voter. A recent autopsy of the 2020 election by several centrist Democratic groups found significant challenges posed by progressive posturing on key issues. As National Journal reported, “The political autopsy, coauthored by Third Way, the Collective PAC, and the Latino Victory Fund, suggests that largely white progressive activists pushing a left-wing agenda on the party were blind to the ideological diversity within nonwhite communities.”
Efforts by some Democrats to move to the center are “being held captive by a network of progressive activists and donors who demand ideological fealty on policy positions that are politically toxic to middle-of-the-road voters of all racial and ethnic backgrounds.” Such assessments include the Squad’s irrational hatred of Israel; 75 percent of Americans hold favorable views of Israel, according to the most recent Gallup poll.
Perhaps Pelosi should occasionally rebuke the Squad when it indulges in excessive, misleading, or anti-Semitic rhetoric? Besides making her look more like a leader and less like a shill for the Squad, it might in part determine if Pelosi will be wielding or relinquishing her Speaker’s gavel in January 2023.