House Democrats wanted this week to be about two things: 1) the revolt against President Donald Trump by Senate Republicans over the national emergency resolution and 2) their planned vote on a package of campaign finance and ethics reforms on Friday.
Instead, the week has been entirely consumed by the controversy surrounding what some Democrats took to be anti-Semitic remarks made by Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar.
On Thursday, after more than 24 hours of semi-open drama about how to handle Omar’s comment regarding “the political influence in this country that says it is OK for people to push for allegiance to a foreign country,” House Democrats voted in favor of a broad measure that condemns anti-Semitism as well as Islamophobia and white nationalism.
The House passed the measure, 407-23.
It’s a cobbled-together solution that Democrats hope puts all of this back-and-forth behind them – even while acknowledging that they lost a week of messaging to this intra-party squabble.
“I like that. It’s a gift,” Republican Texas Sen. John Cornyn told CNN’s Phil Mattingly of his response to the Democratic debate over how to respond to Omar’s comments.
And he’s right! But the episode is also revealing of a few realities of the current state of the Democratic Party – both in Congress and nationally. Here’s what it tells us:
1) It’s a party caught between its past and its future. The current House Democratic freshman class represents the future of the Democratic Party: an increasingly diverse, female, liberal and younger face of a party that, for decades and decades (and like all politics), was dominated by white men and smoke-filled rooms.
And it’s not only that these new members look different than how past Democratic majorities looked. It’s that they act differently, too. They are more willing to say – or tweet – what’s on their minds, whether or not it is “politically correct” to do so. Or if what they say will get them in trouble with their party’s leadership.
Omar drew the attention this week, but other freshmen like Reps. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-New York) have also shown a willingness to speak their minds – even when leadership would rather they not – in the first few months of the 116th Congress. And that has, predictably, rankled many of the older members who came up in a different political time and would like these young whippersnappers to pay their dues the same way they believe they did.
2) Being in the majority is no easy thing. The path to the House majority is paved with winning candidates from across the ideological spectrum. You can’t win a majority of seats in Congress by nominating just liberal candidates. Or just conservative candidates. The way you win is to nominate candidates that effectively fit the districts in which they are running.
Makes sense, right? The problem with that approach is that, if you win the majority, you are going to have members of your caucus or conference from all over the ideological map representing views that are, at times, directly at odds with established views within your party or in Washington more generally. And there is simply no easy way to either reconcile those views or get members not to express them.
3) Party leaders don’t totally grasp where the party is headed. Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) is, without question, one of the most astute politicians, not just currently in the House, but of all time. And yet, she seemed to underestimate the pushback she would get from Omar allies within the caucus to a resolution that targeted the Minnesota member for her comments.
For Pelosi, it likely looked like a no-brainer. Omar made a comment that, when coupled with other things she has said, had the whiff of anti-Semitism. Democratic New York Rep. Eliot Engel, a prominent and long serving Jewish member of the House, was outraged and demanded action. Pelosi set the wheels in motion to do just that. But that process ran aground, forcing her to re-craft a broader anti-hate message that the whole Democratic caucus could get behind.
For all the attention paid to the hostile takeover of the Republican Party by Trump over the past three-plus years, the transformation happening within the Democratic Party has been somewhat overlooked. The debate over what Omar said, what she meant and what Democrats in Congress could or should do about it shines a light on just how much the party is in flux right now.
While the passage of the resolution may put this controversy to rest, there will be other disputes in the coming weeks, months and even years that will further highlight the contours of the evolution of what it means to be a Democrat in 2019.