Politics

How House Democrats Totally Bungled This Ilhan Omar Controversy

Exactly whom did their broad anti-hate resolution please?

Ilhan Omar, Nancy Pelosi
Rep. Ilhan Omar, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Joshua Roberts/Getty Images and Mandel Ngan /AFP/Getty Images.

During her weekly press conference on Thursday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi ran through a list of the agenda items Democrats had either passed already or would pass soon: expanded background checks for gun sales, a restoration of net neutrality rules, protections for Dreamers, equal-pay-for-equal-work legislation, a reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, and most notably, H.R. 1, also known as the For the People Act, which would enshrine sweeping democratic and electoral reforms.

“We’re busy with our legislative work,” she said, “despite what we might read in the press.”

Democrats may be busy with such work. It would be helpful for them, though, if they were less busy with self-inflicted wounds that stomp all over it.

Since the end of the shutdown, Pelosi’s ability to keep this powder keg of a House majority unified on messaging has been tested. Those tensions culminated—or so they should hope—this week. House Democrats’ plan to shine the spotlight on passing the catchall For the People Act—their signature reform legislation—was dwarfed by infighting over how to respond to comments from freshman Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar that some within the caucus perceived as anti-Semitic. The intracaucus arguments have played out in public, on Twitter, and in private caucus meetings. On Thursday, House Democratic leaders finally voted on a resolution condemning all forms of hatred—really, just about any iteration they could think of—just to give themselves a fighting shot of putting the episode behind them before voting on the For the People Act on Friday.

The ugly week showcased the managerial challenges the Democratic majority has to contend with, challenges Republicans can now comfortably ignore. (In fact, this was the week the GOP members finally began to enjoy the extended paid vacation that is serving in the House minority.) Republicans struggled to unite their ideological factions, but the closest thing to an identity split they faced was Protestant versus Catholic. The Democratic majority might be more cohesive ideologically, at least in practice; as Pelosi contended, it’s not having any trouble passing legislation so far. But it’s far more diverse in makeup, with sensitive tripwires laid in every direction. That diversity is at once the pride of the caucus and—at least for now—the source of its squabbling.

Last Wednesday at a “progressive town hall,” Omar, who had already gotten in trouble and been rebuked in Congress for tweets alluding to lawmakers being in the pocket of the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee, referenced “the political influence in this country that says it is OK to push for allegiance to a foreign country.” Some Jewish House Democrats, like Reps. Eliot Engel, Nita Lowey, and Ted Deutch, brought their concerns about the repeat offense to the Democratic leadership over the weekend, urging them to act in response.

With Congress out of town Saturday and Sunday, but Democrats still facing pressure to respond, leaders decided to vote on a resolution rejecting “anti-Semitism as hateful expressions of intolerance that are contradictory to the values that define the people of the United States.” The resolution didn’t name Omar specifically. But with its extensive listing of historical events in which “accusations of dual loyalty” have been used to serve “insidious, bigoted” ends, it may as well have.

Leaders erred, however, in drafting and agreeing to a vote on the resolution before giving the full caucus an opportunity to weigh in. Members of both the Black and Progressive caucuses, especially, felt it was unfair that a Muslim woman of color was being formally called out for a comment when, for example, Donald Trump says worse things every day.

Outside progressives backed Omar. Democratic presidential candidates—competing for points with those progressives—issued statements criticizing House Democratic leaders’ strategy, suggesting that overwhelming condemnations of Omar put a chilling effect on questioning policy toward Israel.

By Wednesday, Democrats had agreed to broaden the resolution to include condemnations of anti-Muslim bigotry. That, too, wasn’t good enough for some elements of the caucus. Democrats continued adding categories to the resolution until about an hour before the vote on Thursday. By then, the list of “traditionally persecuted peoples” against whom hate was rejected in their resolution included “African Americans, Latinos, Native Americans, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders and other people of color, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, the LGBTQ community, immigrants, and others.”

Exactly whom did this expansion of categories please? The left didn’t think any resolution needed to be voted on because they believed Omar’s words had been twisted. Those Democrats who wanted Omar to be reprimanded in the first place couldn’t understand why they weren’t directly and exclusively calling out anti-Semitism. Republicans couldn’t resist gawking.

“I don’t know where to begin,” Georgia Rep. Doug Collins, the ranking member of the Judiciary Committee, said on the floor, wondering why they were “debating a resolution we should have learned in kindergarten: Be nice.” The resolution, he said, didn’t need to be seven pages.

“It’s wordy!” he said.

Collins had the common sense, still, to vote for a broad resolution rejecting hatred. Twenty-three of his Republican colleagues ended up voting against the resolution, and notorious white supremacy–dabbler Rep. Steve King voted “present.” In that, at least Democrats were able to squeeze one talking point out of what was otherwise their messiest episode in the majority yet.

On the day in January that a deal to end the shutdown was reached, Pelosi explained to reporters why she didn’t sweat managing conflicting interests among a diverse new majority whose new members weren’t particularly shy about sharing their opinions.

“You have to remember who I am,” she said. “I was the chair of the California Democratic Party. There is nothing that anybody can show me, in terms of activism and the rest, that I wasn’t there” in the thick of, managing. She had seen peak unruliness, and this was not that.

Maybe she should have waited another couple of months.