House Democrats Aren’t Taking the GOP’s Bait This Time

The caucus leaders’ defense of Rashida Tlaib shows they’re getting smarter.

Rashida Tlaib holds a microphone.
Rep. Rashida Tlaib on Capitol Hill on Thursday.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Over the weekend, Michigan Rep. Rashida Tlaib—one of the first two Muslim women to serve in Congress alongside her fellow freshman Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar—gave Republicans a new quote to interpret in the worst possible light, as part of their ongoing strategy to drive a wedge between Democrats on the issue of anti-Semitism. It’s an effort that’s worked for Republicans before and, having registered previous success, a play they’ll run every time either Tlaib or Omar opens her mouth again.

“There’s always kind of a calming feeling I tell folk when I think of the Holocaust, and the tragedy of the Holocaust, and the fact that it was my ancestors, Palestinians, who lost their land and some of their lives, their livelihood, their human dignity, their existence in many ways, have been wiped out,” Tlaib told the Yahoo News podcast Skullduggery late last week. “I mean, just all of it was in the name of trying to create a safe haven for Jews, post–the Holocaust, post–the tragedy and the horrific persecution of Jews across the world at that time, and I love the fact that it was my ancestors that provided that, right, in many ways.”

Tlaib clearly expressed that the “calming” feeling she gets is in thinking about how Palestinians’ sacrifice allowed Jews to have a “safe haven” following the “horrific persecution of Jews across the world at that time.” Her history, and the implication that Palestinians were particularly welcoming to European Jews, is open to serious criticism. To suggest, however, that she finds the Holocaust itself to be a “calming” moment in history is a willful misinterpretation of her comments.

So that’s the interpretation that Republican leaders used. The president tweeted that Tlaib “obviously has tremendous hatred of Israel and the Jewish people.” House Minority Whip Steve Scalise, meanwhile, said, “There is no justification for the twisted and disgusting comments made by Rashida Tlaib just days after the annual Day of Holocaust Remembrance. More than six million Jews were murdered during the Holocaust; there is nothing ‘calming’ about that fact.”

“Unfortunately,” Scalise’s statement continued, “this is far from the first display of heinous anti-Semitic comments coming from Democrat House members this year, and it’s clear this is now the norm for their caucus. It’s long past time for Speaker Pelosi to take swift action and make it clear that these vile comments have no place in Congress.” The No. 3 House Republican, Liz Cheney, also called on Democratic leaders to “take action against vile anti-Semitism in their ranks. This must cross the line, even for them.”

It was not absurd for Republican leaders to think that Speaker Nancy Pelosi might bite. She took floor action earlier this year following one of Omar’s comments. Weeks later, when Republicans twisted Omar’s observation about how the actions of a small number of 9/11 hijackers were used to deprive all American Muslims of their civil liberties into a belief that Omar felt 9/11 was no biggie, Pelosi’s initial statement didn’t even mention Omar. Instead, it  noted that the “memory of 9/11 is sacred ground, and any discussion of it must be done with reverence.”

But this time, House Democratic leaders responded to Tlaib’s comments with an unequivocal defense of the besieged Michigander. “I think President Trump and the Republicans in the House owe Congresswoman Tlaib an apology,” Pelosi said in San Francisco on Monday. “She didn’t say that. She didn’t say what they said she said.” Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, similarly, called on Republicans to apologize to Tlaib for taking her words out of context, and Pelosi would follow up with a tweet later in the afternoon.

Republicans didn’t suffuse Tlaib’s comment with a more cynical interpretation or further strip it from any context, any more than they did Omar’s. And yet here, Tlaib is getting the full leadership defense, along with a call on the other side to apologize. What seems to have changed, then, is recognition from leadership that giving even the slightest oxygen to bad-faith PR exercises from the other side will only beget further bad-faith PR exercises from the other side, especially when it comes to the GOP’s macro bad-faith PR campaign to gin up panic about extremist Muslim women taking over the Democratic Party.

It’s a conclusion that applies to much more than the attacks on Tlaib and Omar. House freshmen and leaders learned a similar lesson earlier this year, when the Democrats wound up granting legitimacy to Republican messaging tricks on the House floor.

In February, ahead of Democrats’ vote on a background-checks bill, Republicans used a procedural vehicle called a “motion to recommit” to trip up vulnerable Democrats who had flipped red districts last November. The motion, essentially, forced Democrats to vote on whether Immigration and Customs Enforcement should be alerted if an undocumented immigrant tries to buy a gun. Typically, majorities are united in rejecting procedural votes like this from the other side. But leadership sent its caucus mixed signals about how to react, and enough Democrats wound up supporting the motion that it passed. The only thing that legitimizing this procedure accomplished was to ensure that Republicans would continue using the trick to put Democrats in tough spots indefinitely.

A couple of weeks later, as Democrats were preparing to pass their signature piece of legislation—the For the People Act, their all-purpose political reform vehicle—freshman GOP Rep. Dan Crenshaw introduced a motion to reaffirm that undocumented immigrants shouldn’t be allowed to vote. Democrats were prepared for this one, and they delegated freshman Rep. Max Rose, a centrist Democrat from Staten Island, to stuff it back in the GOP’s face, calling the motion a “joke” and urging his colleagues to vote against it. Democrats haven’t had serious problems with these motions since.

And the proper response to Republicans saying that Democratic Muslim women in Congress are enthusiastic fans of both 9/11 and the Holocaust is to dismiss that as ridiculous, too—not to set up a vote on a resolution condemning hatred. The opposition is trying to create wedges wherever it can, and in some cases, it’s been successful. Now, though, Democrats seemed to have learned a lesson Republicans never seemed to have much problem with: never give them an inch.