House Democrats’ Rashida Tlaib Problem

Signs and notes left outside the Capitol Hill office of Democratic Rep. Rashida Tlaib in Washington, D.C., on November 8, 2023. (Photo by STEFANI REYNOLDS/AFP via Getty Images)

When the House of Representatives voted to censure progressive Rep. Rashida Tlaib on Tuesday, only 22 of the congresswoman’s fellow Democrats crossed the aisle to support the Republican-backed resolution. But Democratic anger at the lawmaker from Michigan over her comments about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—culminating in a video she created and shared recently that accuses President Joe Biden of having “supported the genocide” of Palestinians—extends well beyond the relatively small group.

“She’s pissed a lot of her colleagues off,” said a veteran Democratic strategist who requested anonymity to speak freely. “She was well-liked when she got to Congress. A lot of people don’t like her anymore.”

The video, which features shots from pro-Palestinian protests across the country, includes demonstrators chanting “from the river to the sea,” a phrase that is widely interpreted as a call for the destruction of the Jewish state of Israel. Though Tlaib herself has since insisted she meant it as an “aspirational call for freedom, human rights, and peaceful coexistence, not death, destruction, or hate,” groups like the Anti-Defamation League and others have deemed the slogan antisemitic. Dana Nessel, Michigan’s Democratic attorney general, said the phrase is “hurtful,” “cruel,” and “hateful.”

Many of Tlaib’s Democratic colleagues in Congress agree with those latter assessments—but they’re treading cautiously. When asked about Tlaib accusing Biden of supporting genocide, Sen. Debbie Stabenow, a Michigan Democrat, told The Dispatch the video is “very unfortunate” and that she disagrees with Tlaib’s statement. Rep. Pete Aguilar, the chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, also told reporters Tuesday that he “strenuously disagrees” with the comments and the video, though he voted against the censure resolution.

“I think it’s offensive, and I think she understands that from her conversations with her colleagues,” Aguilar said when asked by The Dispatch specifically about Tlaib’s accusation against Biden. How can he be sure she understands? “I know members have indicated to her that it’s offensive,” Aguilar added.

The inability of most Democrats in Washington to more forcefully condemn Tlaib’s rhetoric reflects a harsh and ugly reality about the party, which—led by Biden—has largely expressed support for Israel following Hamas’ October 7 attacks. At the same time, however, Democrats are aware that the views espoused by Tlaib—the only Palestinian-American in Congress—are shared by a small, but important, part of the party’s political coalition: Arab-Americans, many of whom are concentrated in Tlaib’s Detroit-area district.

A recent Zogby poll commissioned by the Arab American Institute found that Biden’s support among this group has plummeted, with just 17 percent of the 500 Arab Americans surveyed late last month saying that they’d vote for the current president in 2024. In October 2020, a similar Zogby survey found 59 percent of Arab Americans were planning to support the Democratic nominee.

Even if that polling overstates the case, any such drop in support could spell doom for Biden in Michigan, a battleground state that he won in 2020 by fewer than 3 percentage points and features one of the highest concentrations of Arab Americans in the country. If enough of these voters stay home in protest of Biden, they could make the difference in a close presidential election.

It’s not just presidential politics, however, that has Democrats tiptoeing around Tlaib’s remarks; there’s also the matter of keeping the House Democratic caucus unified. Some of Tlaib’s most progressive colleagues surrounded her on Tuesday as she tearfully defended herself on the House floor during the debate over her censure, even offering her a round of applause when she was done. Several House Democrats who condemned her remarks—like Rep. Jamie Raskin of Maryland—still voted against the censure resolution on free-speech grounds.

But other Democrats made the case that her comments were worthy of a formal reprimand. “Representative Tlaib invoked the phrase ‘from the River to Sea,’ which is a call for the end of Israel as a Jewish State. That these words appear in the founding charter of Hamas tells you everything you need to know about its meaning,” tweeted Rep. Ritchie Torres of New York. “I will vote to condemn all forms of hate—from the far left and from the far right, against Israelis and against Palestinians.”

Enter Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, whose primary job is to maintain peace within the party’s caucus. Hours before the censure vote, the top-ranking House Democrat issued a statement condemning the use of the phrase “from the river to the sea,” reflecting not only his view but seemingly the majority of his caucus. “Echoing slogans that are widely understood as calling for the complete destruction of Israel,” he said, “does not advance progress toward a two-state solution. Instead, it unacceptably risks further polarization, division, and incitement to violence.” Still, the New York Democrat voted against censuring Tlaib.

And when pressed by The Dispatch on Wednesday about whether Tlaib should face further consequences from within her own party, Jeffries dismissed the question. “I think that as Democrats, the only thing that we’ve discussed politically today is the tremendous victory that the American people had all across the country yesterday,” he said, referring to Tuesday’s off-year elections results. Asked whether Tlaib should face a primary challenger, Jeffries responded, “Same answer.”

Later in the day, Jeffries told MSNBC host Alex Wagner Democratic leadership would “absolutely” defend incumbent House members from primary challengers—including Tlaib.

Still, pro-Israel Democrats say Jeffries is performing well wrangling a divided caucus under difficult circumstances. “I think Jeffries has been consistently great on the Israel issue,” said Mark Mellman, a Democratic pollster who founded Democratic Majority for Israel.

From the censure resolution vote to angry constituent calls, it’s clear that Tlaib’s rhetoric has created plenty of headaches for elected Democrats. One Democratic House member who voted against censure and has defended Tlaib publicly told The Dispatch on Wednesday that Tlaib’s inflammatory remarks have nonetheless made this lawmaker’s life “hell.” But when asked whether Tlaib’s rhetoric would result in any kind of political consequences—from the Democratic party establishment or from Biden himself—the member shrugged.

“She’s not going to be welcome at the White House, that’s for sure,” the member said. “But do you want to lose Michigan?”

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