Primary upset heralds long-overdue demise of AIPAC format politics.
“Anything worth doing is worth overdoing” is a famous slogan usually attributed to Mick Jagger, and agree or not, this is after all a man who has made mountains of money off of “farewell tours” since the 1980s. But this attitude only works for an act that people actually find entertaining . . . a word that almost no one will ever use to describe Rep. Eliot Engel, the Democratic Congressman for New York’s 16th District. With his pale bespectacled mug broken by a mustache and capped by an obvious comb-over, Engel has all the excitement of carpooling in your aunt’s Chevette to your cousin’s spelling bee. During the June 2 Zoom debate Engel responded to a question about police violence by asking for a moment of silence for George Floyd and then proceeded to forget his request for a moment of silence and ramble about Donald Trump.
A Fifty Year Nose Dive
Located in the northern part of The Bronx and skirting Westchester County, Engel’s district has a “majority-minority” demographic with Hispanic and black residents outnumbering whites. The Bronx borough’s population plummeted in the 1970s by over 300 thousand residents primarily due to “white flight” as every research study has shown. In the 2010s its population rebounded largely due to immigration. But the population recovery does not translate into economic prosperity according to the New York State Comptroller:
- Annual median household income is $38,085, which is 37% lower than the average of the entire city, and almost $20,000 less than Staten Island, the next poorest borough.
- The poverty rate in the Bronx is 28.4% and the child poverty rate is 40.1%, both double digits above the city average rates.
As of 2018 the Bronx has led New York City in homicides, and in 2019 rapes increased in every borough, while domestic violence murders were doubled in the Bronx. The neighbouring 15th District, also in the Bronx, is the poorest congressional district in the US, and if the Engel’s district didn’t straddle Westchester County it would likely be close behind. Engel has not only represented the area since being elected to Congress in 1988 for what was then the 19th District, he was prior to that a state assemblyman for another local district. In his time in Congress Engel has been assigned to the Energy and Commerce Committee as well as chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee. Of the 17 bills that he was a primary sponsor for, seven were to rename post offices or designate Italian American culture months for October of that year. The other ones are a mixed bag of foreign policy sanctions and two acts concerning Muscular Dystrophy and an ALS Registry.
I listed the above attributes of Engel’s district and his performance in order to illustrate how his June 23rd defeat by Jamaal Bowman, while an upset, was due to happen at some point. During the debate he and Bowman traded harsh jabs, but Bowman’s actually had the vigour of conviction behind them. As a middle school principal, Bowman’s confident manner was probably built from years of addressing crowds of snot-nosed hellions, as opposed to Engel meekly flanking Nancy Pelosi, James Clyburn and other swamp creatures in Washington. Bowman easily parried Engel’s canned platitude quoting John Lewis saying “we may have come to this country on different ships, but we are all on the same boat”, exclaiming “yeah, but did you wear chains when you were on that ship?”. Is it that hard therefore to understand why district residents chose Bowman over Engel by an almost 2:1 ratio? There are an estimated 500,000 voting age residents (including non-citizens) in the 16th district, and with only slightly more than 33 thousand turning out to vote in Tuesday’s primary, this means that only about one in every 16 voting aged people turned out to vote in the primary. Given this turnout, Bowman’s triumph over Engel is the story of an out of touch politician losing the confidence of an apathetic electorate to a modestly better competitor. The most famous moment of the race was when Engel, appearing at an early June Black Lives Matter rally, was caught on a hot mic admitting “if I didn’t have a primary, I wouldn’t care”.
Way past the expiration date
With the current debates in the Democratic Party over defunding the police, universal basic income and Medicaid for all, having Eliot Engel represent the Bronx is addressing 21st century problems with a rusted Buick Century. Much of the reaction either cheering or bemoaning his defeat was framed by his longstanding support for Israel in Congress. In 2014 Engel appeared at the America-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) convention and delivered a bland introduction of the organization’s new chair Bob Cohen by reminding the audience that he had attended 27 consecutive AIPAC conferences. Although not a direct lobbying group, AIPAC candidate endorsements have long been a tool used by pro-Israel donors to decide who to support in primaries and elections. Former AIPAC president Steve Grossman would serve as Chair of the Democratic National Committee in the late 1990s. The organization’s enemies portray AIPAC as a bogeyman guiding US foreign policy to the detriment of American citizens while lobbying for more defense contracts and loan guarantees for Israel.
But a major pillar of AIPAC’s strategy is beginning to slip away: the organization’s stated goal of having support for Israel remain a bipartisan policy issue. While the overwhelming majority of GOP elected officials from the local to federal level are staunchly pro-Israel, among Democrats it is fading. With the exception of some libertarian holdouts like former Rep. Ron Paul and Kentucky Rep. Thomas Massie who oppose committing foreign aid, most Republicans desire a tight relationship with Israel, and bitterly opposed the Iran Nuclear Deal under President Barack Obama among other policies of his. Actively anti-Israel Republicans were a passing phase in the 1980s when congressmen Paul Findley of Illinois and Pete McCloskey of California formed a small contingent of dissenters against the Reagan Administration’s Cold War alliance with the Jewish state on the grounds that it was short sighted and inhumane. But as the Moral Majority and other Christian conservatives assumed a more dominant role in the party the pro-Israel plank gradually became stronger until today it is virtually unchallenged.
By contrast, in 1993 President Bill Clinton began to commit the Democrats and US foreign policy to a policy of brokering a two state solution to ending the Israeli-Arab conflict through direct negotiations between the Israeli government and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). With the Cold War over, Clinton and dovish Israeli politicians hoped to pressure the government in Jerusalem to trade land for peace. In 1993 the Oslo Accords were inked by Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat, establishing a negotiating framework for the eventual establishment of a Palestinian state on lands captured in the 1967 Six Day War known as the West Bank (or Judea and Samaria) and Gaza. AIPAC for many years opposed an eventual Palestinian state even when pro-peace governments were in power in Israel. And insofar as one was to be created, AIPAC and other pro-Israel organizations like the Zionist Organization of America opposed the removal of Jewish neighbourhoods and settlements within those territories. All the while many American politicians continued to accept AIPAC endorsements while pledging both to support the Oslo process and also continue loan guarantees to Israel for purchase of US military hardware.
AIPAC’s clout was based on the perception that in many swing districts its endorsement could tip the scales for many donors to one candidate or another. Therefore, the majority of politicians wanted to stay on good terms with them. Typically those that broke with the organization were ones in extremely safe districts like Rep. Cynthia McKinney (D-GA) who would become an ardent foe of Israel in Congress and later claimed that members of Congress have to swear “loyalty oaths” to Israel. McKinney was successfully primaried in 2008 by Hank Johnson, himself a ferocious opponent of Israel who has called Jewish settlers “termites“. In 2019 Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.), a former Black Panther activist, voted against the Israel Anti-Boycott Bill despite cosponsoring it, attracting the ire of Electronic Intifada, a staunchly anti-Israel blog.
Among Republicans typically opposition took the form of votes against foreign aid for fiscal purposes such as when Massie, Justin Amash, and two other GOP representatives voted against an emergency aid package in 2014, rather than any specific objection to Israeli government policy. Overall the group had a solid position of being able to corral overwhelming bipartisan majorities for its legislative priorities.
The Breaking Point
A major inflection point in AIPAC’s history was the decision of both GOP controlled chambers of Congress in 2015 to host a joint session addressed by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in order to argue against the Iran Nuclear Deal (officially called the JCPOA). Democrats were incensed, with many of them issuing statements like Oregon Rep. Earl Blumenauer claiming that the Constitution “vests the responsibility of foreign affairs in the president”. A total of 56 Democrats in both houses stayed away from the address including House Minority Whip James Clyburn (SC) and Progressive Caucus chair Keith Ellison (MN). In the Senate eight members also stayed away, including both Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. The position with regards to foreign policy presented by Blumenauer would be completely reversed in 2019 as the Democrats decided to impeach Donald Trump over allegedly politicizing foreign aid to Ukraine.
The gambit by Netanyahu failed, as not enough Democrats crossed the aisle in order to support bills against the Iran agreement for a veto-proof majority. The episode irreparably wrecked the personal relationship between Obama and Netanyahu for the remainder of the former’s term. AIPAC was also vying for influence within the Democratic Party with a rival organization called J Street which portrays itself as “pro-Israel, pro-Peace”. In reality, J Street is fiercely opposed to the Netanyahu government and often supports progressive candidates in the mold of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Betty McCollum that are critical of Israel. As an institution AIPAC has been extremely sensitive to its media image. In 2019 Muslim congresswomen Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) and Ilhan Omar (D-MN) attempted to visit Israel as part of a “fact finding mission” regarding the occupation of the West Bank and blockade of Gaza. The Israeli government famously rejected their visit due to both ladies’ stated support for the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS). AIPAC joined with congressional Democrats in condemning the Israeli government decision and Trump’s support of it.
Besieged at the table and the lectern
But for Eliot Engel the conflict was not only playing out through newspaper headlines, but in his own committee. As the new chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee he had to greet a new committee member, Ilhan Omar. While of the same party, on foreign policy Engel and Omar could not have been more different based on his background:
- Voted Yes on the Authorization of Use of Military Force in Iraq in 2002 under President Bush, and No on a resolution disallowing the invasion of Kosovo in 1999.
- Also voted Yes on cooperating with India as a nuclear power in 2008, whereas Omar has been a bitter critic of India especially under its current leader Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
- Supported allowing former Soviet republics of Ukraine and Georgia into NATO.
While Omar’s public declarations about how congressional support for Israel was “all about the Benjamins” became a lightning rod that winter, Engel condemned her for alleging that he and his colleagues pay allegiance to Israel. But when asked whether he would want Omar booted from the committee, Engel responded to CNN’s Erin Burnett “no, I’m not close to it. . . I don’t know that that would do anything except exacerbate the situation even more”. His reserved position earned him no quarter among Omar’s supporters as in April 2019 a pro-Palestine student activist at Manhattan College gave him an earful about Palestine causing him allegedly to suggest to the Muslim woman that she should smile more.
Meanwhile the Trump Administration, already having moved the US embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights moved to grant Netanyahu one more prize: recognition of the partial annexation of parts of the West Bank as part of a unilateral ending of the Oslo peace process. Netanyahu’s Palestinian counterpart Mahmoud Abbas had repeatedly rebuffed Trump’s attempts to bring him to the negotiating table as part of his “Deal of the Century” bid to settle the Israel-Palestine conflict. On June 11, AIPAC decided to announce that it would not push back if lawmakers criticized the annexation. The House Democratic Caucus responded on June 25 with most of its members led by Rep. Ted Deutch (FL) warning Israel about the consequences of such a course of action jeopardizing a viable peaceful solution to the conflict. This resolution was openly supported by J Street. The GOP responded by issuing their own letter backing the annexation plan. With this simple dichotomy, it now seems that AIPAC’s apprehension toward annexation along while not opposing it puts the organization in between both parties without having a consistent position to support. Is that the beginning of irrelevance?
The replacement of Engel with Jamaal Bowman is seen as a major boon to the pro-Palestine left,. Engel’s focus on foreign affairs and his long standing ties to AIPAC also hearken back to an outdated VIP conference style of politics that is fading in the digital age. Most Bronx residents likely have a very disinterested opinion, if any opinion at all, on the Israel-Palestine conflict. Like many establishment Democrats, Engel relied on attacking Bowman as a “fake Democrat”, a label that in an increasingly volatile social climate rings hollow. It is the equivalent of the 2016 battle by establishment Republicans like Lindsey Graham and Paul Ryan to stave off the Trump takeover of the GOP. In 2018 , in addition to AOC’s victory over Engel’s longtime colleague Joseph Crowley, other centrist Democrats were wiped out in the New York State Senate. One of them was Jeffrey Klein, the senator from the Bronx’s Riverdale section and the head of the Independent Democrat Conference who was upset by Justice Democrat Alessandra Biaggi. If Klein couldn’t win in one of the last Jewish populated neighbourhoods of the borough, Engel should have realized that he could either adapt or get out of the way.
And the Democrats are also seeing larger races affected by the same trend. Kentucky US Senate candidate Amy McGrath, thought to be a solid challenger to Mitch McConnell, is currently trailing the pro-Bernie upstart Charles Booker pending a final result from Tuesday’s primary. In March Illinois Rep. Dan Lipinski, one of the last of the conservative Blue Dog Democrats, was defeated by progressive challenger Marie Newman. The Justice Democrats group that has spearheaded this effort had hoped to make deeper inroads this primary season through the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign. That didn’t end up happening, but with Bowman’s defeat of Engel and the victory of Ocasio-Cortez in her own primary battle, AIPAC’s treasured bipartisan consensus seems to be slipping away by the day.