Many of the widely denounced things Rep. Ilhan Omar has said since taking Washington, D.C., by storm have had an element of truth in them. It’s her occasional apologies that seem inauthentic.
Meanwhile, two other Minnesotans in the nation’s capitol, Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Rep. Dean Phillips, have come in different ways to embody the mounting frustrations of centrist Democrats faced with the insurgency of Omar and fellow agitators in the growing “democratic socialist” wing of the Democratic party.
Minnesotans have grown accustomed over many decades to seeing our politicians attract outsized national attention, for reasons both inspiring and embarrassing — from Humphrey and McCarthy and Mondale and Wellstone, to Michele Bachmann, Jesse Ventura and Al Franken.
This winter, Minnesota pols are becoming emblems of forces and factions transforming American politics.
Klobuchar, of course, has joined the stampede of hopefuls contending for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, recognized as a centrist in a party undergoing a great leap leftward. There’s little sign yet of her candidacy catching fire with voters. But Klobuchar has become consequential enough to attract serious scrutiny and criticism almost for the first time in her career, over complaints that her easygoing persona masks a roughshod-riding boss.
The bruising world of big time politics may test her alleged toughness.
Omar, for her part, has swiftly passed the toughness test. Her series of belligerent tweets and remarks expanding on her long-apparent animus toward the state of Israel, its policies vis a vis the Palestinians, and the clout of its supporters in Washington, all but paralyzed the new Democratic majority in the U.S. House in early March, at a time when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and company wanted the focus to be on their metastasizing investigations of the Trump administration and their big election reform bill.
Unable to discipline their millennial militants, establishment Democrats stumbled into passing a kitchen-sink resolution against “hate” that was for practical purposes an unconditional surrender to the ultras.
Omar’s rise to icon status was chronicled as it happened in a fascinating Politico article featuring the Minneapolis congresswoman and her colleague from the western suburbs, Phillips.
Noted mostly for Omar’s disparaging remarks about former President Barack Obama (and her fleeting denials of them), Tim Alberta’s story portrays Omar, the defiant disrupter, and Phillips, a “business-minded” moderate, as the perfect embodiments of “The Democrats Dilemma” — how to resolve the party’s “dueling visions” and avoid the kind of “fratricidal conflict” that consumed Republicans in recent years.
It won’t be easy, because sane and sensible centrist Democrats like Phillips and Klobuchar have long been careening down the trail blazed by sane and sensible Republicans before them. Eager to tap the energies of hotheaded constituencies, both establishments too long indulged the ideological excesses of extreme elements in their parties, and now find themselves overwhelmed by forces they’ve unleashed but do not understand.
Take Phillips. He penned a commentary for these pages just last week touting U.S. House passage of that big elections bill while complaining of its likely blockage in the Republican Senate. He reiterated themes he made his signature during his campaign for Congress. As a prosperous business leader, it seems, Phillips has “been in the room” where “a campaign check” is “your ticket to representation,” feeding a “culture of corruption” where “money buys access” and the “American electorate has been taken hostage by ... special interest influence.”
And so on, in a standard liberal indictment of American democracy as utterly corrupted and sold outright to special interests (Republican special interests, anyhow).
You could almost say, “It’s all about the Benjamins, baby.”
Yet when Omar tweeted exactly that, to explain the impressive influence of Washington’s pro-Israeli lobbyists, she was denounced far and wide, including by Democratic leaders, for anti-Semitism.
Anti-Semitism exists, and it is vile, as are many anti-Muslim slanders, including those aimed at Omar. I also happen to believe that strong support for Israel serves America’s interests and, on the whole, its values.
But that said, is it hate speech to allege that special interests buy influence in Congress? Shouldn’t somebody tell Phillips?
Why wouldn’t Omar and other young radicals think money explains everything in American politics — or at least every policy they dislike? Liberal leaders have been telling them as much for decades.
Are they really supposed to believe that money is all powerful — except in this one, incorruptible policymaking arena, policy toward Israel?
In fact, while money matters in politics, it doesn’t explain everything and isn’t all powerful. America is still a place where a refugee from an impoverished, war-torn land can get herself elected to Congress and within months stare down one of the most formidable lobbies in Washington.
In one sense, the backlash Omar shrugged off is an aspect of another force the left has inflicted on America today with too much ill-considered acquiescence from mainstream progressives. Our irritable culture has become obsessed with taboo and heresy, a vast minefield of anti-Semitic tropes and racist/sexist micro-aggressions; of Islamaphobic/homophobic insensitivities and white-privileged mind-sets — etc. etc. We don’t debate ideas; we denounce them and punish them.
About half of everything ordinary Americans actually think is forbidden.
And the frustration that fuels, of course, is the secret sauce of Trumpism. Hordes of conservative-leaning Americans may love Trump or hate Trump, but they all delight in his defiance of the thought police.
Omar and her cohorts have discovered this love potion, for which the far left has a taste as well, and they know political proprieties can be ignored if one is prepared for a career of unending strife.
Politico’s Alberta quoted Omar praising the arch-conservative Tea Party for making the American people “feel like there were people actively fighting for them ... A lot of us are not that much different in our eagerness to want to come here and fight for our constituents, fight for the American ideals we believe in.”
The Democrats’ dilemma is America’s dilemma — how to make peace and progress when a few too many just want to fight.
D.J. Tice is at Doug.Tice@startribune.com.