Is Eliot Engel the pro-Israel canary in the Democratic congressional coal mine?
Engel has represented parts of the Bronx and Westchester County in the House of Representatives for more than 30 years, where he has compiled a consistently liberal domestic-policy record. He is a supporter of single-payer health care, the Green New Deal, comprehensive immigration reform, marriage equality and gun control. However, he currently is facing a primary challenger from the left: former middle school teacher and principal Jamaal Bowman, who has secured endorsements from, among others, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), and most recently and notably, The New York Times editorial page.
Engel no longer is as natural a fit for a district that has changed dramatically since his first election. He is an older white man representing communities that have become heavily African American and Latino. Bowman has criticized Engel for his support of the 1994 crime bill and for opposing the Iran nuclear deal in 2015. And Engel is one of Congress’ most ardent backers of Israel in a Democratic Party where such a position is becoming increasingly controversial.
Engel has created some of his own problems in this race, including his decision to remain in Washington, D.C., rather than returning to his district for much of the COVID-19 shutdown. Earlier this month, he committed an embarrassing gaffe when he was caught on a live microphone arguing that he should be allowed to speak at a news conference regarding the death of George Floyd.
“If I didn’t have a primary, I wouldn’t care,” said Engel, and although he has since tried to explain that his remark was regarding his role in the event as opposed to his underlying feelings about Floyd’s death and the broader topics of race relations and social justice, the ill-timed comment has served to reinforce the sense that he was no longer in touch with his constituents on such critical issues.
Eliot Engel’s defeat would cost the Jewish state a vocal and influential defender on Capitol Hill.
But this campaign isn’t simply about demographic and generational change. Bowman supports making U.S. aid to Israel conditional on changes in Israeli government policy regarding treatment of Palestinians, and while it’s difficult to predict whether Bowman would join the ranks of anti-Israel voices in Congress, Engel’s defeat would cost the Jewish state a vocal and influential defender on Capitol Hill.
In the not-too-distant past, the lack of differences between the two candidates on most domestic policy matters and Engel’s consistent support for Israel would make his path to reelection an easy one. But just as the nativist voices in the Republican Party represent a pronounced threat to Jewish Americans, the growing anti-Zionist faction within the Democratic Party represents a similar danger. And although the rising influence of both parties’ extremists should be of grave concern, Engel’s defeat in next week’s primary would mark a considerable acceleration of the worrisome shift within the political party most American Jews call home away from its historic support of Israel.
Engel still is capable of holding his seat, even in the face of these demographic and ideological trends. The day after Ocasio-Cortez endorsed Bowman, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) supported Ocasio-Cortez and Engel in their reelection campaigns, attempting to bridge the gap between the two wings of her party. Other senior Democratic House leaders also are closing ranks behind him: Reps. James Clyburn (D-S.C.), Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) and Adam Schiff (D-Burbank) have endorsed Engel as the primary draws closer.
But for a glimpse into the not-too-distant future, it’s worth noting the manner in which Senate Democratic leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) has navigated the primary’s political cross-currents. On June 9, only two weeks before the election, Schumer told reporters that he was “busy with Senate races” and had not endorsed. He was asked if he planned to endorse at some point and declined to answer. Days of news coverage followed, indicating that Schumer would not take sides in the race but neither the senator nor his staff moved to correct that misimpression for more than a week. It was only five days before the primary, as the Democratic establishment was lining up behind Engel, that Schumer joined Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Hillary Clinton in endorsing.
What was Schumer’s hesitancy? Although Schumer and Engel have worked side by side in Congress to protect Israel’s safety and security for decades, there are whispers in New York political circles that Ocasio-Cortez could mount a primary challenge against Schumer two years from now. Schumer is one of the savviest politicians in America; it appears that he recognizes he’ll have enough Israel-related baggage of his own in 2022 and the last thing he needed was to be forced to carry Engel’s as well.
Schumer is a friend of Engel and a friend of Israel. But he knows which way the political winds are blowing and it’s instructive that he did his best to keep his head down until he had no other option.
Dan Schnur teaches political communications at UC Berkeley, USC and Pepperdine. He hosts the weekly webinar “Politics in the Time of Coronavirus” for the L.A. World Affairs Council Town Hall. Also here.