The Democratic establishment is getting desperate
Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) is in trouble. Engel, who is white, 73 years old, and the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, has been in Congress since 1989, and currently represents the state's diverse and heavily Democratic 16th District. He faces a strong primary challenge from Jamaal Bowman, a local black middle-school principal nearly 30 years his junior. For the first time in decades, Engel is having to campaign hard — and he is none too good at it. Earlier this month, he tried to address a crowd regarding anti-police brutality unrest, and when rebuffed, he said over a live mic: "If I didn't have a primary, I wouldn't care."
Bowman got a surge of campaign donations as a result, and has since been endorsed by Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Elizabeth Warren. But the Democratic establishment is rushing to save Engel. He has recently collected endorsements from Hillary Clinton, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee Adam Schiff, and bizarrely, the Congressional Black Caucus.
The establishment plainly fears losing their grip on their constituents. The desperation is palpable.
Engel's current position is a sort of microcosm of both the politics of the Democratic establishment and its tangled relationship with its base. The 16th District is split between a northern chunk of the Bronx borough of New York City, which is extremely diverse and relatively poor, and the southern portion of Westchester County, which is whiter and much richer. Domestically, Engel is a member of the moderate New Democrat caucus, and hence tends to support center-left policies (though he is a supporter of Medicare-for-all).
On foreign policy, where he exercises the most influence as chairman of the Foreign Affairs committee, Engel is much worse. He voted for the Iraq War, and he opposed President Obama's nuclear deal with Iran. He is one of the strongest partisans of Israel among Democrats — indeed, he supported the inflammatory idea of moving Israel's capital to Jerusalem even before President Trump did (though he occasionally criticizes Israel for illegal settlements, to be fair). Though he is not quite the bloodthirsty warmonger of Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), he is at bottom a staunch defender of American empire and, as Akela Lacy writes at The Intercept, a major recipient of defense lobbyist money.
All this makes for a rather poor fit with the views and needs of Engel's poorer constituents in the Bronx, and to an increasing degree, even the whiter and richer liberals in Westchester County (who have moved left on many issues of late, particularly racial justice). That is probably why the main axis of the primary campaign has been his chronic absence from the district — a pretty clichéd anti-incumbent complaint, but actually true in his case. Indeed, Engel kept his primary residence in Maryland for years to keep his taxes down, until the state forced him to stop in 2013. Bowman's argument is not that Engel isn't doing enough gladhanding and ribbon-cuttings in the district, it's that he doesn't care about his constituents. And Engel himself was caught on tape saying as much.
The Democratic establishment views its primary task as managing and controlling its voters rather than trying to do what they want. They have convinced themselves that the country is unshakably conservative, and therefore the best they can do is hang on to power and occasionally pass milquetoast reforms. This attitude is extremely convenient for the establishment's fundraising and career prospects — by forestalling any egalitarian policies that might threaten the top 1 percent, they can rake in campaign contributions, plus cushy corporate consulting jobs and buckraking speech gigs after they leave office. That's how you get incumbents like Engel who can barely be bothered even to pretend they cater to the needs of their districts.
The prospect of the slumbering Democratic base being awakened by candidates like Bowman, and demanding the party fight for progressive policies just as hard as Republicans fight for conservative ones, would blow up this comfortable arrangement. That strikes fear into the establishment. If Engel goes down, a whole slew of elderly Democratic bigwigs, previously comfortable in their deep-blue seats telling their voters what they can't have, might be next — especially since this is an open fight, not an under-the-radar upset as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez pulled off. That is why all these party grandees are trying to save his skin. And as Alex Sammon argues at the The American Prospect, that also explains why the Congressional Black Caucus, which has consistently prioritized its insider connections, endorsed a white incumbent over a black progressive.
So far the aging Democratic elite has managed to maintain its grip on power. But the left of the party is slowly chipping away at it, winning an increasing number of seats on the national, state, and local levels. Recently leftist challengers knocked off moderate incumbents in Pennsylvania state legislative races, and one of the city council wards of Washington, D.C. It may take many more years, but sooner or later Pelosi and company will retire or die, and the people who replace them might not be so concerned with their future consulting careers.
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