The Democratic Party Needs Ilhan Omar

Ilhan Omar. Photo: Alex Edelman/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Whatever you think of Ilhan Omar, you have to admit she’s fearless. In an interview with Politico’s Tim Alberta, the freshman Democratic representative from Minnesota criticized the insufficiencies of Barack Obama’s “hope and change,” pointing to the former president’s “caging of kids” at the border and his “droning of countries around the world” as proof. “We can’t be only upset with Trump,” she said. “His policies are bad, but many of the people who came before him also had really bad policies. They just were more polished than he was. And that’s not what we should be looking for anymore. We don’t want anybody to get away with murder because they are polished. We want to recognize the actual policies that are behind the pretty face and the smile.”

It’s one of the bolder criticisms a Democrat has leveled at Obama, and it’s even more remarkable considering the source. The Minnesota representative has just staved off censure from her own party, the latest development in a saga that began last week when she decried “political influence in this country that says it is okay to push for allegiance to a foreign country” Some interpreted this as a remark aimed at Jews, while others felt she was referring to pro-Israel lobbyists. Last month Omar, a Muslim and the first person in Congress to wear a hijab, deleted a tweet characterizing the decidedly pro-Israel posture of U.S. lawmakers as being “all about the Benjamins.” She later apologized, though she remained critical of the “problematic role of lobbyists in our politics,” including AIPAC.

The outrage over Omar’s tweet was as swift as it was loud. Much of it came from within the Democratic Party, and it often proved her point; on Twitter, Representative Juan Vargas declared that “questioning support for the U.S.-Israel relationship is unacceptable.” After progressive backlash, the party amended a planned resolution condemning anti-Semitism to address other forms of hatred, too. Omar voted for it, which should have ended the controversy.

Omar’s remarks to Politico won’t revive the anti-Semitism debate. But they’ve already earned her more criticism, and could provoke more comparisons likening Omar, and the other members of her left-wing, freshman “squad,” to a sort of progressive tea party. Alberta raises this possibility in his piece and says Omar herself “embraces” the comparison, though there are, as he notes, major philosophical differences between Omar, or Rashida Tlaib or Ayanna Pressley, and the right-wing Republicans who upended the GOP establishment when they were elected to Congress in the 2010 midterms. A Democrat who wants Medicare for All has little in common, ideologically, with a Republican who wants government so small he can drown it in a bathtub. Tea Party Republicans wanted to take their party’s professed abhorrence of big government to its most extreme conclusions, by slashing the federal food stamp budget down to its bones and implementing impossibly deep spending cuts. The Democratic Party’s unfiltered newcomers, by contrast, are deeply concerned by the gap between the party’s legacy, and its moral obligations to its base. But it is true that both groups share a purifying instinct.

A critical re-examination of Obama’s record is inevitable; in fact, it’s probably overdue. Omar’s latest point, about the darker aspects of his presidency, should be uncontroversial. The congresswoman taped her own interview with Politico, and though the recording she released after the publication of the piece doesn’t substantively change her quotes, it does capture her saying “that what is happening now is very different,” a clear distinction between the Obama and Trump presidencies. Nor did she conflate the Democratic Party, categorically, with the GOP. (Though she’s a new face on the national stage, Omar has been involved with her state Democratic Party for years.) Instead, she accurately pointed out that Obama authorized drone strikes overseas and detained unaccompanied minors at the border in chain-link cages, and that these policies that did not provoke a proportional amount of outrage from Democrats because of Obama’s personal charisma. If Omar truly believes that the Democratic Party has “perpetrated the status quo,” as Alberta put it, it’s not difficult to understand how she’d reached that conclusion. Obama inherited that droning campaign from his Republican predecessor, George W. Bush. Despite promises to the contrary, Obama didn’t close the Guantanamo Bay detention camp and he, like Bush, kept troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Omar is a Somali-American and a former refugee. The most recent Democratic president’s Middle East and immigration policies are probably of more immediate and personal interest to her than they are to many of her colleagues. Despite professing to be the party more sympathetic to her concerns, the Democratic Party has failed individuals like her in certain specific ways. And she has this in common with other members of the new congressional class. Tlaib, a Palestinian-American Muslim, has endorsed the Boycott, Divest, and Sanctions movement targeting Israeli goods; so has Omar, which puts them both firmly on one side of a widening intraparty divide over the American relationship with Israel.

This generational insurgency isn’t limited to foreign policy. When the 29-year-old Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez assails her party for the pace of its proposed climate change solutions, she speaks as a member of a generation for whom the issue is of pressing urgency. According to one Gallup poll, 75 percent of Americans ages 18 to 34 said they worried either a great deal or a fair amount about climate change; that figure dropped to 56 percent among Americans aged 55 or older. Young Americans just entering public office have grown up with a Democratic Party that admitted the reality of climate change, but largely failed to advance ambitious solutions during its moments in power. The political commitments that hampered the party’s response to climate change undermined its stated commitment to working people, too. The leftward economic bent of Omar’s “squad” is hardly universal within the party’s freshman class, but it’s not an anomaly. Its origins are legible, and trace back to real, substantive issues.

The Democratic Party has indeed changed. Medicare for All is no longer such a fringe cause. Support for a $15 minimum wage is more widespread, and leading Democrats like Elizabeth Warren are becoming ever more critical of corporate monopolies that help drive inequality. But these are relatively recent developments. The Democratic Party thus ought to brace itself for future Omars: members shaped by an illegal war in Iraq and a grievous recession. Members who embraced Obama’s message of hope and change, and who then built political identities out of the wreckage of their disappointments. Democrats like Omar aren’t nihilists. They have taken a great chance on the party and its capacity for self-reflection. Time will tell us if they were right to do so.

The Democratic Party Needs Ilhan Omar