It’s all over the news. Ilhan Omar has done it again. This time it’s not “the Jews” she’s attacking. It is “Obama.”
This headline, viral on Facebook, says it all: “Ilhan Omar Goes After Obama, Suggests He Was a Pretty Face’ Who Got Away with Murder.’”
The source: a long piece at Politico entitled “The Democrats’ Dilemma: What Ilhan Omar and Dean Phillips Tell Us About the future of the Democratic Party.” The piece draws heavily from interviews that author Tim Alberta did with Omar and Phillips, two very different Democratic Congressman who represent different parts of Minneapolis. The piece makes a valid point: there are real divisions within the Democratic party, and Omar is in many ways an outlier in the party across the nation; near and even in her district in her liberal city, many Democrats are uncomfortable with her radicalism, and many are more comfortable with Phillips, a very moderate Democrat (and member of the bipartisan House “Problem Solver” Caucus). The piece deserves to be read. In my opinion it offers up something of a hatchet job on Omar; and I wonder whether it is a coincidence that the author chooses to develop his invidious contrast between the radical and the liberal by comparing Omar with a politician who is Jewish.
The merits of the profile are arguable. What is not arguable is that it is being used once again to blow up Omar’s words out of context, and to use them against her — and, in doing so, to exaggerate differences among Democrats.
Omar is obviously rather radical in some of her rhetoric and in some of her policy ideas. I don’t endorse her words — though I also don’t have a full transcript of those words. But the attacks against her are insane–and insanely effective.
Here is the exact text that appears to have generated today’s uproar:
‘As she saw it, the party ostensibly committed to progressive values had become complicit in perpetuating the status quo. Omar says the “hope and change” offered by Barack Obama was a mirage. Recalling the “caging of kids” at the U.S.-Mexico border and the “droning of countries around the world” on Obama’s watch, she argues that the Democratic president operated within the same fundamentally broken framework as his Republican successor.
“We can’t be only upset with Trump. …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,” Omar says. “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.”’
Please notice that in this piece all of the references to Obama appear outside of quotation marks, in paraphrases offered by the author — who is clearly out to “get” her. Her point is rather simple: Trump is awful, but many of the bad things he does draw on a repertoire that began before he came to office. Drone attacks, a harsh border policy — these things, she insists, began before Trump. And she is right. Indeed, in a different register, even Elizabeth Warren says, regularly, that the inequalities that must be challenged go back decades.
Omar’s way of talking about these things is not my way. There is a real debate going on within the Democratic party. She is farther to the “left” than I am, and I am farther to the left than most others. So what? This means there is a debate. Isn’t that what public discourse in a democracy is all about? The notion that Omar is singling out Obama for attack here is misleading and incredibly cynical, for her criticism also applies to Hillary and/or Bill Clinton, and Joe Biden, and to many other Democrats, and also to many other Republicans who are, in her view, not as bad as Trump, but are still bad, even if with a “smile.” We can argue about each politician in question, and their virtues or flaws. We can argue about how much weight to place on the differences separating Democrats from Republicans; Omar places less weight than I am inclined to do. But then again, while I mainly sit behind a computer and run my fingers across a keyboard, she has chosen to be active within the Democratic party, to run for office as a Democrat, and to win. It would seem that she understands the difference between that party, and the party of Trump, don’t you think?
The stuff about her “dissing” of Obama is bullshit that feeds on, and multiplies, fear and resentment and shuts down real debate.
And it seems pretty clear that Omar wants a debate, about the issues, even if she is a neophyte on some issues — and, seriously, do you think she is any more of a neophyte than scores of Republican yahoos currently sitting in Congress?
Here is Omar’s takeaway in her interview with Politico, in her own words:
“As much as other people are uncomfortable, I’m excited about the change in tone that has taken place that is extremely positive. The insightful conversations that we’re having about money and its influence in Washington. And my ability, I think, to agitate our foreign policy discussions in a way that many of my colleagues who have been anti-intervention, anti-war have been unable to do in the past,” she says. “So, I’m OK with taking the blows if it means it will ignite conversations that no one was willing to have before.”
The Politico piece makes a valid political point: Omar does not represent the mainstream of the Democratic party much less the mainstream of the U.S. (but did she ever claim to?), and even if she can be elected and re-elected in her district, few districts in the U.S. will now elect someone like her, or AOC, or Rashida Tlaib, or Ayanna Pressley. This is important. It is also well understood by almost everyone who is paying attention, including the above-mentioned members of Congress. So, Omar is an outlier in Congress. She is fighting an uphill battle, and she knows it. But that does not make her stupid or evil and it does not justify twisting her words to exaggerate her radicalism. There is a real debate going on, within the Democratic party, in Congress and outside of it, and within the country at large. The debate needs to continue. And right now, Omar is being targeted by almost everyone out there in ways that are designed to overpower that debate with tabloid-style melodrama.
We can do better than this.
And we must do better than this if we are going to defeat the malevolent master of tabloid melodrama who now inhabits the Oval Office, and all the he stands for.
Jeffrey C. Isaac is James H. Rudy Professor of Political Science at Indiana University, Bloomington. He is a Senior Editor at Public Seminar, and his book #AgainstTrump: Notes from Year One, was recently published by Public Seminar/OR Books.