A basic rule of politics, turbo-charged in an age of intense negative partisanship: The more villainous your opponent is, the higher your side’s turnout will be. It worked like a dream for Trump in 2016 but there are no easy villains in the current crop of Democratic candidates. The closest thing they have is Bernie Sanders, I guess, but Bernie’s too much of a grandpa to project villainy despite his ideological tendencies. He comes off as an eccentric yet beloved college professor who should have eased into emeritus status a few years ago more so than a storm-the-ramparts revolutionary.
Who else? Elizabeth Warren? Meh. She’s the librarian who scolds you for talking too loudly. Kamala Harris? Harris was a prosecutor. She put bad guys away! Beto?
Beto’s not a villain. He’s a furry.
Trump likes his villains like he he likes everything else, from “central casting.” AOC would have done fine — she’s radical, pugnacious, clearly hates the right, and seems to believe utterly in the inevitable victory of socialism. She’s also a living reminder that America’s future is certainly less white and almost certainly more left-wing than it is now. But Ilhan Omar meets all of those same criteria and is a devout Muslim prone to saying crankish things about Israel, “the Benjamins,” and the supposedly suspect loyalties of supporters of the Jewish state. She’s also a refugee, someone to whom Trump can point and tell righties that supporting softer asylum policies will eventually lead to them being governed by more Omars and fewer Dan Crenshaws.
What does “Make America Great Again” mean to voters if not reversing the economic and cultural tide of early 21st century life? Well, then, find a prominent Democrat who best embodies that tide and run against that person. If Omar hadn’t been so willing to share her thought-farts about Israel that Democrat would have been Ocasio-Cortez. As it is…
Mr. Trump and his team are trying to make Ms. Omar, one of a group of progressive women Democratic House members who is relatively unknown in national politics, a household name, to be seen as the most prominent voice of the Democratic Party, regardless of her actual position. And they are gambling that there will be limited downside in doing so…
Privately, Mr. Trump’s advisers describe Ms. Omar as his ideal foil. Her remarks about the power of the pro-Israel lobby in the United States, combined with her role in a progressive contingent of freshman House Democrats who have sparked intraparty battles, have been treated as a gift by Republicans.
Trump aides and allies say they are pleased that some of the Democratic hopefuls for the 2020 presidential nomination are defending her against the president’s attacks, claiming they think it will be damaging for them in the general election.
That was published in the Times a few hours before this new Trump tweet, which essentially confirms its thesis:
Before Nancy, who has lost all control of Congress and is getting nothing done, decides to defend her leader, Rep. Omar, she should look at the anti-Semitic, anti-Israel and ungrateful U.S. HATE statements Omar has made. She is out of control, except for her control of Nancy!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 15, 2019
Omar as the “leader” of the Democratic Party. The interesting thing about that is the terrible dilemma it creates for Pelosi and the eventual Democratic nominee as to how fiercely to defend Omar from Trump’s attacks. On Friday night, after he posted his Twitter video about Omar’s 9/11 comments, progressives on the platform demanded that the 2020 candidates and other party leaders speak up on Omar’s behalf against what they thought was deliberate incitement by the president — but not generically, they insisted. They wanted those professing to stand with her against Trump to defend her *by name* to show that they won’t be intimidated politically into keeping their distance from her. Pete Buttigieg initially posted something generic about Trump’s video…
The president today made America smaller. It is not enough to condemn him; we must model something better.
— Pete Buttigieg (@PeteButtigieg) April 13, 2019
…and then scrambled 20 minutes later to mention Omar specifically after lefties complained:
The threats against the life of @IlhanMN make clear what is at stake if we fail to to do this, and to beat back hate in all all its forms.
— Pete Buttigieg (@PeteButtigieg) April 13, 2019
That’s what Trump wants, to force Dems to hug Omar ever more tightly. David Frum noticed the strategy and warned Democrats not to fall into “the Ilhan Omar trap,” as if they have any choice if they want to remain in good standing with progressives:
Omar, in her turn, has been a target of extremist criticism, some of it verging on incitement. She should be free to express her thoughts about Jews, about 9/11, about her distrust of the democratic opposition in Venezuela without fear of harm. But now the combined operations of Trump and the ultra-progressive edge of American politics have put them beyond normal political criticism within the Democratic Party, sticking her co-partisans with responsibility for whatever outlandish remark next tumbles from her lips.
It cannot be pleasant for Omar’s colleagues to have to wonder and worry what that next remark will be—knowing that Donald Trump and his Twitter feed will be waiting to blame all Democrats for the provocations of one. But by not putting themselves on record about Omar when they could, Democrats now find themselves bound to her for the duration. This problem will get worse, and its political consequences will become ever more costly for Democrats who want to win national elections and govern the country.
Here’s what’s waiting for them among progressives if they take Frum’s advice:
They put us in photos when they want to show our party is diverse. However, when we ask to be at the table, or speak up about issues that impact who we are, what we fight for & why we ran in the first place, we are ignored. To truly honor our diversity is to never silence us. https://t.co/7T1OlwS1YG
— Rashida Tlaib (@RashidaTlaib) April 13, 2019
More and more we’re realizing that POC are used as props by @TheDemocrats.
When we run, we’re told to wait our turn. When we speak about our struggles, we’re told we’re angry. When we ask them to stand up for us, they say we’re being divisive.
I stand with my sisters. https://t.co/2WeteGovan
— Roza Calderon (@rozacalderon) April 14, 2019
Pelosi did eventually speak up in Omar’s defense but it’s not coincidental that she was on “60 Minutes” last night insisting that the AOC/Omar wing of the House caucus is “like five people.” Just like it’s not coincidental that Steny Hoyer keeps running around complaining to audiences that “three people” in the freshman class seem to get more attention than the dozens of others elected last fall. That’s how they’re going to play both sides here: They’ll spend one percent of their time expressing solidarity with Omar when she pops off sporadically about something and 99 percent of their time emphasizing that she’s an extreme outlier among Democrats. That’s the only way they can even partially counter Trump’s message that Omar’s the de facto leader of the party, if not the party as it is today than the party as it’ll be tomorrow.