Behind the Curtain: Tearing apart Democrats
Why it matters: Infighting is spreading, slowly but meaningfully, at every layer of the Democratic Party over Biden's full-throated support of Israel. It runs much deeper than college campus protests or caustic comments from elected officials.
Step back and survey the split:
- Many liberal Jews are furious that so many progressive Democrats aren't more outraged by the slaughter of family and friends back in Israel. Some are threatening to leave the party.
- Pro-Palestinian Democrats are outraged at the rising death tolls in Gaza made possible by Biden's posture.
- Biden's administration and political operation are getting tense and growing more deeply divided. Nearly 20% of the DNC's roughly 300 employees signed a letter asking their boss to demand a ceasefire, Axios' Alex Thompson reports.
- A junior State Department foreign affairs officer sent a massive internal email to organize a "dissent cable" on the administration's Israel policy — and alleged on social media that Biden is "complicit in genocide" in Gaza, Axios' Hans Nichols and Barak Ravid scooped.
- By contrast, Republicans are mostly united in supporting Israel and have been consistently for a long time.
Among Democrats in Congress, the divide is deep and personal:
- Day after day, more House Democrats are criticizing Israel's expanding ground operations, raising concerns with Biden's policy and even calling for a ceasefire.
- At least five of the liberal House Democrats in "The Squad" are likely to face primary challengers after criticizing U.S. military aid to Israel — Ilhan Omar (Minn.), Rashida Tlaib (Mich.), Cori Bush (Mo.), Summer Lee (Pa.) and Jamaal Bowman (N.Y.). Money is expected to pour in.
- In a video posted Friday, Tlaib accused Biden of supporting "genocide" of Palestinians. "Mr. President, the American people are not with you on this one," she said, looking into the camera after showing scenes of bloodshed in Gaza. "We will remember in 2024."
- Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), chairman of a Senator Foreign Relations subcommittee, said this past week that Israel's "current operational approach is causing an unacceptable level of civilian harm," and urged a "more deliberate and proportionate counterterrorism campaign."
- A letter this past week from top law firms warned deans at elite law schools against tolerating the growing antisemitic "harassment, vandalism and assaults on college campuses."
- Second gentleman Doug Emhoff told Politico in London that he sees an "an antisemitism crisis .... on our campuses and even in our K-through-12 schools, on our streets and our markets, wherever you go. It's unprecedented."
- Any churn of pro-Israel or pro-Palestinian voters could cost him a state — or the White House if it's another close-call election, which both sides expect.
- Biden's political team is particularly concerned about younger voters: Polls show they're less pro-Israel than their parents' generation.
- The topic is lighting up TikTok and Instagram, where around half of Americans ages 18-29 regularly get their news.
The big fear: This might be the best it gets for Biden in terms of holding together Democrats.
- It was only a fringe group of Democrats who didn't condemn the brutality of the Oct. 7 terrorist attacks. But with each passing day, the images and reality of innocent Palestinians, including many kids, getting killed in Israeli bombings of Hamas makes Biden's job harder.
Top officials tell us explaining Israel's position that Hamas militants use Palestinian civilians as human shields resonates mostly with staunchly pro-Israel Democrats.
- Biden's war-planning team is pro-Israel across the board — but top officials know their own party decidedly isn't. Many more liberal Democrats are pacifists in general, anti-war in nature, pro-Palestinian in mindset — and deeply divided over Israel's leadership and Gaza strategy.
- "My donors are flipping out," one leading Democratic official told us. "They're happy with Biden but angry with the party." This Democrat told us that Biden's approach to Israel shows "resolve and conviction. For voters who think we're weak on immigration and crime, this is the kind of strength they need to see."
By the numbers: A Quinnipiac Poll out Thursday showed the stark age divide:
- Respondents were asked: "Do you approve or disapprove of the way Israel is responding to the October 7th Hamas terrorist attack?"
- Overall, half approved and 35% disapproved. But only 32% of respondents ages 18-34 approved of Israel's response, as opposed to about 58% of those 50+.
- Democrats disapproved of the response by 49%-33%. Three-quarters of Republicans approved, and 46% of independents.
Zoom in: Michigan is the state where Democrats have the most to lose over their divisions. It has the largest Arab-American community in the country + a sizable Jewish vote — and is a presidential swing state, with an open Senate seat.
- The Jewish vote is pivotal for Biden in several big swing states, including Pennsylvania and Georgia, Axios' Josh Kraushaar tells us.
The bottom line: Every day is a balancing act for Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken. They try to signal support for Israel and signal (or leak) efforts to constrain Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his war Cabinet.
- But Biden knows the scale will tip against him if more Democrats turn sour on America's role.
"Behind the Curtain" is a new column by Axios CEO Jim VandeHei and co-founder Mike Allen, based on regular conversations with White House and congressional leaders, CEOs and top technologists.