May 22, 2024 - Politics & Policy

Scoop: Progressives face growing internal conflict over Gaza

Photo illustration of the capitol dome with images of campus protests next to it

Photo Illustration: Natalie Peeples/Axios. Photo: Andrew Lichtenstein/Getty Images

The progressive movement's intense, zero-sum focus on the war in Gaza since Oct. 7 is wearing on some of its Capitol Hill allies, Axios has learned.

Why it matters: The tension played out this month when Congressional Progressive Caucus Chair Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) floated a statement in support of pro-Palestinian campus protesters.

  • The proposal, which has not been previously reported, faced pushback from several senior members of the caucus, multiple sources familiar with the discussions told Axios.
  • Ultimately, the statement did not go out.

What they're saying: "The CPC Executive Board discusses a wide range of issues. Recently, at the request of E-Board members, the E-Board invited in the ACLU and Bend the Arc to discuss their perspectives on the campus protests with members," a CPC spokesperson told Axios.

  • "Like on many other topics, a statement was discussed and proposed, but given that summer vacations had started and the complexities of the situation, the chairwoman decided not to move forward."

What we're hearing: "We're the last group that should be lecturing university presidents ... we can't even have a grown-up conversation about it within the Progressive Caucus — or within the Democratic Caucus," said one senior House progressive.

  • The lawmaker added the statement would have been "really dumb politically ... why wade into this when it seemed to be dissipating? There's no upside, there's just nothing but misery and crossfire."
  • Said another Progressive Caucus member: "There's no way you can make a statement about that that's going to please everybody ... no reason to go and seek out trouble on something like that."

Zoom out: The scene is illustrative of a broader conflict between progressive lawmakers and grassroots activists.

  • Raucous pro-Palestinian protests have, for many lawmakers, come to represent a nuisance that highlights chaos and conflict on their side.
  • Others see legislative hobby horses they have long championed — such as health care or climate action — becoming overshadowed.
  • And some progressive lawmakers fume they have taken many of the steps their grassroots allies have demanded, only to still be heckled.

Zoom in: Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) expressed relief that "almost nothing is happening" at colleges in her district and that there were "no protesters" at a recent event, telling Axios, "I see that as a good sign."

  • "We want progressives involved in all of these important issues like health care. ... Hopefully we can, together, expand the agenda," she said.
  • Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) told Axios he wants progressive groups to "keep their eye on the prize. ... We're trying to convince and persuade people, and if you bully somebody and shout at them, that doesn't contribute to converting them."
  • Another progressive House member said there is a "complete disconnect with the other things that are immediate priorities in this election year. ... It would be nice if we could walk and chew gum."

The other side: One senior House progressive said left-wing groups "feel this is a way they can make a difference and save lives now" and "they know that might make it hard on Dems, but their job isn't to make it easy on us."

  • Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) argued that electoral concerns shouldn't eclipse moral ones, telling Axios: "If you only run to get elected in order to get re-elected, you kind of miss the purpose of what the job is."
  • Waleed Shahid, a Democratic strategist involved in the pro-Palestinian movement, told Axios: "War will always overshadow every other priority because it's horrific."
  • "If Democratic elected officials want this issue to go away, the quickest way for it to go away is for Biden to stop sending weapons," Shahid added.

What to watch: There is little indication that pro-Palestinian protests will let up as November draws near, with lawmakers bracing for disruptions at the Democratic National Convention in August in Chicago.

  • "I anticipate there will be a large anti-war presence at the convention," Shahid said. "I think students are figuring out what's next."
  • Stevie O'Hanlon, a spokesperson for the climate-focused Sunrise Movement, which has been outspoken on Gaza, warned that "many young people are deeply frustrated ... and some are not going to turn out in November unless [Biden] does something different."
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