Former British prime minister Harold Macmillan was once asked what could happen that might change the direction of his government. His world-weary answer: “Events, dear boy, events.”
Actually, there’s some question as to whether or not Macmillan really said those words, but there’s no question that he—and everyone else, in politics or not, who has ever had a plan—knows the feeling. As much as we hope to ride events, events have a way of riding us.
Today, unforeseen events are once again in the saddle, and the Democrats’ plan for the orderly defenestration of President Donald Trump has been disordered. They’d hoped for a campaign based on defending Obamacare (now a positive for them), prosecuting the Russia connection (such as it might prove to be), and scourging Trump himself (his aggregated approval rating, while up in recent weeks, is still well below 50 percent).
Then came…events. Events, that is, that threatened the Democrats’ ascendance.
The first event was the rise of democratic socialism, including its lefty offshoots, Medicare for All and the Green New Deal. These positions have been boosted by the hipster glamor of Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, yet upon inspection, they’ve proven unpopular with those drab folks in the middle. Indeed, mindful of the danger that such radical ideas pose to the Democrats’ chances in 2020, establishmentarian Dems, urged on by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, have worked assiduously and effectively to torpedo both of them.
The second event has proven, at least so far, to be less manageable. That’s the sudden prominence of Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, the newbie lawmaker from Somalia by way of Minneapolis. Her words—from “it’s all about the Benjamins, baby” to “some people did something“—are now riding roughshod over Democrats’ 2020 plan.
Once again, Pelosi has been doing her best to get the party back on track. On Sunday night’s edition of 60 Minutes, the House speaker again minimized the new lefties, dismissing AOC, Omar, et al., with a terse, “That’s like five people.” Mindful of her Democratic colleagues seeking to win in red and purple districts next year, Pelosi added, “We have to hold the center…we have to…go down the mainstream.”
That’s some valiant spin, but the White House wasn’t having it. The next morning, The New York Times’s Maggie Haberman, perhaps the Fourth Estate’s leading Trumpologist, reported:
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.
In fact, within hours, Trump himself had vindicated Haberman’s reporting. Never one to leave a flame unfanned—and eager to burn Pelosi, too—Trump tweeted:
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
So now, with Trump in the mosh pit, it’s a free-for-all, as partisan pugilists on both sides have gone diving in. Pelosi blasted Trump for supposedly threatening Omar, suggesting that the embattled lawmaker would soon be receiving protection from the Capitol Police. In point of fact, Trump didn’t do anything more than quote Omar, but now Pelosi has now set up a predicate of blame in case something does happen.
Interestingly, in the midst of the melee, rogue Republican David Frum—who never lost his pragmatic perspective, even as he went to the far end of Never Trumpism—warned his new allies on the Left to cool it. The headline atop his Atlantic piece reads, “Democrats Are Falling Into the Ilhan Omar Trap: By rushing to stand with the controversial congresswoman, the 2020 contenders are allowing Trump to transform her into the face of their party.”
Heeding such warnings, many Democrats would obviously rather not be talking about Omar, 9/11, and all that. As another Times reporter, Astead Herndon, explained, the more cautious 2020 presidential hopefuls are trying to stay in the safe zone: “Candidates who have tried to position themselves as pragmatic options to a party lurching to the left…tried to refocus the incident to highlight the need to unify the country.”
Yet Trump and Trumpy Republicans, hoping for a replay of GOP successes in the 2002 and 2004 elections, are determined to keep the focus on Omar—and to pin every Democrat to her.
In the meantime, reporters and other diggers will be going through everything she has ever said or done, even as they pump her for her latest hot-take opinions. Will Omar be able to resist the temptation to tell her side of the story? And to share her perspective on world events? After all, she’s now a hero in some circles, having raised an astonishing amount of money for a freshman. And it’s the rare politician who consistently declines to comment on heartfelt concerns.
Yet for the larger sake of their party, Democrats will need an event of their own making. You know, like the 1992 Sister Souljah Moment.
Back in May 1992, a rapper named Sister Souljah offered an opinion that understandably upset Middle America: “If black people kill black people every day, why not have a week and kill white people?” A few weeks later, Bill Clinton, on his way to the Democratic presidential nomination—and seeking votes in the heartland—criticized Ms. Souljah at a meeting of Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition. “If you took the words ‘white’ and ‘black’ and reversed them, you might think David Duke was giving that speech,” Clinton said. “We have an obligation, all of us, to call attention to prejudice whenever we see it.”
Clinton had a point, of course, and yet the impact of a white man criticizing a black woman at a black event was thunderous. He had indeed demonstrated that he was a different kind of Democrat. Later that year, columnist Clarence Page called Clinton’s words “the most important moment in the 1992 presidential race.” Clinton won the ’92 election by a wide margin, thereby snapping the Democrats’ string of three consecutive landslide losses.
As a political stroke, the “Sister Souljah Moment,” defined as confounding the stereotype of one’s own party—whether out of courage, calculation, or both—is so effective that it even has its own Wikipedia page.
So will the Democrats do it again? Will they give Omar the “Sister Souljah” treatment? If she keeps talking, they’ll have to—if they want to hold any hope of winning next year.
In the short run, it’s unlikely that any presidential Democrat will dare to attack Omar, because none of the White House wannabes wish to incur the wrath of the “woke” primary electorate. Indeed, even Clinton made his move only after he had secured the Democratic nomination, when left-wing activists mattered less.
Yet the 2020 general election is a long way away. Assuming that Omar is still in the news, there will be plenty of time for the party’s eventual nominee to make it clear that Omar doesn’t speak for him, or her.
Of course, there’s no guarantee that even then the Democratic nominee will take on Omar. Nor is there a guarantee that the nominee will deliver the message as effectively as Clinton did—or that the media will play along, as it did back in ’92.
But if the Democrats can’t find a way to do this distancing, then put it in the bank: Trump and his helpers will force an event of their own. They’ll make it appear that Omar, along with her ideology, is on the Democrats’ national ticket.
James P. Pinkerton is an author and contributing editor at The American Conservative. He served as a White House policy aide to both Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.