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Jamaal Bowman Ousts Inveterate Hawk Eliot Engel

The voters removed a long-time, unrepentant interventionist from an influential position in Congress last night.

Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY) speaks to media after a closed session before the House Intelligence, Foreign Affairs and Oversight committees on October 26, 2019. (Photo by Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images)

Democratic primary voters in New York’s 16th district have propelled progressive challenger Jamaal Bowman to a resounding victory over incumbent Rep. Eliot Engel, the current chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee:

Middle school principal Jamaal Bowman is very likely headed to Capitol Hill after unseating New York’s longest-serving Congress member, Rep. Eliot Engel, in the state’s June primary elections.

Engel has been a fixture in the House for decades, and he has been one of the most consistently hawkish Democrats. The primary election was not decided by issues of foreign policy, but there were important differences between Engel and Bowman on these issues. Engel has been a vocal backer of practically every hawkish policy in the Middle East, and he was one of the Democratic House members to vote for the 2002 Iraq war resolution. Bowman used Engel’s foreign policy record to draw a sharp contrast between the wasteful militarism of Washington and the domestic needs that he wants to prioritize:

“You voted against President Obama’s Iran [nuclear] deal. You said on CNN just this past June that you didn’t want to tie Trump’s hands when it came to strikes on Iran,” Bowman tweeted at Engel in January, as he urged his rival to sign on to a Democratic push to strip Pentagon funding for offensive military action against Iran. “You’ve belatedly come around after being pushed by our communities and the grassroots.”

Bowman has attacked Engel for accepting campaign donations from major defense contractors, which regularly contribute to both Democratic and Republican candidates during election cycles.

“My opponent accepts donations from corporations and arms manufacturers like Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and Raytheon. He supports a hawkish and costly foreign policy agenda instead of focusing on the communities in our district that have been neglected for far too long,” Bowman said.

As Bowman puts it, he is running to be “a Democrat who will fight for schools and education, not bombs and incarceration.” The voters removed a long-time, unrepentant hawk from an influential position in Congress last night, and that is something to be applauded.

Engel had become too out of touch with his constituents (he spent most of this year in Maryland), and Bowman’s message tapped into growing dissatisfaction with social and economic inequality. Bowman’s successful primary challenge has understandably been compared to the campaign of fellow New Yorker Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, but Engel’s defeat reminds me more of Eric Cantor’s surprise loss. Like Cantor, Engel lost first and foremost because he had stopped paying attention to his district and his voters. Engel’s absence was all the more conspicuous during this pandemic, and Bowman took advantage of the incumbent’s apparent indifference.

The primary result was a rejection of Engel, but more than that it was a repudiation of the party establishment that rallied too late in an attempt to save him:

The race there had illustrated the sharp schism in Democratic ranks, with Mr. Bowman backed by many of the Democrats’ most outspoken progressives and Mr. Engel, fighting for his political life, seeking rescue from more centrist party leaders like Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the former presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo.

In the end, the effort to keep Engel afloat with endorsements from party leaders just underscored how distant from his voters and their concerns he had become. Engel’s leadership position on the Foreign Affairs Committee will most likely go to another similarly hawkish Democrat next year, but Engel’s defeat is a message to Democratic leadership that they cannot continue with business as usual.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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