The interminable brouhaha over U.S. Representative Ilhan Omar’s dubious if murky comments on the reasons for reflexive U.S. support for Israel is obviously a problem for Democrats, who aren’t sure whether to criticize her or defend her. But for Republicans, its benefits are almost endless, which is why they are exploiting it for all it’s worth.
Just try to count the ways in which attacking her accomplishes multiple partisan purposes:
1. It provides a classic turn-the-tables maneuver in response to the Steve King controversy. The hype about Omar wouldn’t have half its current volume if not for the recent explosion of controversy over veteran Republican congressman Steve King of Iowa, whose disparaging comments about immigrants and the importance of America’s white heritage finally crossed so many lines that his own Republican colleagues had to condemn him and strip him of his committee assignments.
That there is a significant element of whataboutism in the GOP attacks on Omar was made plain when demands almost immediately rose to strip her of her membership on the House Foreign Affairs Committee on grounds that she is somehow an “national security risk.” See? the message appeared to be. This member of the Democratic Party is not only a bigot, but a potential terrorist! And some conservative commentators were quick to make the comparison of Omar to King, challenging Democrats to show they weren’t hypocrites by meting out the same punishment to one as to the other. No matter what ultimately happens to Omar, Republicans will bring up her name for decades whenever one of their own pols gets a little too racist for comfort.
2. It enables a nice juicy pander to the Christian right and keeps open lines to American Jews. The most maddening feature of the Omar saga is that all the talk about Jewish support for Israel distorts the fact that it is conservative Evangelicals, not Jews, who are far and away the most important U.S. constituency for the posture of unconditional support for Israel that Omar criticized. It’s certainly what the constituency Republicans care about most (only two Republican members of Congress are Jewish, and Jewish voters have been largely pro-Democratic — usually heavily pro-Democratic — for a century). But it’s a bonus that this chance to smite the perceived enemies of Israel undergirds an Israel-based GOP appeal to Jewish voters, too.
3. It reinforces a general strategy of protecting Trump by accusing Democrats of extremism. It’s probably no coincidence that the crusade against Omar is happening at the same time as a highly coordinated Trump-GOP-conservative media effort to paint Democrats as an out-of-control band of socialists. And both are central to the 2020 Trump reelection strategy of distracting attention from his own antics (at least among undecided voters) and arousing fears about the alleged extremism of the other party.
It is fortunate for them that Omar is close to Democratic congressional supernova Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who has defended her in the current controversy. There is a longstanding if patently absurd right-wing meme holding that socialists and Muslims are together conspiring to conquer America and impose some sort of alien order on this sturdy Christian nation. The friendship of AOC and Omar (and also fellow Muslim Rashida Tlaib, who like AOC, is a self-identified socialist) is heaven-sent for this purpose.
4. It is already spawning endless “Democrats in Disarray” media stories. In the wake of the 2018 midterms, and anticipating the world of trouble Trump may soon face as the result of the Mueller report and House Democratic investigations, Republicans have an enormous vested interest in depicting the Democratic Party as weak and divided. Conservative media eternally promote this story line, and for complicated reasons (including an effort to show “balance”) it’s catnip to the mainstream media as well. The very real differences of opinion among Democrats over Omar’s utterances will likely be exaggerated into a world-historical event that exposes deep and intractable rifts in the Donkey Party.
All in all, it’s clear Ilhan Omar had a bull’s-eye on her back from practically the moment she entered Congress. To be sure, she’s contributed to her own misfortune with clumsy and sinister-sounding characterizations of Israel supporters. But she’s just too convenient a devil figure for Republicans to be much of anything else for the time being.