Lessons for the Center-Left from Rep. Engel’s Loss

Another big primary took place last Tuesday, and its results reflected a storyline becoming all too common. A seemingly entrenched recumbent senior Democrat, Eliot Engel, lost his primary to a younger, politically inexperienced insurgent by the name of Jamaal Bowman. There is little evidence that Engel was ideologically out of touch with his district, he was a staunchly liberal Democrat with positions to the left of median American voters on issues like healthcare and housing.

Engel lost because of a perception among his constituents that he had lost touch with his district on a personal level — that he had become too comfortable among his peers in Washington DC, not checking in with his constituents enough and spending hardly any time physically in-district.

Those perceptions don’t necessarily reflect the reality of Engel’s career of service to New York’s 16th Congressional District, but they persisted, nonetheless. For example, Engel earmarked no less than $32 billion for New York City housing projects as he co-sponsored H.R.5187 — Housing is Infrastructure Act of 2019. His instrumental vote to pass the Affordable Care Act in 2010 helped over 100,000 of his constituents acquire healthcare coverage.

But at the end of the day, leaked audio of a bad hot mic moment in which Engel say “If I didn’t have a primary, I wouldn’t care” in the context of a speech he was set to give at a Black Lives Matter protest. His campaign responded quickly, clarifying in a statement that the comment was out of context and did not relay Engel’s true thoughts on the moment, saying “In the context of running for reelection, I thought it was important for people to know where I stand, that’s why I asked to speak. Of course, I care deeply about what’s happening in this country, that’s what I wanted to convey. I love the Bronx, grew up in the Bronx and lived here all my life. I would not have tried to impose on the Borough President if I didn’t think it was important.”

But the damage was done as his opponent pounced on the inopportune slip-up, saying “captures everything that is wrong with too many in Washington.”

Engel’s loss should teach two valuable lessons moving forward for liberal Democrats, especially ones with valuable experience in Washington.

Firstly, that in-district constituent outreach and communication needs to be massively upgraded. Bringing home the pork for constituents is no longer enough, as the seat you work hard in Washington to maintain can be stolen away in a second by an insurgent that weaponizes experience in Washington to characterize public servants as out of touch back home.

Secondly, if primary challengers are going to play dirty and seize on verbal missteps, they need to be matched, if not outmatched, with similarly harsh tactics. The group that ran Bowman, a shadowy PAC called Justice Democrats, are an imminent threat to seasoned lawmakers – they like to primary accomplished senior Democrats with far-left ideologues in insurgency campaigns. Some of their candidates, namely Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have enjoyed massive success and been hits among the Democratic base. Others like Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar have seen their first terms marred by scandals and credible accusations of anti-Semitism.

The Engel campaign tried to go negative in the last few days of the campaign, but the stale attacks about old (and already paid) backed taxes by Bowman clearly fell flat.

The bottom line is that experienced liberal Democrats need to see tales like the downfall of Eliot Engel as a shot across the bow. If the left flank of the party, who have few actual policy accomplishments to their names, want war, the center-left needs to be ready and willing to give it to them. The many accomplishments of liberal Democrats in recent years, including the most extensive oversight of a President since House Republicans impeached President Clinton for a blowjob, and healthcare reform in the form of the ACA that brought coverage to millions, are not small feats. The case also needs to be made that in real change in politics will only come from hands experienced in Washington. Experience in Washington needs to be sold as an asset — populists might be able to turn a cute phrase about political change, but those do nothing to actually achieve it.

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