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Democratic leaders are much more progressive than you might believe

Democratic leaders are much more progressive than you might believe
© Greg Nash

The wave of the progressive movement rushes across districts and crests in primaries. Sometimes, however it can be misdirected, as in the case of a challenge to Representative Richard NealRichard Edmund NealOvernight Health Care: Trump announces two moves aimed at lowering drug prices | Sturgis rally blamed for COVID-19 spread in Minnesota | Stanford faculty condemn Scott Atlas Trump announces two moves aimed at lowering drug prices IRS races to get remaining stimulus checks to low-income households MORE in western Massachusetts.

In New York, where the votes are still being counted, progressive Jamaal Bowman holds a double digit lead over House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel. In Rockland and Westchester counties, newcomer Mondaire Jones will likely secure the Democratic nomination to succeed House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Nita Lowey. Finally, inside the five boroughs, House Oversight and Reform Committee Chairwoman Carolyn Maloney maintains only a sliver of a lead against Suraj Patel.

Energized by these showings, some progressives have set their sights on Neal, who is the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. He is being challenged by Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse. Every candidacy needs a rationale. According to Morse, Neal is part of the leadership in Congress and is “out of touch” with his district. When did being in the leadership and being progressive become mutually exclusive? Does sitting as the head of a committee mean you cannot stand up to Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden to nominate Linda Thomas-Greenfield for UN ambassador: reports Scranton dedicates 'Joe Biden Way' to honor president-elect Kasich: Republicans 'either in complete lockstep' or 'afraid' of Trump MORE?

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Morse has declared, “I think it is time we have a body that reflects the life experience and identity of the people we represent and what our country looks like.” He is correct, which is exactly why the Democratic leadership that he bemoans has worked hard to recruit and elect the most diverse House caucus in history on race, gender, and sexual orientation.

Neal is an ideological progressive. His ratings are 100 percent with the Human Rights Campaign, 100 percent with Planned Parenthood Action Fund, 92 percent with the League of Conservation Voters. Then they go down with conservative groups. His ratings are 12 percent with Club For Growth and 5 percent with Freedom Works. Does he have 100 percent progressive ratings like Representative Barbara Lee? No. Springfield is different from Berkeley. Trump won 37 percent of voters in his district.

Neal commits the unpardonable sin, to some, of mirroring the left of center orientation of his constituents instead of the farthest to the left. Morse has criticized Neal as not being sufficiently aggressive in forcing Trump to turn over his tax returns. Morse is right to be outraged with the smarmy stonewalling of the White House, but criticizing Neal for lack of effort is a brittle and breakable stretch across the campaign trail.

Neal demanded the tax returns from the Internal Revenue Service last year. The administration refused to provide them so Neal filed a lawsuit. The case is tied up in the courts. As a spokesperson for Neal said, “It was absolutely critical that no mistakes were made for Trump and his various attorneys to capitalize on. Neal worked closely with House counsel and followed direction on how to proceed.” I would imagine that even Morse has had to begrudgingly accept the legal advice offered by his Holyoke lawyers. The goal is winning in court instead of stomping around.

Morse should be praised for his good work on climate change. He has reportedly set Holyoke on a path to 100 percent renewable energy. But Neal has been assertive on the issue as well, introducing legislation for a more than $1 billion green infrastructure package. Finally, it seems that Morse is operating on the theory that the primaries in New York foretell victory everywhere else. As I have said before, Trump has been the most effective ally of Democrats in triggering energy among voters, especially progressives. But primaries are chapters. They are not books.

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You have to understand the dynamics of each one. Dave Wasserman with the Cook Political Report said Engel “came under criticism late in the race for comments he made on a hot mic after not having been in his district in a while.” Engel had to fight a narrative that he had not paid attention to his district. Neal, on the other hand, was described by a Democratic strategist in Boston as following an “old school model of delivering for your district.” House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler followed this playbook and handily won his progressive primary battle in New York.

Morse says recent momentum “indicates the winds of this country and the strength of the progressive movement.” He noted the Democratic race for president created energy and enthusiasm that has shifted to other races. He is right. But those winds should claim Trump and his enablers instead of the people who are best positioned to fight against them.

Steve Israel represented New York in Congress for 16 years and was the chairman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee from 2011 to 2015. He is now the director of the Institute of Politics and Global Affairs at Cornell University. You can find him on Twitter @RepSteveIsrael.