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Progressives lost the battle for the Democratic Party's soul

Progressives lost the battle for the Democratic Party's soul
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The Democratic National Committee’s (DNC) flat-out rejection of anti-Israel language in the final version of its 2020 platform demonstrates that progressives should not be so quick to declare victory in the battle for the soul of the Democratic Party.

Yes, a candidate backed by progressives toppled incumbent Rep. Eliot EngelEliot Lance EngelMeet the three Democrats who could lead foreign affairs in the House Trump relents as GSA informs Biden transition to begin Dozens of progressive groups endorse Joaquin Castro for Foreign Affairs chair MORE (D-N.Y.). Engel, the powerful chairman of the House Foreign Relations Committee and a longtime supporter of Israel, will surely be missed. While this upset garnered headlines, moderates in races from coast to coast defeated an overwhelming majority of progressive insurgents. And that is a good thing for a nation that is eager to heal after years of fractious politics. 

Despite the drubbing of progressive candidates, Slate magazine called Engel’s loss “a cautionary tale” for Democrats nationally. The Jerusalem Post called it a “changing of the guard for Democrats.” These estimations more than misread the political tea-leaves. They misrepresent reality.

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As NBC points out, the vast majority of “Justice Democrats” who have run over the past two House cycles have lost. In 2018, Justice Democrats endorsed 65 non-incumbent candidates; only 24 survived their primaries and, in the end, just seven were elected to Congress.

The name “Justice Democrats” has proven to be an oxymoron. The group’s strategy is “divide and conquer.” They single out Jews and Israel for scorn, allowing an unacceptable level of anti-Semitic rhetoric in their ranks; they seek to topple capitalism in favor of socialism.  

Yes, a few progressives won high-profile races. And winning doesn’t always come down to money or even the power of incumbency. As an insurgent candidate herself, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-CortezAlexandria Ocasio-CortezTrump will soon be out of office — but polarization isn't going anywhere Trump tweets Thanksgiving criticism of NFL QBs for kneeling Kamala Harris, Stacey Abrams among nominees for Time magazine's 2020 Person of the Year MORE (D-N.Y.) was dramatically outspent but still beat Rep. Joe CrowleyJoseph (Joe) CrowleyBiden's gain is Democratic baseball's loss with Cedric Richmond Business groups breathe sigh of relief over prospect of divided government Ocasio-Cortez glides to reelection MORE, a powerful member of the House Democratic leadership. Engel held similar stature and fundraising advantages over his opponent and still lost. 

When progressives win, they follow a familiar playbook: They find soft targets of opportunity, like reliable but longtime incumbents who don’t have social media star power and seem out of touch. Progressives win when they appeal to the changing demographics of their district. They win when they have a scapegoat, which all too often is Israel. And when they do claim a scalp, they declare victory for their movement. 

But with greater regularity, progressives lose. They lose because they are on the wrong side of their electorate; their views are repudiated. Calling for economic boycotts of Israel or failing to repudiate anti-Semitic remarks do not comprise a winning strategy in a nation in which Jews play a vital role in civic and economic life. They don’t win in a nation that is desperate to heal from years of division.

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Nor should progressives declare victory in the presidential primaries. The darling of the Justice Democrats, Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersIn defense of incrementalism: A call for radical realism Thomas Piketty says pandemic is opportunity to address income inequality Trump will soon be out of office — but polarization isn't going anywhere MORE (I-Vt.), was defeated. He was hopelessly out of step with mainstream voters who comprise the majority of the electorate, and he had a fraught relationship with Jewish voters

Instead, the winner was Joe Biden, who, as a senator and as vice president, went out of his way to bridge and heal America’s divides, not contribute to them. The 2020 DNC platform, with regard to Israel, is further evidence of the strength of center-left candidates and the weakness of the appeal of progressive policies to mainstream voters. In its rejection of language that would “condition” aid to Israel and refer to Israel as an “occupier,” the DNC has responded decisively to those on the radical fringe of the party.  

The victory lap in this year's Democratic primaries goes to center-left candidates who stayed true to America's ideals and allies, including tolerance of Jews and support for Israel. Rumors of the demise of such candidates, as the saying goes, are greatly exaggerated. 

Jack Rosen is president of the American Jewish Congress, which advocates on behalf of American Jews and Israel through public policy, diplomatic and legislative actions.