Amid the flurry of both Democrat and self-inflicted injuries Republicans suffered during the government shutdown, Mitch McConnell managed to quietly land a punch for the GOP – one that could set the stage for 2020. The Republican Senate Majority Leader made the unusual move of slipping forward a package of foreign policy bills intended to serve as the symbolic S.1 for the 116th Congress.
Included was anti-BDS legislation sponsored by Florida Senator Marco Rubio that aimed to wedge the new Democratic presence in Congress. McConnell and Rubio knew that the blue wave in 2018 brought foreign policy dissidents over the seawall and into the Democratic party - this was their first chance to exploit it.
Mainstream Democrats were broadly in favour of Rubio’s bill – which has now been advanced and sets a legal foundation for the states to boycott US companies that participate in the BDS movement against Israel - but some of the newest and loudest voices are staunchly against it. Freshmen Congresswomen Ilhan Omar of Minnesota and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan have openly supported the BDS movement and Bernie Sanders was reliably quick to Tweet about the absurdity of considering passing the bill. Declared Presidential candidate Kamala Harris and expected candidate Cory Booker were absent from the vote. Even the new Democratic House star Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is being hounded to state her position definitively on BDS and the two-state solution.
The partisanship that slipped into the US-Israel relationship during the negotiation of the JCPOA has given some in the Democratic Party the notion of a license to challenge the status-quo. But the inevitable accusations of anti-Semitism that will coincide with these challenges will prove a difficult test for the party.
From a political perspective, Democrats won the shutdown, period. The president was made to look fumblingly weak on his signature domestic policy: the border wall. But for the Democrats, it is their differences beyond the border that are now exposed. This will become particularly so in the lead-up to the first primary debates in June and July where candidates like Harris and potentially Booker will be forced to take a stance on issues like support for BDS, the two-state solution, the hasty withdrawal of US troops from Syria and US trade action against China.
For some of the major Democratic candidates, key areas of foreign policy will prove problematic stops in a broad attempt to create daylight with Trump. Take Elizabeth Warren, for example. The Democratic Senator from Massachusetts gave a speech in November 2018 where she decried “ill-advised military commitments” that “sap American strength” (read: Syria and Afghanistan). She took aim at “trade deals rammed through with callous disregard for working people” (read: NAFTA and KORUS). In fact, by attempting to weld her foreign policy positions to her strong economic credentials, the whole speech carried a purple America First aura that, if not for some strong words on Russia, one might easily have mistaken for a deep shade of MAGA red.
Should traditional proponents of a more active, though “sustainable”, Democratic foreign policy like Joe Biden throw their hat in the ring, these differences will be laid bare on the podiums of the primary debates. Whether President Trump has the political nous to exploit this remains to be seen, but it is clear that his Senate colleagues have every intention to.
Elliott Brennan is the Publications Director for Young Australians in International Affairs.