Pundits and politicians billed Democrat Jon Ossoff versus Republican Karen Handel as a major referendum on the first few months of the Trump administration.
Democrats poured tens of millions of dollars into the effort to flip Georgia’s 6th District, helping to make it the most expensive US House race in history. But on Tuesday Republicans held the conservative stronghold by a margin of 52-48 percent.
Democrats have now lost all four special elections to replace Republicans who joined President Donald Trump’s cabinet, including in Montana where the Republican candidate physically attacked a journalist just hours before election day.
Ossoff ran a centrist campaign, trying to pull right-wing voters – exactly the kind of strategy that failed to put Hillary Clinton into the White House. Ossoff was also cautious in referencing Trump – one of the most unpopular presidents since polling began.
According to Kamau Franklin, editor of the Atlanta Black Star, this strategy “is just wrong.” By tacking to the right on issues like healthcare and the economy, Ossoff failed to galvanize the Democratic base.
Franklin predicts that Ossoff’s defeat will reignite the “civil war” within the party between the centrist Clinton-Obama wing and the more progressive wing that gravitates toward Senator Bernie Sanders.
Tough and ignorant
Domestic issues, of course, drove this vote, but Democrats also missed opportunities to distinguish themselves on foreign policy.
Like other Democrats foisted on voters by party leaders, Ossoff engaged in “me-tooism” to show just how tough – and ignorant – he could be when it comes to the Middle East, particularly the question of Palestine and the Israelis.
Both candidates emphasized their support for Israel.
Ossoff listed 13 priorities on his campaign website. “US-Israel relations” ranked sixth. Constituents might have been surprised to learn he put Israel before national security, veterans, seniors, the environment, education, criminal justice and fighting corruption.
It’s difficult to discern if Handel orders her priorities any differently. She listed eight issues on her website with “Israel” coming fourth, before “jobs and the economy.” But her list – unlike Ossoff’s – was in alphabetical order.
Ossoff declared he is “committed to Israel’s security as a homeland for the Jewish people and to strengthening the historic, unbreakable bond between the United States and Israel.”
Noting he has twice traveled to Israel, he affirmed his “deep personal relationships with family who live in Jerusalem and many friends who live in Israel.” In his view, Palestinians appear to count for less.
The victor Karen Handel sounded indistinguishable, emphasizing that the “United States and Israel share a remarkable friendship” and various “shared objectives” such as to “defeat terrorism.”
Both made boilerplate nods towards “peace.” But neither offered a word about the imperative ethical need to end the Israeli occupation, let alone about respecting the right of return of Palestinian refugees and ensuring equal rights for all.
Georgia’s 6th District was previously held for 20 years by Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker and Republican presidential hopeful who declared in 2012 that the Palestinians are an “invented people.”
Gingrich, who was re-elected repeatedly despite – or perhaps because of – a history of bigotry, was currying favor with billionaire casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, a major backer of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and big donor to anti-Palestinian causes.
A political group tied to Adelson reportedly spent more than $6 million dollars to defeat Ossoff.
Minimally qualified, Ossoff touted that while an undergraduate at Georgetown University he “studied under Madeleine Albright and former Israeli Ambassador to the United States Michael Oren.”
These are scarcely badges of honor, but they indicate that Ossoff, as a representative of the Democratic establishment, offered no break from interventionist foreign policies that have brought injustice and catastrophe on a global scale.
When she was secretary of state in the Clinton administration in the 1990s, Albright notoriously defended sanctions that killed an estimated 500,000 children in Iraq. Challenged by 60 Minutes’ Lesley Stahl whether inflicting such suffering could be justified, Albright answered, “we think the price is worth it.”
Oren, Ossoff’s other mentor, is currently a minister in Netanyahu’s government.
Oren lied in a 2014 interview with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer about the killings by Israeli forces of Nadim Nuwara and Muhammad Abu al-Thahir, two Palestinian children shot dead in cold blood on video during a Nakba Day protest a few days earlier.
Oren indicated on television – days after they were killed – that it was not certain that the two boys were even dead.
In order to generate this bogus doubt, he cited the videotaped shooting of 12-year-old Muhammad al-Dura in Gaza in 2000 at the outset of the second intifada, which generated worldwide outrage.
Oren recycled the far-right conspiracy theory that the shooting had been staged, even questioning whether the child “was shot at all.”
At the time, Oren was described by CNN as merely a “Middle East analyst,” as if he had not spent many years as a soldier in Israel’s army and an official apologist for its policies.
It is a damning indicator that Oren can be uncontroversially cited by a Democratic candidate with no party leaders challenging Ossoff for promoting his connection to an anti-Palestinian racist who engages in grotesque fabrications and conspiracy theories.
Time for radical break
Majorities of Americans also support radical breaks on domestic policy – such as a single-payer healthcare system.
Yet in the race for Georgia’s 6th District, the Democratic establishment rallied around a candidate who opposes single-payer and stuck to the traditional script on foreign policy.
Defying conventional wisdom that voters only want right-wing populism or bland centrism, Britain’s Labour Party this month surged to its most successful general election performance in years on a platform of left-wing policies championed by Jeremy Corbyn, a leader with a lifelong record of supporting Palestinian rights.
After a string of defeats, it is an example Democrats urgently need to study.