Steven V. Roberts: Resisting the ‘Illusionist Caucus’

Published 12:00 am Friday, May 28, 2021

The political world has been focusing on the serious splits in Republican ranks — and rightly so. Purging party members who won’t worship before the altar of Trumpism is an exercise in self-demolition.

But the GOP’s fratricidal impulses distract attention from the widening fissures that divide the Democrats, especially as the party’s left wing becomes increasingly impatient with President Joe Biden. Those tensions have always been there, but they were shelved during the campaign by a common commitment to defeating Donald Trump at any cost.

Now, long-standing rivalries are starting to resurface on a range of issues, from supporting Israel and spending on infrastructure to the highly sensitive question of restraining police practices. As Biden told David Brooks of The New York Times, “The progressives don’t like me because I’m not prepared to take on what I would say and they would say is a socialist agenda.”

Biden wears those negative opinions as a badge of honor, and he should. If he’s going to be a successful president — and preserve the Democrats’ very slim majorities in Congress next year — he has to resist the pressures coming from those progressives. There’s a good reason he defeated Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren for the Democratic nomination: He understood political reality.

Leftist Democrats — call them the Illusionist Caucus — have long clung to a persistent and pernicious belief that this is a liberal country. They’re dead wrong. The center of gravity in American politics is pretty much in the middle, perhaps a shade to the right, and the exit polls last November made that abundantly clear. Only 24% of voters identified as liberal, while 38% called themselves conservative — the same percentage that chose the moderate label.

This point was made strongly by Tony Blair, who led Britain’s Labour Party to victory in three national elections and served 10 years as prime minister. “People like common sense, proportion and reason,” he wrote recently in The New Statesman. “They dislike prejudice, but they dislike extremism in combating prejudice.”

No position hurts Labour and Democratic candidates more than “anti-police politics,” Blair wrote, calling these policies “voter-repellent.”

“’Defund the police’ may be the left’s most damaging political slogan since ‘the dictatorship of the proletariat,’” he wrote.

An examination by House Democrats about why they fared poorly last November came to a similar conclusion. Rep. Sean Maloney, who headed the inquiry, accused Republicans of using lies and distortions, but admitted that attacks that branded Democrats as pro-socialist and anti-police “carried a punch.”

Yes, communities of color have totally legitimate reasons to denounce racial profiling and other insidious police tactics. And yes, Democrats need the enthusiastic support of non-white voters, who made up one-third of the electorate last fall and backed Biden 71-to-26. But the Illusionist Caucus insists on handing ammunition to the Republicans.

In the House, where Democrats hold a fragile 219-to-211 margin, six ultra-liberals opposed a bill to provide funding for extra security around the U.S. Capitol in the wake of the Jan. 6 insurrection. Only frantic arm-twisting by Democratic leaders got three of the dissidents to vote “present” instead of “no,” and the bill passed by one vote.

A similar conflict could emerge as Congress considers the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act. Leftist lawmakers insist the final version contain a rollback of qualified immunity, a concept that protects law enforcement officers from civil liability. Republicans are itching to seize the issue and stick Democrats with another anti-police “voter-repellent” label.

A second issue mobilizing the left is Biden’s staunch support for Israel during its recent clashes with Hamas in Gaza. Sen. Sanders and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, stalwarts of the Illusionist Caucus, introduced resolutions to block $735 million in arms sales to Israel. Sanders thundered, “At a moment when U.S.-made bombs are devastating Gaza and killing women and children, we cannot simply let another huge arms sale go through without even a congressional debate.” (Sanders dropped the bid when the sale went through.)

Liberals are also pressuring Biden to end negotiations with congressional Republicans they fear would water down his almost $2 trillion infrastructure proposal. “While bipartisan support is welcome, the pursuit of Republican votes cannot come at the expense of limiting the scope of popular investments,” wrote 60 House Democrats.

On these issues and many others — from immigration and climate change to the future of the filibuster — the Illusionist Caucus will try to push Biden to the left. He has to keep remembering why he won, and they did not.


Steven Roberts teaches  at George Washington University. Email him at