The Centrists Cannot Hold

One thing that’s changed about Washington since Donald Trump left town is the Romanesque Old Post Office Building on Pennsylvania Avenue. It’s no longer a Trump Hotel but a Waldorf Astoria, which means Democrats will now set foot inside it. Late Tuesday night, I met one there: the Bronx representative Ritchie Torres.

Torres is an interesting young Democrat to observe at this moment. He’s 35, gay, and Afro-Latino, but when it comes to Israel, he could hardly be farther from his age group or pols such as AOC and Jamaal Bowman, his fellow New York progressives. Since October 7, Torres has been one of the loudest voices on the left defending Israel’s right to wage war. He is not calling for a cease-fire.

He settled into a high-backed chair in the cavernous lobby bar, ordered a vodka with a medium-rare steak, and loosened his tie. It was the day of the massive pro-Israel rally on the mall, and Torres had taken the stage to enthusiastic chants of Ritchie! Ritchie! Ritchie! “It was an exhilarating, experience,” said Torres. “I never thought life would take me on a journey from public housing in the Bronx to the House of Representatives, and I never imagined speaking before an audience of almost 300,000 people on the national lawn.”

While he was on the National Mall, the world was gripped with accounts of the suffering of the Gazan people as the IDF closed in on the Al-Shifa Hospital, which Israel says sits atop a hornet’s nest of Hamas terrorists. D.C. Democrats, already nervous about President Biden’s prospects in the general election, have a new worry to add to their ever-lengthening list: What if the president’s staunch support of Israel’s right of self-defense alienates enough younger voters that the election gets thrown to Trump? Polls show that fewer than half of Gen Z and millennials say the U.S. should support Israel in its war in Gaza, compared to 84 percent of boomers. (Never mind that on this, youth hero Bernie Sanders sticks firmly to his demo.)

Torres resents the idea that this has split the Democratic Party and has said that “there is no evidence” all of this might hurt Biden or somehow help Trump. “I represent the mainstream of my party,” Torres said simply. “The president of the United States, who is the leader of the Democratic Party, is pro-Israel. Both the Democratic leader in the Senate and the Democratic leader in the House are both pro-Israel.” But many young Democratic aides on Capitol Hill have broken with their bosses in speaking out for a cease-fire. Torres said he hasn’t faced any opprobrium from his own staff. “If your views on Israel are different from mine, then my office is the wrong place to be,” he said a bit tersely. He tells me not to pay too much attention to social media or college campuses. “We have to be careful not to mistake a visible, vocal minority for a majority.”

That seems reductive. For decades, if there was one thing both parties agreed on, it was the support for Israel and its right to defend itself, more often than not with weapons that this country supplied it. But the relentlessness of the Israeli response to the horrific Hamas attack has given many in Washington pause. State Department employees have been sending Secretary of State Antony Blinken dissent cables, and more than 500 U.S. officials from across the administration signed a letter protesting Biden’s policy. So it’s not just college students or the fringe left saying that Torres and his fellow Democrats are making a terrible mistake with their backing of Israel. It’s a sizable chunk of official Washington. “I don’t know if that’s the case,” said Torres, dismissing what The Wall Street Journal editorial board has described as “a deep state revolt” against Biden.

I asked how can any politician — or any person — be so sure of their convictions when the news out of Gaza is as ghastly as it’s gotten. “I’m just curious, if you were monitoring the fight against the Nazis, the fight against imperial Japan on a day-to-day basis, I suspect you would be horrified,” said Torres, undeterred. “I think Israel has the unique challenge of waging a defensive war under the microscope of 24/7 cable news and social media, which is something that we’ve never seen before. When you’re confronted with the wretchedness of war, you’re going to be horrified.”

Torres was one of 22 House Democrats who voted to censure Representative Rashida Tlaib this month for “promoting false narratives regarding the October 7, 2023, Hamas attack on Israel and for calling for the destruction of the state of Israel.” But Tlaib is the only Palestinian member of Congress, so shouldn’t we be listening to what she has to say? “You have a right to engage in hate speech, but I have a right to condemn it,” said Torres. “If I’m going to condemn Marjorie Taylor Greene for invoking antisemitic conspiracy theories like Jewish space lasers, then I am willing to condemn those who call for the destruction of Israel as a Jewish state.”

Torres’s relationship with Israel dates back to 2014, after he was first elected and then invited to join a delegation to Israel. “I spent most of my life in poverty,” he said. (He was raised by a single mother who worked as a mechanic’s assistant on a minimum-wage salary of $4.25 an hour). “I never had an opportunity to broaden my horizons beyond public housing in the Bronx.” He said that after it was announced he would be taking the trip, he faced immediate protests and “became a target of overwhelming hatred and betrayal. There were activists with the BDS movement who were demonizing me both in person and on Twitter, and there was actually a rally in City Hall, and I remember seeing an activist who had a shirt that read, ‘Queers for Palestine.’” He said he tried asking about Hamas, and the activist told him she supported the terrorist organization because it was fighting for liberation. “At that moment, I had the beginning of an epiphany,” he said. “I said to myself, the fact that an LGBTQ activist would defend a terrorist organization that systematically and savagely murders LGBTQ people, that to me was as definitive a sign as any of the stupidity, absurdity, and moral bankruptcy that the BDS movement has inflicted on progressive politics.” So, he went on the trip. He discovered that he liked Israel. “Frankly, Jerusalem, which is the most religious city on earth, had an LGBTQ center before the Bronx did,” he pointed out.

He’s been the target of progressive activists ever since; his bête-noire is the Democratic Socialists of America, which called Tuesday’s demonstration on the national lawn a “a pro-genocide march.” The DSA tried protesting Torres in his district last month but showed up to the wrong part of the Bronx. Torres slammed the group on X, writing, “The DSA is a bunch of trust fund babies and hipsters that knows nothing about the Bronx and has never won a race in the Bronx, precisely because it knows nothing. The appeal of DSA is confined to white gentrifiers. Communities of color have no use for it.” I wonder if he thinks some of what’s going on with the left right now may be the modern version of what Tom Wolfe called “radical chic,” but Torres said he’d never heard the term before. “There are those who adopt a worldview that divides the world into two categories,” he said, “the oppressor versus the oppressed, the powerful versus the powerless, and there are people who for whom Israel is the oppressor that can do no right, and Hamas is the oppressed that can do no wrong. If you point out the objective fact that Israel is the most protective of LGBTQ rights, that is dismissed as pinkwashing propaganda. That seems to be the simplistic lens through which the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is seen.”

Torres represents many Jewish New Yorkers, since his district includes Riverdale. “The constituents who are most critical, or the constituents who are most supportive, of Israel are my Jewish constituents. Everyone else could care less,” he said. “If you’re a single mother who’s struggling to put food on the table and pay the bills and keep your family afloat, the farthest issue on your mind is Israel.”

Photo: John Harrington

Earlier that night, across town, I dropped in on a book party at Cafe Milano in Georgetown for ABC News’ chief Washington correspondent, Jonathan Karl. The Waldorf rebrand aside, it occurred to me how little has changed in Washington since Trump was president. It’s a petrified place — Pompeii on the Potomac — where the same people are still throwing the same party at the same restaurant for the same author who has written the same book about the same subject that arrives at the same conclusion.

“Can you believe it,” asked D.C. doyenne Tammy Haddad while looking around a packed room. “This is his third Trump book, and it’s still standing room only!” This latest Trump book Karl has written is titled Tired of Winning.

“I do believe this is the most important of my books,” Karl said in a speech. He said that when he had to read it aloud for the audiobook version, “I had a hard time getting through it without tearing up.” The shocking upshot of this book is that Trump is … a crazy asshole and a liar. I asked Karl why anyone should buy it to once more learn that. “I think it’s critically important to look not just at the criminal cases, not just what Trump did as president, but look at what he has done since he left office, and look at what he would do if he were to get elected president again,” he said. “Look, he could win.”

Many in D.C. are beginning to admit publicly that President Biden might not be able to stop Trump. The capital was abuzz over Jonathan Martin’s column in Politico this week detailing Democratic dread over Biden’s prospects; the prez apparently called David Axelrod a “prick” because the Obama strategist spoke out about the party’s concerns. “Listen, I’m old, but Biden is wayyy too old,” said longtime Washington pundit Margaret Carlson as she sipped a margarita at the Milano party. But how old are you, Margaret? “Don’t ask a girl that question.”

“I don’t think Biden is going to be the candidate,” chirped Newsmax CEO Chris Ruddy. “I see him declining pretty rapidly.” Still, he allowed that Biden “actually has a pretty good story to tell as president, and there’s a lot of cash and stimulus coming in that they prepared for early on, so the economy is unusually strong, and Republicans aren’t accounting for that.” It’s plausible that Ruddy’s buddy is only running so he can stay out of jail. “No,” said Ruddy, “he wants to be president again. He loves being president.” We looked around at the conga line of Trump reporters, and Ruddy remarked that “Donald Trump is the gift that keeps giving.”

He is the front-runner, and he must be covered. That’s not the reporters’ fault. Still, I couldn’t help but wonder if many in the room were, on some level, relieved that he didn’t just go quietly. If he were to lumber back into town, at least they would know their clearly defined roles in the Return of the Resistance. The shift to Biden has been bumpy for the news industry. The hometown paper here is shedding jobs and has lost its mojo. It probably won’t be a Brit or a Bezos who helps them get it back.

Other reporters in the room, such as the Washington Post’s own Josh Dawsey and Politico’s Meridith McGraw, are already at work on new Trump books. But isn’t it just the same old story every time? “I don’t think so,” said Dawsey. “There will be tons of material about the campaign — if he wins again, if he loses, does he go to jail? What happens? Everything happens. This is the most interesting chapter of them all.”

I asked Bob Woodward about Trump’s chances. It took him precisely five seconds and 19 words to start talking about Watergate. “I hearken back 50 years ago, when Carl Bernstein and I were working on Watergate for the Post …” Like Karl, Woodward has already written three Trump books. Does he feel he has another one in him? “Instead of following the money,” he said, “follow Trump.” Isn’t that the same thing? “Sometimes,” he mused, Yoda-like, “sometimes not.” CNN reporter Manu Raju approached and asked, “Bob, can I get a selfie?”

The Axios guys Jim VandeHei and Mike Allen were there. So was ABC News president Kim Godwin and Senator Amy Klobuchar too. Former attorney general Bill Barr (title of his Trump book: One Damn Thing After Another) floated past another newly minted resistance queen, Cassidy Hutchinson (title of her Trump book: ENOUGH). When I tried to get her to cough up a quote, her agent from CAA swooped in and said, “She’s not doing media availability right now.” Which was a little bizarre, as she was surrounded by the media.

Biden’s former ambassador to Israel Tom Nides stopped by, and the UAE’s ambassador to Washington Yousef Al Otaiba was there, too. I asked for his over-under on Trump’s chances. “I have no idea,” he said. “That’s why I’m here, trying to figure out what’s going to happen.” He hasn’t been paying much attention to Trump’s various legal trials, because, he said gravely, “I’m watching Gaza.”

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