Analysis'I was just on the other side of that door. I was rattled'

Clashes outside Democratic HQ show divides in Biden’s base over Israel-Hamas war

Lawmaker says far-left protesters demanding Gaza ceasefire ‘chose violence’ on Wednesday night, as organizer of DC demo says the party ‘is not aligned and is not listening to us’

Members of the US Capitol Police pull protesters away from the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee during a far-left demonstration against the war between Israel and Hamas on November 15, 2023 on Capitol Hill in Washington. (Alex Wong/Getty Images/AFP)
Members of the US Capitol Police pull protesters away from the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee during a far-left demonstration against the war between Israel and Hamas on November 15, 2023 on Capitol Hill in Washington. (Alex Wong/Getty Images/AFP)

WASHINGTON (AP) — US Democrats this year have insisted the party is united and ready to rally around US President Joe Biden heading into next year’s election. But a protest outside the Democratic National Committee headquarters signals growing tension within the coalition that has propelled Democrats to victory in recent elections.

Clashing with police Wednesday night were demonstrators calling for a ceasefire in Gaza and criticizing Biden’s support of Israel’s offensive following the October 7 Hamas massacres, in which terrorists killed some 1,200 people and took at least 240 captives. Inside the building were Democrats organizing to try to take back the US House next year, including moderates from swing states Biden flipped from former president Donald Trump.

Both the protesters and the members of Congress on Thursday said they were shaken and angry at the other side. Representative Debbie Dingell of Michigan, a longtime Biden ally, said: “We were so close. I mean, I was just on the other side of that door. I was rattled.”

The political symbolism of a violent confrontation outside the DNC isn’t lost on some activists who are trying to pressure Biden by warning that he’s putting his reelection in danger. Even small cracks in Biden’s 2020 coalition could hurt his 2024 chances in what’s looking likely to be a rematch with Trump.

“The Democratic Party and the Democratic leadership is not aligned and is not listening to us,” said Dani Noble with Jewish Voice for Peace, who helped organize the demonstration and said that 90 participants were injured by police during it.

Biden allies noted that some of the groups who organized the DNC protest are aligned with the far left, outside the party’s mainstream. DNC chairman Jaime Harrison posted on X, formerly Twitter: “As Americans we have a right to demonstrate peacefully, but violence is never acceptable.”

Biden and first lady Jill Biden called Thursday into a DNC and campaign staff meeting to salute law enforcement for keeping everyone safe and thank “the staffers for all they do,” the White House said.

David Eichenbaum, a veteran consultant who worked on Democratic Governor Andy Beshear’s reelection last week in otherwise reliably Republican Kentucky, said he thinks “Americans expect their president to show leadership, and that involves making tough decisions.”

“He’s led with his values on this,” Eichenbaum said of Biden, adding, “You’re always better off when you lead and you govern with your values. Voters don’t want somebody who tries to please everybody. Because you can’t please everybody and then they see through that.”

The US is providing weapons and intelligence support to Israel as it mounts an offensive into Gaza with the goal of rooting out Hamas following its October 7 attack. Biden has spoken repeatedly with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and says he’s working for the release of Hamas-held hostages, including some Americans.

More than 11,000 Palestinians, two-thirds of whom are women and minors, have been killed since the war began, according to the Hamas-run health ministry in Gaza, which does not differentiate between civilian and militant deaths.  The figures cannot be verified independently and are also believed to include civilians killed by misfired Palestinian rockets. About 2,700 people have been reported missing. The mounting death toll has led to calls in parts of the US and the world for a ceasefire. Israel has declined one so far, repeatedly maintaining that the goal of the campaign is the removal of Hamas from power.

The US president’s handling of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has sharply divided members of his party, according to an Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll released last week. The poll found 50% of Democrats approved and 46% of Democrats disapproved of how the president is handling the conflict. Of those who disapprove, 65% say the US is too supportive of Israel.

US President Joe Biden speaks at a welcome reception for Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperative leaders at the Exploratorium, in San Francisco, November 15, 2023. (Doug Mills/The New York Times via AP, Pool)

Wednesday’s violent confrontation came while Biden was in San Francisco for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit. He met with Chinese President Xi Jinping and later announced that the two countries had agreed to work together to better combat fentanyl production and reestablish direct military-to-military communications — potentially politically valuable foreign policy wins.

The White House and Biden’s re-election campaign also say they’re listening to the concerns of both Jewish and Arab voters and staffers.

A senior White House official involved directly with Arab-American outreach said that a call led every day since Hamas’ initial attack by Anita Dunn, one of Biden’s top political advisers, discusses the war in Gaza and how to increase engagement with Jewish-American and Muslim-American communities.

The official said that other efforts by the White House include former DNC chair Tom Perez, who is now a senior advisor to the president, calling state lawmakers in Michigan to discuss issues around the war. The person was not authorized to speak publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.

White House spokesperson Andrew Bates said the Biden administration has pushed for humanitarian pauses in the fighting and getting aid into Gaza and that “fighting against the poison of antisemitism and standing up for Israel’s sovereign right to defend itself have always been core values for President Biden.”

Members of the US Capitol Police push protesters away from the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee during a far-left demonstration against the war between Israel and Hamas on November 15, 2023 on Capitol Hill in Washington. (Alex Wong/Getty Images/AFP)

Still, organizers calling for a ceasefire are pledging more demonstrations. That raises the prospect of repeated disruptions at campaign events and next year’s Democratic National Convention in Chicago — more than half a century after Vietnam War demonstrations marred the 1968 convention in that city. Democrat Hubert Humphrey would lose that fall to Republican Richard Nixon.

“I thought the Democratic Party was the party of peace and treating people equally,” said Eva Borgwardt, a spokesperson for IfNotNow, a group of American Jews who oppose Israeli government policies. Borgwardt said she helped turn out Democratic voters in Arizona, which Biden won in 2020 by just over 10,000 votes.

“I know how crucial motivation and faith in the party is to be able to turn out people to vote,” she said. “And right now, I know so many young voters, including Jewish voters, who are looking at the actions of our Democratic leadership and being completely horrified and disillusioned.”

But Representative Hillary Scholten, a first-term representative from Grand Rapids, Michigan, said the protesters on Wednesday “chose violence” and were a “fringe element.”

“They chose to trap multiple members of Congress inside of a building to prevent their movement, including members of senior leadership in our Democratic Party,” said Scholten, who became the first Democrat to represent Michigan’s second-largest city since the mid-1970s. “That is an extreme ratcheting up of the violence and whether that is a continued pattern, I think, remains to be seen.”

And Illinois Representative Sean Casten, who was also inside the DNC during the protest, said that true leadership meant delivering “the greatest good for the greatest number — even if that’s unpopular.”

“The unanimity of the Democratic Party, broadly speaking, in support of President Biden, reflects a party that’s willing to do the right thing in the first instance,” he said.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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