In the wake of Rep. Joe Crowley’s shock loss to twenty-eight-year-old Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a star has been born and so have countless media narratives.
Crowley, a twenty-year Congressional veteran and the current head of the House Democratic Conference, is an amiable, press-friendly career Democrat; his office was a go-to point for reporters seeking contact with the House Democrats —this reporter, included. His ouster from his Queens and Bronx Congressional district will further deplete the top ranks of the Democratic House minority just as the party is trying to recapture the lower chamber. Xavier Becerra and Chris Van Hollen were notable departures in the 2016 election: two men who could have been speaker.
The consensus among tastemakers is that Ocasio-Cortez’s ascension further normalizes “democratic socialists” and the Sanders wing in American politics. Perhaps so. But a less-noticed, overlapping trend is the mainstreaming of a harder line, anti-interventionist American left.
Crowley’s leadership position will, of course, be vacated. And potentially seeking to replace him is Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., the only member of Congress to vote against the 2001 Afghan war.
“Lee came close to joining House Leadership in the past, so I don’t think you could rule out her winning,” Kyle Kondik of the University of Virginia Center for Politics told me by email Friday morning.
A vote against the Afghan war would have been political kryptonite for higher office fifteen —or even five —years ago. But the war in Afghanistan —and incursions into the Middle East, generally —are flagging in public support. According to research released by the Committee for Responsible Foreign Policy in January, 57 percent of U.S. voters feels military aid in the region, including to Afghanistan, is either “somewhat” or “very” counterproductive .
And since January, research conducted by the Costs of War Project at the Brown University Watson Institute has found the broader war on terror has cost American taxpayers $5.6 trillion. Further, a comprehensive, updated study on Afghanistan —“Afghanistan: Conflict Metrics, 2000–2018”—released by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) concluded, bitingly: “There is little prospect that a combination of Afghan government, U.S., and allied forces can defeat the Taliban and other insurgent and terrorist forces, or that the Afghan government, U.S., and allied forces will be defeated by them.”
“The conflict,” the report added. “Has become a war of attrition which can drag on indefinitely, and can only be ended through some form of peace negotiation or the sudden, unexpected collapse of either Afghan government or threat forces. . . . a war of exhaustion.”
It is against this backdrop that Lee will seek to rise, should she seek leadership.
But though the political climate may have shifted nationally, the policy consensus in Washington on Afghanistan has, in the Trump presidency, not meaningfully moved —so far, at least.
President Trump was talked into more troops in the troubled country last fall —“buttressed by generals,” a former senior military officer told me last Friday afternoon. Chief of Staff John Kelly, Secretary of Defense James Mattis and then-National Security Advisor H. R. McMaster were instrumental in the persuasion effort.
Retired Gen. John Allen said at a Center for the National Interest event last fall that the United States will almost certainly be in Afghanistan for another sixteen years.
But headwinds from the left —as well as the populist right —continue to threaten the status quo.
A prominent conservative activist told me he considers Lee a “MAGA Dem,” that is, a Democrat he can work with on select populist agenda items. As I reported on earlier this year, Breitbart News quietly helped in the fight to extricate the United States from involvement in the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen; the effort failed, for now, in part because of a late push from Mattis on the Hill.
Kondik cautioned against drawing too many conclusions from Lee’s potential candidacy and victory.
“As for the Afghanistan vote . . . Lee is a very liberal member of the caucus but even in leadership, she probably is going to be fairly anonymous to most Americans. . . . Only the most dedicated of political watchers really know all the members of leadership,” he said.
But the trend lines are clear.
Kondik added: there does seem to be the potential for a real “changing of the guard in Democratic leadership.”
Curt Mills is a foreign-affairs reporter at the National Interest . Follow him on Twitter: @CurtMills.