New DNC chair stands by Israel amid progressive headwinds

Jaime Harrison, who challenged Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), says Democrats will follow Biden’s lead on Israel policy

Jaime Harrison, the newly appointed chairman of the Democratic National Committee, emphasized in an interview with Jewish Insider on Friday that his party would follow President Joe Biden’s lead with respect to U.S.-Israel policy.

“We as a party take our guidance from the White House and the Biden-Harris administration,” Harrison told JI. “So in many ways, the party won’t deviate from that. We will follow the president’s guidance and the administration’s policy.”

The Democratic Party platform affirms a commitment to U.S. funding for the Jewish state while opposing the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement targeting Israel, as well as such actions as annexation and settlement expansion that some fear could undermine a two-state solution. The platform was regarded as a reflection of Biden’s views when it was approved last August, as internal discussions about adding a reference to “occupation,” which caused some debate during the drafting process, were ultimately nixed.

Still, a growing chorus of progressive lawmakers have called for conditioning U.S. aid to Israel, which the Biden administration rejects. Last week, Rep. Betty McCollum (D-MN), a longstanding critic of U.S.-Israel policy, introduced legislation that places restrictions on U.S. aid. The bill was co-sponsored by, among others, Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), Jamaal Bowman (D-NY) and Ilhan Omar (D-MN). 

Despite such efforts, Harrison, 45, suggested in the interview with JI that support for Israel within the Democratic Party remains strong. 

“Joe Biden has, as president and even before, been very clear about unwavering support for Israel as our ally, as our partner, as our friend,” said Harrison. “Individuals may have their own opinions, but it is very clear to me, as a party-wide stance, we see Israel as a friend, as an ally and as our greatest ally in that region of the world — and we aren’t moving away from that.”

Harrison, who succeeded former Labor Secretary Tom Perez in the chairman role, said he has not yet discussed the party’s Israel platform plank with Biden since taking over at the DNC in January.

As Biden negotiates a return to the Iran nuclear deal, his administration has also met some resistance from moderate Democrats, like Rep. Elaine Luria (D-VA), who are wary of the 2015 agreement.

“The majority of Democrats, I’m sure, will follow where the president is and how he’s proceeding on this,” Harrison told JI. “It does not mean that, at the end of the day, you’ll get unanimous support. There are members who, for whatever reason, given their districts or their own perspective and experiences, may differ, and that’s fine. I mean, we’re a big-tent party where sometimes there are differences on particular issues. But in terms of where we go as a party, as a party organization, we will be where the president is.”

“Individuals may have their own opinions, but it is very clear to me, as a party-wide stance, we see Israel as a friend, as an ally and as our greatest ally in that region of the world — and we aren’t moving away from that.”

Harrison, who previously served as chairman of the South Carolina Democratic Party, ran a high-profile campaign against Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) last November, losing by 10 percentage points while raising more than $100 million. Under Harrison’s guidance, the DNC has pulled in record fundraising sums.

“I feel good about where we are as a party at this point, but I think we can get better,” he said. “We can tighten up our message, and we’re doing just that. I mean, you take a look at how unified we were in terms of the American Rescue Act, and how focused we were in terms of delivering that message to the American people. We’re still doing that, and that’s going to be the model by which we move forward — unified in purpose, unified in mission, unified in message and extremely focused.”

Harrison rejected the notion that a post-election rift between moderates and progressives on issues like socialism and defunding the police was a threat to party unity, even as Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) renewed such debate last Monday when she called for an end to policing following the shooting of Daunte Wright in Brooklyn Center, Minn.

Harrison emphasized that “one individual member of the House” isn’t responsible for the Democratic Party’s messaging, adding that “our members just don’t have that power,” though he acknowledged that “people are free to believe what they want to believe and state what they want to state.”

“We understand there’s a lot of passions going on right now,” he told JI. “But I think, at the end of the day, my message to our members and our candidates is, ‘You need to reflect your district, you need to talk about the issues that are important to the people that you are representing.’”

The former Senate hopeful, a protégé of House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-SC), said it was possible for Democrats to uphold a broad party message while catering to the individual needs of their states and districts. “The contrast between the Democratic Party and the Republican Party couldn’t be even clearer,” he said. “You’ve got one party in this country who’s doing everything that they possibly can in order to take the right to vote away from folks or to make it much difficult for them to exercise their right.”

“At the end of the day, my message to our members and our candidates is, ‘You need to reflect your district, you need to talk about the issues that are important to the people that you are representing.’”

“On the other side, you have a party that’s fighting for the American people, getting money in their pockets, making sure they keep their jobs,” he said. “The contrast in the brands could not be more stark or clear than what we what we currently have. Now, folks, will have some diversity in terms of where they are on other things. But there’s one freedom party here in this country, there’s one equality party in this country, and that’s the Democratic Party.”

Going into the next cycle, Harrison said he would “fight like hell” to ensure that Democrats hold onto their razor-thin margins in both the House and the Senate.

“We’re going to go out and work with our sister committees to help with recruitment,” he said. “We’re going to get more people registered to vote. We’re going to educate them on the importance of voting. We’re going to mobilize them to get them to the polls. And then, in the end, we’re going to protect them as the Republicans attempt to suppress them at the polls. So those are the things that we can control, and I believe that if we do those steps, and we do those steps well, we’ll be in good shape.”

While some Democrats have announced bids to unseat Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC) in Harrison’s home state of South Carolina next year, the DNC chair said the gubernatorial election would be a “particularly interesting” race to watch. 

“We haven’t had declarations yet on the Democratic side, and I expect that Henry McMaster may even have a few primary opponents,” Harrison said, referring to South Carolina’s Republican governor. “I think he’s a weak governor who doesn’t have a strong track record to run off of, and that gives Democrats here a great opportunity.”

“I think we built the foundation,” Harrison said of his own Senate bid. “We woke up 1.1 million people.”

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