The Politics of The "Squad"

Journalist Ryan Grim, author of a book on the Squad, explains who they are and what they believe.

Ryan Grim is the Intercept's D.C. bureau chief and the author of The Squad: AOC and the Hope of a Political Revolution. Ryan's book chronicles the rise of the "Squad" in Congress, but also chronicles the entire recent history of left politics in the United States including the Bernie Sanders campaigns and the legislative fights under Biden. The book is a fascinating insider account of how power really works. The Squad were all elected as insurgent Democrats challenging the party establishment. But once inside the House, they encountered a familiar dilemma: do you go to war against the party leaders, and alienate them, or do you try to work with them? Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez herself, Grim reports, had conflicting impulses, but ultimately axed staff members who pushed for a more confrontational approach. Did the more conciliatory path gain the hoped-for results? Grim joins us to discuss. (Note this interview was conducted several months ago, some references may have dated.)

Who is the "Squad"? Are they just a media creation or do they act as a group? What differentiates them from other progressives in the House? What is their relationship with the party leadership like? What compromises have they had to make? Has their approach worked? All of this and more is put to Ryan Grim in our conversation. 

Robinson 

I want to start by asking a very basic question: is there a Squad? I assume there is because "The Squad" is the subject of your book, but if there is a Squad, what are the boundaries of it? Is it a self-defined unit? Is it a media-defined unit? Who and what are The Squad?

Grim 

There's a funny quote in the book that I'm sure you came across from Ilhan Omar where she says, there is no such thing as The Squad, just so you know. Because I was asking her, "do you guys like have a weekly call?" In the first six months to a year of their tenure—by “their” I mean the four original members of what the media called The Squad: Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC)—Dan Riffle, as an aide to AOC, at one point made a reference that they circulated an idea of being a squad. So there was an idea among them for sure that they existed as this foursome that could act collectively.

That did not, by any means, mean they were an official thing, had bylaws, or had regular check-ins beyond like a text message chain. It didn't mean that they were obligated to agree to go in the same direction on any issue, let alone all issues. Now, I think it's uncontroversial to say that Cori Bush and Jamaal Bowman basically became members of The Squad—again, repeating that there is no official thing. The difference would be that there is such a thing as the Freedom Caucus that exists. It has this weird kind of public-private element to it where they don't tell you who the official members are. 

Robinson 

Oh, really? 

Grim 

Yes, really. So it was weird when Marjorie Taylor Greene got kicked out because they had a vote and kicked her out.

Robinson 

That's when we found out she was in it.

Grim 

People assumed she was in it because she's crazy. You don't confirm or deny the existence or non-existence of members in it.

Robinson 

Wow, it's like Skull and Bones.

Grim 

It's totally bizarre. It's like, what are you doing here? Everybody knows who's in it because you guys talk publicly about it all the time. But at least it exists. They have meetings and bylaws. The Squad doesn't have that. But politically speaking, it was very clear when Bush and Bowman became part of that. Then the next year, it became a little bit hazier. Greg Casar, who represents Austin, would be asked to join the race, and he'd say to journalists that he supports all of their general politics. Becca Balint, the Vermont Congresswoman, basically aligns with all their politics. Delia Ramirez represents Chicago and is supported by a very strong DSA and Working Families Party coalition out of Chicago, and she's aligned. Summer Lee came in as a DSA candidate in 2018 to the Pennsylvania State Legislature, and I'd say she's a Squad member. Now it's getting hazy. Now, it's so big that if you have 10 or 12 members, but you're not meeting regularly and acting together, then you're not a squad.

Robinson 

But to be clear, then, the original members who did see themselves as a coherent unit, made a decision not to formalize this group to create a kind of caucus. I don't want to define it just as "progressive" because there's already a Congressional Progressive Caucus, but as a kind of insurgent group where you're either in it or you're out of it. That was a path that they chose, I take it.

Grim 

After AOC won her primary, in an interview with Daniel Denvir on his podcast, she said one of the problems with the Congressional Progressive Caucus is that it's just too big and unwieldy, and there's no ideological litmus test, and as a result, it can't wield power internally. Maybe there ought to be a sub-caucus of members who are willing to hold the line. That sent shivers through the Progressive Caucus. What does that mean? So now, there's going to be an official kind of sub-Freedom Caucus or whatever you would call it—Dignity Caucus, or whatever you would call it on the Left. There was that nervousness that would develop that it would drain some of the power away from whatever power the Progressive Caucus had. I don't know if they ever made a conscious decision not to do it, but they never made the decision to do it.

Robinson 

So, just to be a little clearer on what we're talking about and what the dividing lines here are, what is the ideological split between those original four and the rest of the Democratic Party, and why does that make them a phenomenon, something different, and worth covering? As you say, there's a Progressive Caucus. There are a lot of Democrats in Congress who describe themselves as progressive, and then AOC and Ilhan Omar describe themselves as progressive. What is the difference that makes them a phenomenon in Congress worth discussing?

Grim 

The Progressive Caucus flirted with the idea of voting against the party during the first two years of the Obama administration. They said, if you don't have a public healthcare option, or other demands in the Affordable Care Act, then we're going to vote no—we will use our power to vote no. They flirted with that idea. They eventually capitulated in the end, but in general, the Progressive Caucus was never situated as adversarial to the party leadership in the way that the Freedom Caucus is to the Republican Party leadership.

And so, when Bernie Sanders ran against the Clinton machine in 2015-2016, it created space inside the party for this element that was not just kind of more progressive—like if the mainstream Democratic line was, we're for a public option, then the Bernie line was, no, Medicare for All and ban private insurance; if Democrats were saying we need to get off fossil fuels by 2050, Bernie would say, no, we need to get off by 2030. Whatever the difference in degrees were, but the difference was his willingness to challenge the party leadership for power. That came about accidentally because he didn't really do it on purpose. He ran a messaging campaign where he was trying to make sure that his agenda was part of the debate, and he accidentally found himself against this feeble candidate within striking distance of actually winning.

And so, his campaign, in real time in the air, transforms from a messaging campaign to one that is actually now seeking power. And when The Squad comes two years later, they are seen as challenging for actual power and willing to be critical of the willingness of the Democratic Party leadership to challenge Trump or to challenge the corporate power. It's a tactical distinction, in that sense. 

Robinson 

Certainly, when Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is first elected, that is an accurate perception of her posture because she's literally running against one of the highest-ranking members of the party establishment. So at that point you can't say that she's not willing to challenge them. But when the story becomes a lot more complicated, as you write about, once she gets into Congress and gets sat down and told that this is not how it works around here, that you have to be nice, and you have to get along with your company.

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Grim 

And you don't have to do that. There are no rules that say you have to. Ron Paul decided never to do that, for the most part; he was just going to vote no on everything. I spent a lot of time in the book, as you noticed, I'm sure, on the first six months of that 2019 period, which is consumed, on the one hand, by fights over Israel-Palestine, antisemitism, censure resolutions, and on and on, but also by these conflicts with the party, with Nancy Pelosi calling them just for votes—they're making a beautiful pâté, but they're not actually accomplishing anything.

AOC's staff, and Ilhan's staff to some degree as well, were just completely unleashed in a way that hadn’t ever happened before and really affected the dynamics inside the House where you've got a Chief of Staff, a communications director, even a legislative aide—Riffle—just constantly popping off and calling out elected members of Congress by name which never happened in history. Now, the history of social media is not very long, but you would never have had staff doing that in party papers in the 19th or 20th century. Staff were behind the scenes, and now all of a sudden, they're front and center and making these vocal criticisms. And Saikat Chakrabarti, AOC’s chief of staff, describes that as a deliberate strategy to amplify their movement because they recognized that they were really only four, but they had so much visibility on social media that they could fight at parity, or even better, on social media against the Democratic leadership.

And so, allowing the staff to pop off added to that. At the same time, though, AOC is also very publicly criticizing her party leadership at times, while also working to make a lot of friends among her new colleagues because she sees that as essential to being a productive legislator within a two-party system, and within a Democratic Party that, when they're in the majority, all legislation is going to have to run through it. And so, for the first year, she really has a foot in both of these strategic camps, which blows up halfway through the year with Saikat Chakrabarti and Corbin Trent, her communications director, being pushed out, and then you see them work within the party more and use the Progressive Caucus, rather than a smaller kind of angrier sub-caucus.

Robinson 

On page 143, you have a quote from Dan Riffle. There's a big Twitter fight that erupts between Saikat and a Democratic member of Congress, and Riffle says, "We're here to fight these fucking people." This was his attitude. So, they were delighted with this giant online conflagration. But AOC herself was uncomfortable about it. Everyone's been preparing for a fight with the establishment, the fight breaks out, and she's like, I don't know about this. She comes in, as I say, as a warrior against the party establishment, but it seems like she gets a kind of cold feet about that when she's in Congress and pushes out these confrontational staff members.

Grim 

Yes, and as Riffle would describe it in the book, I don't have to ride on a bus with these people to retreats and go to brunch with them, I don't have to interface with them, so it's easier for me to relish these fights. And he, in that passage, is talking not just about her, but about the entire Squad, that there was a real kind of misunderstanding, not just among some of their supporters, but even among her staff and some of the rest of The Squad staff, of what their goal was in Congress.

They really thought it was to trigger a big fight, to have it out and really go to war over the future direction of the party. They came to understand that was not the strategic direction that they wanted to go in. They wanted to go in somewhat confrontational and lay out your principles, but then work well once you've kind of laid those out on the inside. That's what we got. That's who they were. 

Robinson 

Tell us more about how power works within the party in Congress. When you get there as an anti-establishment member, Nancy Pelosi can, as I understand it, draw you aside and say, "look, whatever your rhetoric has been, you have an opportunity here. Do you want amendments? Do you want to be on committees? We're going to decide whether those things are true, and you now have a choice to make: do you want to never get any of those things, or do you want to play ball with us?"

That's kind of the impression that I get from the story that you tell here.

Robinson 

That's very much the argument that is made, and it's a bipartisan thing. Everybody confronts it. And the counterargument to that would be, first of all, they're lying to you, and you're never going to be in their good graces. You came in here by taking out Joe Crowley, the beloved Joe Crowley, who was the next guy to be Speaker, even though Pelosi was glad to see him beaten because he was presumed to be a rival of hers in the future for the gavel. The idea of coming in and knocking out a Democrat, and the fact that she and the others continued to support primary challengers, even though they didn't support all of them—they didn't support many, but they would still support upwards of about half a dozen challengers to incumbent Democrats. These are bad Democrats in deep blue districts who were not putting the party's majority remotely at risk.

And so, The Squad would think, we can endorse these and not rock the boat too much. But that wasn't true. The principle that you don't come after an incumbent is one that all of these incumbents hold extremely dear. So, the argument is made that you can't make yourself small enough, you can't be a good enough team player, to ever be allowed on this team because of how you came in and the threat that you represent. Just the fact that you have independent power, a power base through your direct connection to the public, mediated both either through cable whenever she or the others want it or through social media, means that they can't control you with the same levers that they have against most other members. So, that makes you a threat, whether you're acting on those threats or even announcing those threats.

Secondly, they would say, Donald Trump is President. So, don't forget, during their first term, Donald Trump was President. What bills are you going to pass that Donald Trump is going to sign into law that you will be proud of and that somebody else couldn't do for you? The idea that, at this moment, we will be able to use congressional legislative vehicles to enact something socially useful is absurd because Trump is President.

Robinson 

Right. If you're mentioning the little things that have been dangled in front of you in terms of their consequences—okay, you can be on a committee—

Grim

Right, you can get out on a good committee, but the good committee is not going to do anything because Trump is president.

Robinson 

Right. I'm trying to recall the example where I thought that it does seem like they're fighting for things that are mostly symbolic, or being offered things that aren't really that real.

Grim

Was it the 40% committee seat victory, or something like that? The Progressive Caucus? 

Robinson 

Oh, yes. I remember this now.

Grim

They negotiated with Pelosi because every year, even though there was this big thing around Force The Vote, when people said, use your leverage. 

Robinson 

You're going to have to explain that because not all of our listeners and readers will know about that. 

Grim 

So, in 2021, a group of podcasters and YouTubers were saying, The Squad has leverage now because Pelosi needs their votes to become Speaker, so they should demand a vote on Medicare for All on the House floor. And out of that, some of them decided that they had discovered the idea of using leverage, when in fact, every two years, there's this fight over who becomes Speaker and what rules get written to govern the House process for the next two years. That's when all the horse-trading happens, from the Blue Dogs, who are the right-wing faction of the caucus, all the way to the left, including individual members who want little things like: I want a new auditorium built at a university in my district, and for that, I'll give you my vote for speaker, or, my ally is running for State Senate, so show up at a fundraiser for that—little things like that to bigger things.

And what the Progressive Caucus decided to fight for was a change in PAYGO, which is a kind of rule around budgeting, which we can talk about if anybody's still awake at the end of it. But the other thing is, they said, we want progressives to be on what they call “A committees”, which are powerful. The other word for them is “money committees” because they legislate, and have jurisdiction over, industries with lots of money. And so typically, you put right-wing Democrats on there, who are in swing districts, and would then use it to raise money from those industries. It’s a deeply corrupt situation, where you have a host shaping itself to the parasite, allowing the parasite to better feast on it, in reverse, off it.

And so, Pelosi says, you represent 40% of the caucus, and you guys say you want 40% of the seats on these A committees—I grant you that, but because there was no litmus test to join the Progressive Caucus, you actually had a handful of Democrats who just straight up just signed papers and said, I'm now in the Progressive Caucus, and then changed their politics and weren't committed to any agenda. But now, their position on this money committee counted toward the quota that Pelosi had agreed to. Then it was two years later that they kind of reformed and decided they needed to put it in some ideological litmus test and be smarter about what they asked for. So, it's all a process, but Pelosi kind of outsmarted them on that one.

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Robinson 

As you look back on the last few years, do you feel there were missed opportunities to use whatever power that these insurgent Squad members had to get things? As you mentioned, there's a group of podcasters and YouTubers who remain very upset that they did not withhold votes from Pelosi in exchange for some concessions—the demand that was made at the time was a vote on Medicare for All that was kind of destined to fail, but I saw other suggestions that maybe a commitment to not taking sides in certain races or something like that was something that actually might make a difference and could be gotten. Whether it's that point or whether it's another point, are there moments where you think, given what you know about how power works in Congress, there was something that could have been done?

Grim 

I think I even floated that as a suggestion at one point, when there was still time to enact it. A lot of these ideas started being put forward after Thanksgiving into Christmas, after all the negotiations had basically been hashed out. Now, there was a push to say, we'll reopen these negotiations and do it on the House floor, rather than behind the scenes like it's typically done, and they rejected that entire premise that you do it on the House floor. That would have been a good one, I think, to say the DCCC (Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee) has to reform its rules, that you can't blacklist consultants who work with challengers. You have to be neutral. Because the Republicans have that policy—they're neutral when it comes to primaries, so Democrats could do that as well. It's an interesting question of whether they could have kept together the ecosystem of The Squad and that online energy that was behind Bernie, and then behind The Squad early on, and what that would have looked like, say in 2021, when pushing a legislative agenda.

The House in 2021 was following Twitter relentlessly, and where it was taking its cues. It doesn't anymore—that's over. That window is shut. But there was a moment I wrote about where, and certainly during the American Rescue Plan, how that actually pressured Joe Manchin into caving. Manchin saw, and was told by Schumer, who was told by Jayapal, that if he pushed too hard, there was so much anger outside that The Squad was going to vote no on the American Rescue Plan, and so he caved. So, that's the model, where you have a credible amount of energy building on the outside that is putting pressure on a left flank, which then can go to leadership and say, I'd love to be with you, but look, I can't—I will be destroyed if I'm with you on this. You cut unemployment benefits, and you can cut these stimulus checks. They see that same energy, they hear it, they hear them hooting through the walls, and so they caved. They're like, fine, you're right. That dissipated. Instead of seeing that as a model, the failure to get the $15 minimum wage into that revision, and then this frustrating complaint that the checks should have been $2,000 rather than $1,400 plus $600, that was it.

From then on, The Squad was an enemy. And so that ability to create a synergy between the outside energy and on the inside kind of evaporated. The problem was always there was no one directing it. The Squad was not really taking a leadership position and communicating directly with forces on the outside. There was no Steve Bannon-like figure like there is today on the Right. Steve Bannon has got this daily podcast where he will constantly have on members of the Freedom Caucus or other right-wing Republicans, and they will hash out upcoming strategy. They were doing it all through the McCarthy Speaker vote. They continue to do it through this upcoming fight. And so, what that does is it brings what they call The Posse inside the fight, and they direct their anger then at moderate Republicans. But that doesn't exist on the Left. Maybe you got to do it. 

Robinson 

I always find it a little bit surprising that I don't get reached out to at all by left-leaning politicians trying to get stuff amplified. At Current Affairs we've got a big audience of lefty activist people, but they don't even send us press releases to give us cues as to what they want us to be covering.

Grim

It's completely broken. And there doesn't seem to be any effort to build it either. And without that, you get the complaints from AOC and others—legitimate complaints—that they're only hearing strategic ideas from the outside after the fact, like actual Monday morning quarterbacking, but somebody's got to change that. If they are not really willing to reach out to your podcast or otherwise and participate in that project—like Bannon's thing doesn't work if these Republicans don't come on because they've built this symbiosis. And it doesn't mean it's working for them. Now they're making a lot of money selling a lot of gold to their Bitcoin IRA assessment but— 

Robinson 

Although Trump's probably going to be president again, so—- 

Grim 

And they've got Mike Johnson as Speaker, and that's not nothing. He's as right-wing a Speaker since before the Civil War.

Robinson 

They're going to have a bunch of lunatics in a bunch of positions of power. People should read your book if they want to understand the grubby side of Washington. I do feel a lot of cynics will be confirmed in some things. Particularly, I think one of my really dispiriting ones was reading about the thing about the Hyde Amendment where all these idealists came in—the AOC staff—and they thought, let's have a vote to get the Hyde Amendment out of this bill. Then they're sat down by the insider who says, no, we don't do that around here. It's crazy! It's a crazy moment!

Grim 

That was such a crazy moment. And for people who don't know, the Hyde Amendment is a provision that's been in federal law for many years that basically says you can't spend federal money on abortion services. That was like the compromise position that Congress reached decades ago. On the outside, it is anathema to the Democrats. Right as this was happening, coincidentally, Joe Biden was getting pummeled by pro-choice groups, and eventually, within days of the pummeling, capitulates and says the Hyde Amendment is wrong and was wrong to support it, and as President, I will repeal it. And by that point, every single Democratic presidential candidate is against the Hyde Amendment, which reminds me also that basically every presidential candidate except for Biden was for Medicare for All. Most of them were for banning private insurance. And in the House at the time, the Ways and Means Committee was having a hard time even passing legislation to let Medicare negotiate with pharmaceutical drugs. So, the difference between what Democrats were saying to voters they publicly support, like Medicare for All, and what they were able to do in the House, like allowing Medicare to negotiate a few drug prices and stumbling their way through that, was stark.

But yes, with the Hyde Amendment, AOC tells her staff to look for things in the spending bill that they can participate in legislatively and her aides find that maybe this is a mistake: the Democrats are in control in the House, yet the Hyde Amendment is still in here. Great champion of abortion rights, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi—clearly. And so they just they called the committee and said, by the way, just wanted to make sure you know it was still in there, but we're going to take it out. She hears from Rosa DeLauro, one of the great champions of abortion rights, Planned Parenthood—

Robinson 

I was surprised to learn that Planned Parenthood did not want Democrats to try to remove the Hyde Amendment. Why?

Grim 

So, the argument is that would force Democrats in swing districts to cast a vote that would allow federal money to be used for abortion services, and they would say they told the office, we would have to score that vote. Because it's such an important vote, publicly we claim that this is something that we want to achieve. So, if there's a vote on the floor, we would score it. And what that means is, if a Democrat voted no on it, they would get a bad score. So, now instead of getting a 100% rating from Planned Parenthood, they have a 75% rating, or they have a B, or a C, or whatever it is. That hurts them when it comes to fundraising, according to them, and then if they vote yes on it, they were worried they'll get hit by the Republicans in the swing districts for supporting using federal money to support abortion services, which they believe then would be politically risky.

And they say, there's no point; it's not going to get through the Senate anyway—Trump's not going to sign it into law, so you'd be taking this vote that would complicate everybody's life for no actual material gain for anybody. The way that we actually get it done is we have to have Democrats control the House, the Senate, and the White House, and then we'll be able to accomplish this and what you're doing is getting in the way of it. So, that was the rationale that they're given and the AOC staff were like, okay, but let's just have a vote on it—how about this crazy idea. Their argument, too, is they believed that even if you wanted to make all those cynical political calculations, the calculators were wrong, that actually supporting abortion rights is popular in swing districts now because swing districts, which in the 1990s and 2000s era were more rural areas where Democrats were still competitive, were now suburban districts that were swinging, and that forcing Republicans to have a fight over abortion actually would benefit Democrats. I think the time since then has absolutely vindicated that times ten. 

Robinson 

Right. So, there are many arguments that are like, here's why we can't do anything. But actually, you might be able to do something. And this is also wrong.

Grim 

Right. Even on your own terms, it’s wrong. 

Robinson 

In many ways, this is a kind of depressing story because you get all these energetic idealists coming into Congress, and then just running up against the giant wall of the establishment and finding they can't do very much. You actually kind of have some insight into AOC’s thinking. You write here that "her curse was her desire to win consensus and persuade her colleagues. She was there to help. Coupled with her radical politics, she wanted to remake the system and be thanked for doing it, taking any resistance as a personal challenge." She seems to both, on principle, believe that it's really important to call out Democrats who vote for and support terrible things, but also doesn’t want to alienate herself from her colleagues entirely and actually succeed at things. It seems like this is a paradox that she's never managed to square.

Grim 

I think part of it is she very much took Democrats seriously when they would say they supported something. And so, she would say, okay, you guys say you support repealing the Hyde Amendment, for instance; what I'm doing is showing you the way to repeal the Hyde Amendment, then pointing out to you the people who are in the way of repealing the Hyde Amendment like Dan Lipinski—an anti-choice Democrat who she helped oust in 2020. So she thought, how can you hold that against me? Aren’t we are all here to accomplish this agenda? These people are in the way of it, not me. I'm the one who wants it accomplished. I'm showing you the path forward. How is that a bad thing? And I think, within several years, she learned an awful lot about the way the institution works and realized, they're not actually all in it to repeal the Hyde Amendment and to accomplish the agenda. The agenda is a thing that we talk about toward the maintenance of power. And so, the analysis that she had in the first six months of being a member of Congress, compared to what she has now, is markedly different. 

Robinson 

Well, she should bring the combative stuff back then. 

Grim 

Yes, because in some ways, there's some vindication for that. On the other hand, the whole “hold the line” fight was interesting, and 2021, where they did kind of get the band back together and had a lot of outside online support for a growing number of Democrats who were saying they were supporting Biden, and that's the difference between Republicans and Democrats. The Progressive Caucus and The Squad always couched their support of Build Back Better as Biden's agenda, that they’re the ones fighting for Biden's agenda. Because at the time, Biden was still popular among Democrats. Now, he's lost basically everybody.

But they'd say to Biden, it's Josh Gottheimer, and these other right-wing Democrats, who are undermining your agenda, and we're actually supporting your agenda. Whereas on the Republican side, Republicans are always running against the Republican establishment, even though the Republican establishment is kind of made up at this point. There is no Republican establishment, which is one reason I think they can trash talk it so much. It's been thoroughly destroyed by MAGA. And so, you can say you're against this thing, with this thing not even existing and having any power to fight back at you. It's like Mitt Romney—that's who you are trash talking. What's he going to do to you?

Robinson 

I have two more questions that I wanted to ask you while you're here. The first is, how real and significant is the actual effect of the Israel lobby in Congress? Because it comes up in your book. There's an interesting kind of argument on the left as to how important the actual Israel lobby is versus its ideology. Is it the actual influence of this interest group that threatens people? What's your take on the extent to which the institutionalized support for Israel can actually affect what people do in the legislature?

Grim 

I think if you look at the timeline, in the 1970s and 1980s, before the pro-Israel lobby really took off—it was taking off in the early 1980s—you had many Democrats who were pro-Palestinian and pro-Palestinian rights, and you had even a significant number of Republicans who were supportive of Palestinian rights. Compare that to, let's say 2016, where you have virtually none. When you had the Obama administration kind of take on both the pro-Israel lobby and Israel to pass the Iran nuclear deal, it did so in the face of enormous opposition from Democrats in the House who were still tightly allied with Israel, to the extent that they were complicit in bringing Netanyahu over to the House. A lot of them went to watch Netanyahu address a joint session of Congress to oppose the Iran nuclear deal, the President's highest foreign policy priority, against the wishes of the President of the United States. It was just an absolutely extraordinary breach of the way that things are done. That I think shows that the strength of it.

In 2022, AIPAC itself finally launched the super PAC, which came after the Democratic Majority for Israel, the DMFI, in 2020. That really cemented the influence of the pro-Israel lobby where you would have candidates in races across the country who weren't seeing a dime in spending from AIPAC or DMFI, altering their public positions on Israel-Palestine just to stay under their radar and to stay on their good side. And certainly the races where they did spend money, they really shaped what was possible inside the House. Their highest profile victory was probably against Nina Turner, who was 30 to 40 points up without that intervention. At the last minute, she wins. They almost beat Summer Lee. They beat Donna Edwards, who was a skeptic of Israel. A significant number of other Democrats that would be in Congress voicing public opposition to what's going on now are not there, and others were kind of muzzled and shifted on the issue.

Robinson 

The last thing I wanted to get from you while I have you here is your take on how fucked Joe Biden is. I've seen the headline over and over, "Joe Biden's approval rating reaches a new low." There doesn't seem to be any end to the number of times that headline can be produced. And yet, a recent cover story of New York magazine is about how the Biden campaign are pretty untroubled and unfazed by all of this, and every time I feel that this looks like a real disaster, I am assured that the election is a long time away and a lot of stuff can be turned around and maybe there's a secret plan. You're a Washington insider. Is there a secret plan? Are people more panicked in private than they are in public?

Grim 

The secret plan was revealed publicly by Ron Klain, Biden's former Chief of Staff, several years ago. Remember when Emmanuel Macron won re-election a couple of years ago? Ron Klain tweeted, “look at that, an incumbent with a 30% approval rating just won reelection. Told you it's possible.” The strategy is that Trump is like Marine Le Pen, that everybody hates Trump, and if you force voters to choose between those two, what they call the double haters who hate both, will break for Biden. That's their theory. The double haters in 2016, who hated both Hillary and Trump, broke for Trump. The double haters in 2020, who hated them both, broke for Biden. The difference, of course, this time—we'll see if Cornel West or Jill Stein get any ballot access or any traction—RFK Jr. is potentially on a lot of these ballots, and maybe you get a Joe Manchin. No Labels is a huge part of this book too, representing hedge fund and private equity money.

So, there could be options at this time, and it will be harder for Democrats to force the straight-up referendum on MAGA. Democrats in DC very much believe that the data shows that if the election is a referendum on Trump and MAGA, MAGA loses, no matter what. That's how confident they are. That's why they would put up Joe Biden at this stage. The funny thing is, Biden could win. He could also lose. But I think too many people think that Biden has a 0% chance of reelection. I don't think that's right. I think it's practically a coin toss. But I also think some Democrats are estimating—

Robinson 

But god, what a risky thing to pin it on.

Grim 

Jesus man, yes, their assertions that they really care deeply about democracy and that if they lose, democracy is finished, are not borne out by their willingness to put this guy into the ring as the champion.

Robinson 

We're confident that if it's a referendum about MAGA, you can give people no promises. You can give them an incredibly unpopular old, feeble man, and it wouldn't make a difference.

Grim 

Can't string together sentences—

Robinson 

Who's not allowed to speak publicly after 5pm?

Grim 

Yes, that's a lot of confidence.

Robinson 

I always wonder, and that's why I wanted to take the opportunity to talk to you, what do people know in private in DC that they don't say publicly?

Grim 

But that's basically it. Biden is doing everything he can to denude that argument. He tried to do an immigration crackdown. It looks like the Republicans aren't going to let him because they'd rather have chaos that they can point to. He’s backing two wars that are spiraling out of control, and saber-rattling around Taiwan. So, the rationale is being anti-MAGA, but they keep knocking different legs out from underneath.

Robinson 

Hamilton Nolan had a really great take: don't make voters step over a pile of corpses to vote for you. You better hope that like they're willing to step over the pile of corpses now. Am I wrong that Trump has been quite quiet on Israel-Palestine? 

Grim 

Very quiet. He recognizes that there's no political upside for him getting involved in it. Because if he says anything mildly critical of Israel, he loses a lot of right-wing support, but he also doesn't want to get in the way of Biden while he's making a mistake. I think of that Napoleon quote, don't get in the way of your opponent when he's making a mistake. And so, he wants this crisis, this war, this genocide, to drag Biden down as much as possible without him having to be associated with it. 

Robinson 

Suddenly, I realized that I hadn't heard anything about it coming out of Trump, and I thought, god, that's clever.

Grim 

Right. He sees where this is going. That's that's the funny thing. It seems quite clear that Netanyahu likes Trump, wanted Trump to win in 2016, and would love Trump to win reelection. But I think Netanyahu better be careful what he wishes for because Trump is the most cynical man on the planet, and the second that Netanyahu or Israel are not an advantage to him, let alone a political disadvantage, he'll cut them loose faster than an F-16 can fly.

Robinson 

And I actually feel like he would be almost less likely to do what Biden's doing, which is just letting Netanyahu walk all over him and keep sending bombs.

Grim 

Yes, he's not taking political heat for anybody.



Transcript edited by Patrick Farnsworth.

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