Rashida Tlaib is getting blowback for urging Michigan Democratic primary voters to cast their ballots as “uncommitted” rather than for Joe Biden. But if voters take issue with Biden’s support for Israel’s assault on Gaza, that’s no one’s fault but his own.

Michigan representative Rashida Tlaib greets demonstrators outside her office in the Rayburn House Office Building as they rallied on Capitol Hill in support of Palestinians and to demand a cease-fire in Gaza on February 15, 2024 in Washington, DC. (Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images)

Five years ago, Democratic Michigan congresswoman Rashida Tlaib was at the center of a controversy over her comments about a president. Speaking of then president Donald Trump, she said, “We’re going to be impeach the motherfucker.”

Some Democrats criticized her profanity. Trump himself, not otherwise known for being sensitive about such matters, said he thought her comment was “disgraceful” and that Tlaib had “dishonored herself and dishonored her family” by saying it. Reports at the time observed that the congresswoman was “unapologetic.”

Today, Tlaib is again being criticized for allegedly showing disrespect to a sitting president: this time Joe Biden.

Tlaib helped elect Joe Biden in 2020. Michigan is an important swing state, and as I noted at the time she seemed to be working a lot harder than the official Biden campaign itself to get out the vote there. But today, like many Americans, Tlaib is deeply disgusted by President Biden’s role in arming, financing, and providing diplomatic cover to the state of Israel as it indiscriminately slaughters civilians in Gaza. Tlaib is Palestinian American, with family currently living in the West Bank.

Now, Tlaib is urging Michigan Democrats to vote against the president in next Tuesday’s Democratic Party presidential primary. In the absence of a strong challenger, she’s calling for a vote for “uncommitted” — the electoral equivalent of picking “None of the Above” on a multiple-choice quiz. The strategy does not directly pertain to the general election.

Mainstream Democrats and the kinds of Never-Trump Republican hangers-on who fill the airwaves at MSNBC have been attacking Tlaib for taking this stand against the mass murder of Palestinian civilians. Tellingly, in every clip I’ve seen, they haven’t gotten mad at the substance of her opposition to President Biden. They haven’t argued that he was right to repeatedly veto cease-fire resolutions at the UN or to bypass Congress to repeatedly rush military aid to Israel even as the Israeli operation has displaced over 85 percent of the civilians in Gaza from their homes and killed thousands upon thousands of Palestinian children.

They haven’t said she’s being unfair and tried to defend the “targeted” nature of an operation so obviously committed to destroying the conditions of Palestinian life in Gaza that the territory’s last remaining university was destroyed with a controlled demolition. They haven’t said that everyone should vote for Biden instead of casting an “uncommitted” protest vote because Tlaib is wrong and Biden is right that Israel is “defending itself” rather than seizing the opportunity to carry out a massive act of ethnic cleansing.

Instead, they’ve mostly just expressed umbrage at her disloyalty and disrespect for the leader of her party. They’ve acted, in other words, like she called Joe Biden a “motherfucker.”

Democrats Dodge the Issue

In one segment on MSNBC, Democratic strategist Don Calloway said that when educational institutions in the Detroit area “don’t get the proper appropriations from the Democratic administration,” voters should “remember that it’s because your Democratic congresswoman told them not to vote for the Democratic president.”

Calloway is describing a hypothetical scenario in which a particular region’s educational institutions go underfunded as punishment for failure to show proper deference in a party primary. Were that to happen, it would be a blatant act of corruption. But Calloway seemed certain that Tlaib, rather than a vengeful Biden administration, would be at fault in this hypothetical situation. “You don’t slap the president in the face and then expect to be treated as a member of the caucus in good standing,” he said.

In another segment, Democratic Pennsylvania senator John Fetterman — who has broken entirely with any kind of remotely progressive values on the issue of Israel, which he supports unreservedly even as it indiscriminately destroys civilian life in Gaza — didn’t mention Tlaib by name, but said of any Democrats “criticizing the president publicly” that “you might as well just get your MAGA hat.”

Later in the segment, former Republican congressman David Jolly — apparently one of MSNBC’s vast stable of Never-Trumpers — chimed in that “if you want to see Donald Trump beat Joe Biden,” then voices like Tlaib’s “questioning Joe Biden’s leadership” are the way to make that happen. Never mind that Biden isn’t running against Trump in Michigan’s Democratic primary.

Even at this early stage of the democratic process, the likes of Calloway and Jolly and Fetterman seem to think, there should be a North Korean standard of loyalty: zero tolerance for any opposition to The Leader. Perhaps you can whisper in private that you wish he weren’t vetoing cease-fire resolutions and rushing arms to the Israeli government at a time when the International Court of Justice has issued a preliminary ruling that there’s a credible risk that Israel’s war crimes in Gaza will rise to the level of “genocide.” But you certainly can’t “criticize the president publicly.”

On one level, it’s absurd that the line of scrimmage has moved so far that the kind of contempt that used to be reserved for third-party voters is being applied to failure to display lockstep obedience even in a primary. On the other, Biden does have reason to worry. This issue could indeed be radioactive to Biden by the time he is actually up against Trump in November.

The disgust Tlaib has been expressing about the US-backed ethnic cleansing in Gaza isn’t limited to Palestinian Americans like her, or indeed Michigan’s large Arab American community more generally. A clear majority of Americans think the United States should promote a permanent cease-fire — even in polls that are slanted by absurdly postulating “defeating Hamas” as a possible outcome of the current slaughter. (Reality check: the mass killing and displacement of Palestinian civilians is far more likely to supercharge Hamas’s recruitment than lead to its disappearance.) And the sentiment is even stronger among Democratic voters. Only 20 percent of voters who went with Biden in 2020 are sure that what he’s backing in Gaza doesn’t rise to the level of a “genocide” — with 30 percent unsure and a whopping 50 percent saying the word fits.

That comes as little surprise when any voter with access to the internet is a few clicks away from footage that would freeze their blood, much of it taken by the very troops carrying out the atrocities. Numerous videos have circulated online, clearly taken by Israeli soldiers themselves, in which they ransack Palestinian homes, mocking their intimate possessions or joking about the home’s destruction. A Telegram channel that turned out to have been secretly run by an Israeli military office, aimed at demoralizing the enemy, ran snuff videos of Palestinians being brutalized and killed in Gaza with posts advertising the videos saying things like “you can hear the crunch of their bones” and talking about “exterminating the roaches.” How exactly does Fetterman expect, in such an environment, not to hear any progressives “criticizing of the president publicly”?

Tlaib is hoping that a major symbolic display of the growing outrage in Michigan might embarrass Biden enough to influence his decisions. I hope she’s right. But there’s an excellent chance that Biden will track a trail of Palestinian civilian blood from here to November, and that so many voters will stay home in disgust or vote for third parties that he’ll lose the election. It could happen.

I have no desire to see Donald Trump return to the White House. If it happens, though, don’t blame Rashida Tlaib. And don’t blame any voters who can’t get the sound of crunching bones out of their heads when November comes. Blame the president who’s providing the ammunition and diplomatic cover to the army “exterminating the roaches” — and who could have stopped any time he chose.

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