Last month, we analyzed the array of negotiating strategies—including carrots, concessions, and old-fashioned arm-twisting—that Nancy Pelosi used to secure enough Democratic votes to be elected speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. But Pelosi had only brief control of the speaker’s gavel before she faced a significant test of her ability to keep her coalition united. A caucus member’s controversial statements on American support for Israel deepened rifts and left the Democrats looking fractious and disorganized.
A firestorm creates fault lines
In early February, about a month after taking office, Representative Ilhan Omar of Minnesota tweeted that American politicians’ support of Israel is “all about the Benjamins,” a reference to money that was widely criticized as playing into anti-Semitic stereotypes. Omar, a Somali American, is one of the first two Muslim women elected to Congress, along with Rashida Tlaib of Michigan. In a statement, the House leadership called Omar’s statements “deeply offensive,” and Omar apologized. Nonetheless, on February 13, Republican leaders forced a vote on a House resolution condemning anti-Semitism, which passed unanimously.
At a bookstore event on February 27, about two weeks after her tweet, Omar made a remark insinuating that Israel’s American supporters have an “allegiance to a foreign country.” Deeply offended and angered by the comment, which appeared to draw on anti-Semitic tropes of dual loyalty, some of Omar’s Democratic Jewish colleagues called for her to be censured. But members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus and Congressional Black Caucus rallied to Omar’s defense, arguing she was facing undue scrutiny as a Muslim woman of color.
Republicans pounced on the moment of disunity, with President Trump calling the Democrats’ response inadequate and “shameful” and House Republican leaders urging Pelosi and her team to remove Omar from the Foreign Affairs Committee.
With the media reporting on signs of Democratic disarray, the controversy threatened to overshadow Democratic legislative initiatives. Pelosi’s leadership team planned a House vote on another resolution condemning anti-Semitism, but not Omar specifically, for March 6.
A raucous caucus
At a caucus meeting the day of the scheduled vote, Pelosi urged members not to question one another’s patriotism or loyalty, and she blamed the media for dwelling on the controversy.
Several Jewish lawmakers stood up to explain why they were so offended by Omar’s remarks. Florida Democrat Ted Deutch grew emotional as he spoke of encountering offensive slurs throughout his life. But Omar’s supporters argued the response to her remarks had been overblown and that the resolution needed to condemn all forms of hate speech, including Islamophobia. Some complained that President Trump and other Republican politicians had avoided censure for their own arguably racist remarks. Omar reportedly attended the meeting but didn’t speak.
“Everybody stop tweeting!” Illinois representative Jan Schakowsky, a close ally of Pelosi’s, pleaded at one point, according to the Washington Post— alluding to sniping that had broken out between caucus members on Twitter over the issue.
Freshman representative Jahana Hayes of Connecticut complained that Pelosi and her team had failed to adequately brief members on the draft resolution or seek their input before sharing details of it with the press, according to Politico. Pelosi responded that she and other leaders felt pressure to respond quickly to defuse the mounting political crisis. When she saw that Hayes was talking to another caucus member, Pelosi reportedly said, “Well, if you’re not going to listen to me, I’m done talking,” and left the room, Politico reports.
Back to the drafting table
Recognizing she needed more votes to defuse the controversy, Pelosi asked the House Foreign Affairs Committee to rewrite the resolution to condemn hate speech more broadly. Democrats began asking committee members to include specific groups in the resolution, including Hindus, Catholics, and Muslims, the Daily Beast reports.
Meanwhile, Omar reached out to Jewish lawmakers to make amends. “I do not believe that Ilhan Omar is anti-Semitic,” Schakowsky told Politico after speaking with her.
The following day, the House voted 407–23 in favor of a broad resolution condemning anti-Semitism, bigotry, and racism of all kinds, including “imputations of dual loyalty”; white supremacist attacks in Charlottesville, Va., and elsewhere; and attacks on Muslims and mosques. Only Republicans voted against the measure, which one Democratic aide called a “kitchen sink resolution,” according to the New York Times.
After drawing the public’s attention away from Democrats’ democracy reform bill for a week, the debate was finally over. Kentucky congressman John Yarmuth, who is Jewish, said he forgave Omar and blamed Republicans for trying to drive a wedge between Jewish voters and the Democratic Party. But for some Democrats, resentment lingered: “Why are we unable to singularly condemn anti- Semitism?” Deutch asked the Times.
Establishing team unity
Omar’s comments not only hurt and offended many but also laid bare widening rifts in the Democratic caucus that fall along “generational, religious, and ideological lines,” wrote Politico, “with Democratic leaders caught in the middle.” Although certain aspects of this dilemma were unique to Congress, such as its very public nature, it does highlight for leaders the potential difficulty of keeping a negotiating team united, focused, and on message.
With the media reporting on signs of Democratic disarray, the controversy threatened to overshadow Democratic legislative initiatives.
How can business leaders ward off and cope with such crises? First, they can set clear expectations and consequences for offensive statements and behavior in advance so that policy violations by team members can be dealt with swiftly.
Second, they need to set up a coordinated communication strategy. That might mean appointing a spokesperson to speak on the team’s or organization’s behalf and/or negotiating communication policies with team members (such as agreeing not to discuss the team’s work on social media).
Third, they should prepare for the internal disagreements that are inevitable in virtually any team. Professional facilitators or mediators can help assist with consensus-building efforts, which tend to produce more stable coalitions than up-or-down votes on particular issues, according to Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Lawrence Susskind.