After Israel Aid Vote, Pocan Seeks to Show Biden Liberal Dismay on Gaza


During a town hall-style meeting a short drive from her home in rural southwestern Wisconsin, Elizabeth Humphries asked her congressman how a 66-year-old woman like her could get the message to President Biden that she and her peers are deeply dissatisfied with his administration’s approach to Israel’s war in Gaza.

Representative Mark Pocan, the Democrat who has held the district’s seat in Congress since 2013, assured her that he was working to pass along those very concerns.

“We’re videotaping this to share with the White House,” he said, gesturing to the iPhone set up on a nearby tripod to capture the event with two dozen or so voters seated in a room in Dodgeville’s City Hall. “They can hear me say this ad nauseam, but you all saying this is, I think, very helpful.”

Days after Congress gave overwhelming bipartisan approval to a $95.3 billion aid package that includes $26 billion in security assistance to Israel, Mr. Pocan — one of 37 House Democrats to vote “no” on the money for Israel — returned to his home district this week to field questions from constituents like Ms. Humphries who share his reservations about American involvement in the conflict.

At a time when young people of color on the left, particularly on college campuses, are commanding outsize attention across the country with vocal protests criticizing the Biden administration for backing Israel’s military offensive in Gaza, Mr. Pocan is determined to let Mr. Biden know that white rural voters in districts like his — another vital part of the president’s political coalition — are just as dismayed.

“I’ve never voted for a Republican, but I’m having a real hard time with the idea of voting for Biden,” Violet Hill, 76, said in an interview after an event with Mr. Pocan in Dodgeville. She said she supports Israel and condemns the Oct. 7 terrorist attack by Hamas, but finds the images from cities in Gaza where the Israeli military has destroyed buildings and displaced millions of Palestinians to be very upsetting.

“There is a big problem, I think, with people looking at Gaza and just being disgusted that we’re paying for that,” Ms. Hill said, adding that she disagrees strongly with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s approach and wants Mr. Biden to take a tougher public stance against his tactics.

This month, nearly 50,000 Wisconsin voters sought to send that message to Mr. Biden by refraining from voting for him during the primary contest, instead casting “uninstructed” votes. But that metric does not capture people like Trish Henderson, 75, who said she had voted for Mr. Biden in the April 15 primary but showed up to an event held by Mr. Pocan this week to register her frustration.

“So often we see on TV the children suffering and starving,” Ms. Henderson said. “We are liberals. We are progressives. Our whole ideology is to help one another and to take care of one another.”

“So we can’t ignore it,” she added. “We just can’t.”

Members of Congress have spent the last week back home in their districts, on recess from their legislative duties in Washington, many holding events to hear from constituents. At Mr. Pocan’s gatherings on Wednesday, the wave of questions about Israel and Gaza coincided with a rise in tensions at college campuses around the country, where pro-Palestinian activists clashed with law enforcement and Speaker Mike Johnson, the Louisiana Republican, appeared at Columbia University to denounce the unrest.

During two hourlong events, questions from the mostly retirement-age crowd included concerns about taxes, fears that Social Security might be cut and a number of complaints about the rising cost of living. Many applauded as Mr. Pocan touted wins that Democrats in Congress helped deliver, including policies to combat climate change and granting Medicare the power to negotiate prescription drug prices directly with pharmaceutical companies.

But over the last few months, Mr. Pocan said, questions about Gaza have been the most frequently asked. Stops in Dodgeville and Reedsburg on Wednesday were no exception.

Most of the audience seemed to be in agreement that the U.S. should be doing more to rein in Mr. Netanyahu’s offensive, which has led to tens of thousands of casualties in Gaza, but others expressed their concern with the pro-Palestinian protests, some characterizing the action on college campuses as antisemitic.

“They don’t want Israel to exist,” one man said of the protesters, before asking Mr. Pocan if he condemns Hamas as a terrorist organization.

“Of course — and I have multiple times,” the congressman replied, adding that he finds the rise in both antisemitism and Islamophobia since the Oct. 7 attack reprehensible.

For those who seemed unconvinced, Mr. Pocan described his posture toward Israel as that of a concerned and devoted friend trying to reason with someone who has gone astray.

“If you have a friend who has a six-pack on a Friday night, you take away their car keys, right? You make sure they’re not driving. In this case, Benjamin Netanyahu has probably had a couple cases and maybe a bottle of Jack,” Mr. Pocan told the crowd in Reedsburg with a wry smile. “And I think the leverage that we have, since the White House has a lot of latitude around arms sales, is around that area.”

In Washington, Mr. Pocan has been one of the leading voices among progressive Democrats calling on the president to leverage military funding and arms for Israel to force a change in tactics, including better protecting civilians and aid workers and increasing the amount of humanitarian aid getting to Palestinians.

Earlier this month, he led an effort by dozens of House Democrats to call on the Biden administration to pause delivery of offensive weapons to Israel following an attack that killed seven aid workers. The group also pressed Biden to condition military aid “to ensure it is used in compliance with U.S. and international law.”

Many of those showing up at Mr. Pocan’s events agreed with the congressman. They said they were satisfied with Mr. Biden’s performance in office and excited to support his bid for a second term, hoping to repeat his 2020 victory in the state. They said they understand what is at stake if Wisconsin swings for former President Donald J. Trump in November, as it did in 2016. But they are worried that the president is out of step on Israel, and the growing friction with his supporters could be costly.

“I’m afraid Joe won’t get elected because of this, which means we’re going to end up with Trump, which is a million times worse,” Ms. Humphries said in an interview. She said she wholeheartedly supported Mr. Biden, but the growing enthusiasm gap among young voters and anger on campuses over Gaza has her worried.

When Mr. Biden made a campaign stop in Madison earlier this month, Mr. Pocan said he had used the rare face time to bring up his concerns.

“I didn’t really have a chance to have a conversation, but I had a chance to say it,” he told voters.

From his interactions with White House officials and brief encounters with both Mr. Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris in recent weeks, Mr. Pocan tells supporters that there is little distance between the administration’s stance and what his constituents tell him they want to see.

“I do believe the president is saying many of the right things quietly,” Mr. Pocan said in an interview.

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