June 12, 2008
2008: The contest for the Jews
(Page 3 - Previous Page)The Three 'I's at AIPAC
The contest for Jewish support really began last week as McCain and Obama spoke to the conservative-leaning AIPAC. This is a McCain audience, and he received a rousing welcome. He attacked Obama's proposal to talk to Iran and other adversaries. But Obama did surprisingly well, receiving an enthusiastic response to a strong and emotional speech heavily laced with strong support for Israel.
Their debate over foreign policy is about three 'I's: Israel, Iraq and Iran. McCain wants to make being tough with Iran a litmus test. But he is imprisoned by Bush's odd foreign policy that focuses on not talking to people we don't like. Supporters of Israel want to hear tough talk regarding Iran because they worry that Americans do not realize how serious a threat Iran is. But not talking makes little sense. It's not appeasement to talk to bad guys; it's what you give them that is appeasement.
To make this point, Obama has been quoting Presidents Kennedy, Nixon and Reagan about talking to adversaries, in order to highlight how out of the mainstream is the Bush approach that McCain has adopted. As he makes this argument, Obama has to be careful to not suggest that talk and action are the same thing, and to emphasize that diplomacy must be tough.
So this "talk" debate is perilous for both. McCain has to explain why every president except Bush is wrong, when the country has largely decided that Bush is wrong on most everything. Obama has to explain that he is not just a talker, and that he understands the old Nixonian mantra, "peace through strength."
This question of talking to adversaries is really interesting. Israel is talking to Syria, and the Bush administration is trying to block them from doing so. This has to be the first time that an American administration has actively discouraged Israel from talking with an enemy. It's remarkable also because Iran desperately hopes to keep Israel from making a deal with Syria. Israel may be smartly pursuing a divide-and-conquer strategy that has Iran worried. So why on earth would the United States act this way if the goal is to weaken Iran?
On Iraq, Obama has said from the start that the Iraq war was a mistake. McCain's position is that the war was right but has been carried out badly, until recently when it has been going better. Obama wants to get out as soon as possible. McCain seems willing to stay until "victory" is achieved.
And what about Israel? McCain argues that the war has made Israel safer. Obama says it has made Iran stronger. My assessment is that the Iraq War is a loser for McCain no matter what. His strongest case for the pro-Israel constituency is Iran. But Obama will not necessarily win the rational argument that the war has made Iran stronger and has not helped Israel, even though there is considerable evidence for it. People who think the Iraq War is a great idea are not going to be moved by an argument about its consequences. Attitudes about Iraq and Iran are only partly "rational." They are also about defining one's stance in the world. Obama would be safer simply arguing that the war has been a through and through mistake and that he will end it, but that he will be more than tough enough to deal with Iran.
The Friends of the Candidates...
Both candidates have friends who will carry their message to Jews. McCain has many allies in the Jewish community, from AIPAC on down. But his big cannon is Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn). Lieberman has taken up residence in McCain's corner. As much as his recent actions antagonize his Democratic colleagues, with whom he still caucuses, he may have no other option but to throw in his lot with McCain. His leverage over the caucus, in which his vote determines which party controls the Senate, will likely end in January if, as expected, Democrats pick up seats. Lieberman will attack Obama hard. He is already making the case that the Democrats are weak on foreign policy, and he will have an audience among Jews. His attacks annoyed Obama enough that the Democratic candidate took Lieberman aside in the Senate to confront him about his unwillingness to more clearly scotch the rumor spreading its way around the Jewish community that Obama is a Muslim.
McCain also has a complicated alliance with pro-Israel evangelicals. The trick for the Republicans has been to use the evangelicals to show their pro-Israel bona fides without letting people see too closely what somewhat deranged ideologies lie behind it. So, when the Rev. John Hagee was quoted as saying that Hitler had done a great service by driving the Jews to Israel, McCain had to cut his ties (although Lieberman seems to have not done so).
Of course, Obama has his own weird pastor problem, what with the public statements by the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Fortunately, Obama has a large and growing support base among Jewish elected officials and foreign policy specialists with credibility on Israel. Their help will be absolutely critical to him as he makes his case to the Jewish community, where the Wright controversy remains alive.