WASHINGTON (JTA)—Joe Biden, all wrong on Israel? Sarah Palin, a Jewish woman’s worst nightmare?
Republicans and Democrats campaigning for the Jewish vote have flipped the traditional role of the vice-presidential candidate from “attack dog” to fresh meat.
Campaign attacks typically focus on the top of the other side’s ticket, with the vice-presidential pick often leading the charge while the presidential candidates remain above the fray. But this year, judging at least from this reporter’s inbox, about half the Jewish-themed campaign attacks are aimed at the VP choices instead of U.S. Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Barack Obama (D-Ill.).
During the Democratic convention in Denver last month, Republicans attempted to paint Biden, a longtime Delaware senator, as soft when it comes to defending Israel. Democrats struck back last week during the GOP parley in St. Paul-Minneapolis by taking potshots at Palin, the governor of Alaska, for her conservative domestic beliefs.
“Sarah Palin is a plucky, exciting candidate, but when her record is examined, she fails miserably with respect to her views on the domestic issues that are so important to the people of the U.S., and to me,” said Ed Koch, the former Democratic mayor of New York who endorsed Bush in 2004. “Frankly it would scare me if she were to succeed John McCain in the presidency.”
In an interview with Politico, Koch cited reports that early in her term as mayor of Wasilla, Palin asked the town librarian about banning books.
“Anytime someone goes to the library and says ‘I want to ban books,’ and the librarian says ‘no,’ and she threatens to fire them—that’s scary,” Koch was quoted as saying.
A few days after Palin’s selection, the National Jewish Democratic Council fired off a fund-raising appeal built around the argument that McCain had tapped a running mate who “is totally out of step with public opinion in the Jewish community.”
The NJDC noted that she opposes gay marriage and abortion even in cases of rape and incest, and believes creationism could fairly be taught alongside evolution. Those views led a gleeful NJDC to declare that McCain was “kissing the Jewish vote goodbye.”
Some of the Democrats’ first shots at Palin were misfires. Within a day of her nomination, U.S. Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.)—Obama’s chief Jewish surrogate—had accused her of backing Pat Buchanan, the Holocaust diminisher who had run for president in 1992, 1996 and 2000. In fact, Palin had backed Steve Forbes.
The NJDC noted that on Aug. 17 her church in Wasilla hosted an appearance by a Jews for Jesus leader to preach, who blamed terrorism in Israel on the failure to accept Jesus. Palin, according to the McCain campaign, had not been aware of the invitation and does not sanction the group’s views.
The RJC, mirroring an Obama campaign tactic, is soliciting such smears from its followers in order to debunk them.
“The RJC is determined to set the record straight in the face of frenzied attacks on Gov. Palin and Sen. McCain,” the Jewish GOP group said in an e-mail.
In response to the domestic-themed attacks against Palin, RJC pointed to news accounts suggesting that as governor, she has largely abjured these social issues in favor of an emphasis on fiscal responsibility.
Democrats counter that as a potential president—McCain is 72 and has survived four bouts of cancer—she would be at the center of such initiatives in a way that governors never are. They stressed the potential for her to appoint Supreme Court justices if she ends up as president.
Top Jewish Republicans were quick to defend her, including Virginia Rep. Eric Cantor, the deputy whip in the House and its only Jewish GOPer, and Hawaii Gov. Linda Lingle. In a colorful column praising Palin, Susan Froman—the only Jew and just the second woman to lead the National Rifle Association—said that the GOP running mate was more “rugged” than Obama, noting he has “never hunted wild game or field-dressed an animal.”
While Jewish Democrats have focused on Palin’s domestic positions, Jewish Republicans are hitting Biden on foreign policy.
The attacks on Biden, led by the Republican Jewish Coalition, appear to be based on a strategy often attributed to master GOP strategist Karl Rove: Attack a candidate on his perceived strength.
Biden, 65, a senator for 35 years and the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, was brought on to supplement Obama’s relative greenness on foreign matters. He also has worked the Jewish circuit up and down the East Coast for decades, peppering discursions on peacemaking with memories of his bantering with Golda Meir, whom he met on his first trip overseas as a senator, in 1973.
That reputation—U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), who as a college student in 1987 worked on Biden’s presidential campaign that year, calls him “mishpocha”—was meant to address lingering concerns among Jewish voters who have been put off by Obama’s relationship with a pastor who has likened Israel to white colonialists.
Within hours of Obama naming Biden on Aug. 23, the RJC fired off an e-mail describing Biden as making the ticket even “riskier” on Israel. The e-mail is now appearing in the form of an ad in Jewish newspapers.
“He has voted against significant legislation that would pressure Iran to stop pursuing nuclear weapons,” Matt Brooks, the RJC’s director, said in a statement. “Biden has failed to recognize the serious threat that Iran poses to Israel and the U.S. and its allies in the Middle East.”
Pulling out sin lists from thousands of votes is typical when lawmakers with long legislative histories run for office. One McCain supporter circulating an anti-Biden attack letter that listed the pro-Israel initiatives Biden refused to join even began the missive: “My G-d, I hope McCain signed these.”
Most recently, Biden and Obama refused to back a nonbinding amendment last year initiated by Sens. John Kyl (R-Ariz.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) that would have urged President Bush to designate the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps a terrorist group. (The amendment passed, and Bush did so.) Biden and Obama objected to including attacks on U.S. troops in Iraq, allegedly backed by Iran, as a rationale for the designation, fearing Bush could claim congressional backing if he attacked Iran.
In a Sept. 3 conference call with members of the Jewish media, Biden said the amendment was “gratuitous,” as Bush already had the power to take such a step. The amendment, he said, “opened the door to an attack on Iran at a time when I didn’t trust this administration,” noting claims that the president had gone well beyond congressional authorization in invading Iraq in 2003.
McCain also is vulnerable when it comes to Senate votes. The Arizona senator has yet to endorse Obama’s Iran Sanctions Enabling Act, which would protect organizations divesting from the Islamic Republic from lawsuits and facilitate such steps. Pro-Israel insiders attribute GOP lethargy on the bill in part to not wanting to give Obama a legislative victory during an election in which Republicans are trying to paint the Democratic candidate as thin in accomplishments.
Biden’s defenders in the Jewish community say lumping him with lawmakers who have consistently been cool on Israel is a calumny.
“I have known and worked closely with Senator Biden for more than 36 years, and the caricature that is being painted of him by some who value partisanship over truth is truly astounding,” Michael Adler, who chaired Biden’s abortive presidential campaign last year, wrote in an op-ed. “Perhaps even more distressing than the attacks on a good friend of the Jewish community is the use of the U.S.-Israel relationship as a partisan wedge issue.”
Another Biden backer, Peter Joseph, the incoming president of the dovish Israel Policy Forum, says judging a candidate by his votes does not do justice to someone committed to helping the sides come to an agreement.
“It’s easy to stand back and not understand the granularities,” Joseph told JTA. “He understands where the Israelis and Palestinians can play a role, and where the United States can help.
Still, Biden has a short temper and has not hesitated to tussle with the AIPAC when he thinks the pro-Israel powerhouse has crossed a line.
“AIPAC does not speak for the entire American Jewish community. There are other organizations as strong and as consequential,” he said in the conference call when asked about the RJC statement noting that he had failed to support several AIPAC-backed measures.
Insiders at the lobby were more bemused than offended by the outburst, saying they regarded Biden as essentially pro-Israel. Sources familiar with the situation said the Obama camp’s explanation was that Biden had mistakenly thought it was AIPAC who had criticized him, as opposed to the RJC.
In an apparent effort to patch things quickly, AIPAC issued a statement praising Biden and the Obama campaign returned the favor.