DENVER (JTA)—John McCain’s campaign has walked a fine line between upholding the values of the GOP base that still reveres George W. Bush, while repudiating the legacy of the most unpopular president in modern history.
In at least one area, however, there’s no ambivalence: When it comes to Israel and how to deal with Iran, Republicans are happy to tout the Arizona senator’s consistency with the Bush presidency and his differences with Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), his Democratic rival.
At next week’s GOP convention in St. Paul, Minn., expect McCain and his top surrogates, including lapsed Democrat Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, to hammer home real policy differences between the two parties on the Middle East:
Such differences include Bush’s policy of continued democratization vs. Obama’s emphasis of reaching out to all governments; the Bush-Cheney preference for a tough military posture in the region vs. Obama’s pledge to intensify engagement in diplomacy and peacemaking.
“He recognizes Israel’s right as a sovereign to defend herself against those who seek to harm and destroy her,” says the “Jewish Advisory Coalition” page on McCain’s campaign Web site. The statement appears beneath a picture of McCain and Lieberman, wearing blue and white yarmulkes and praying at the Western Wall.
It’s a pitch that works with Republican Jews and the small portion of Jewish voters who vote strictly on Israel preferences. Coupled with McCain’s reputation as a relative moderate and anxieties about Obama, a relative unknown, the strategy appears to have eaten into the traditional 3-1 Jewish vote in favor of Democrats. Obama’s ratings have been stuck at 60 percent in Jewish polls.
McCain’s selection Friday of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate, however, might reinforce charges by Democrats that McCain’s pretensions to moderation are unfounded. Palin, 44 and governor for two years, is a staunch opponent of abortion rights and gay unions.
The McCain campaign is already casting the ticket as one of reform: Palin has earned plaudits for pushing through ethics reforms in a state where Republicans have become identified with cronyism.
“In Alaska, Governor Palin challenged a corrupt system and passed a landmark ethics
reform bill,” a McCain campaign statement said. “She has actually used her veto and cut budgetary spending.”
Palin is close to the state’s small Jewish community, and as governor has visited its synagogues. She was planning an Israel trip prior to her selection.
Still, the selection of a staunch conservative only reinforces the “yes, but” ambivalence of much of McCain’s campaign: Yes, the Iraq war didn’t turn out well, but McCain’s been saying so for five years. Yes, the Bush White House exacerbated partisanship, but McCain has a history of working with Democrats.
Now expect to hear: Yes, she’s a staunch social conservative, but McCain has in the past embraced some moderate positions, for instance on stem cell research.
Among the few relative moderates appearing at the convention, Jews figure prominently: Lieberman, hometown favorite Sen. Norm Coleman (D-Minn.) and Hawaiian Gov. Linda Lingle.
The two other Jewish speakers underscore the campaign’s emphasis on reaching out to the community: Rabbi Ira Flax of Birmingham, Ala. will deliver the invocation Wednesday night, and David Flaum, the Republican Jewish Coalition chairman, will speak on Thursday night, when McCain delivers his acceptance speech.
Jewish events at the convention include an RJC luncheon with Lieberman’s wife, Hadassah, as well as events honoring pro-Israel lawmakers, Republican governors and a session analyzing the Jewish vote. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee will run the same range of private events it ran at the Democratic convention, honoring lawmakers and meeting with advisers. Even J-Street, the dovish pro-Israel group that was a prominent presence at Jewish events at the Democratic convention in Denver, will hold an event in St. Paul.
The toughest distinctions will be on Iran. Expect McCain to repeat the pledge he made most recently to a group of Chabad-Lubavitch rabbis never to “allow another Holocaust.”
Obama’s campaign is pitching what it calls its “integrated” foreign policy that incorporates diplomatic and economic pressure with outreach; at a Center for U.S. Global Engagement session in Denver, Tony Lake, Obama’s top foreign policy adviser, said dealing with Iran’s suspected nuclear program “is a perfect illustration of an integrated approach because all our options would be on the table, economic, political and military.
Lake said the Iranian challenge could become the “worst crisis we will see in the next five years” and said Obama would deal with it as soon as he takes office. “We have to have a set of very serious negotiations with the Iranians. We have to work with other nations at increasing the leverage.”
The McCain campaign, by contrast, debuted a TV ad last week emphasizing Iran as a “serious threat” that threatens to “eliminate Israel.”