September 7, 2012
Democrats return to the economy after Jerusalem detour
It was the nuts-and-bolts convention that nearly broke down over the most ethereal of issues: Jerusalem and God.
But by its third and final night, the Democratic National Convention had gotten back on message: jobs, jobs, staying on course with getting the economy back on track, and -- oh, yes -- jobs.
It was a course correction after two days in which convention organizers -- and, in particular, the campaign’s Jewish surrogates -- scrambled first to explain how recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and mentioning God got left out of the party platform, and then hustled to get them back in over the objections of some noisy and unhappy delegates.
The convention in Charlotte, N.C. -- like its Republican counterpart, which last week nominated Mitt Romney in Tampa, Fla. -- was mostly about the economy.
Foreign policy barely surfaced at either convention, and social issues -- while prevalent on the streets outside the Charlotte convention, where protesters on both sides of the abortion debate competed for sidewalk space -- were addressed, but not paramount.
Vice President Joe Biden, whose foreign policy experience over decades in the U.S. Senate was made a centerpiece of President Obama’s choice of VP four years ago, barely mentioned foreign policy in his speech Thursday night.
America’s posture overseas was left to two of Thursday’s convention speakers: Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), the 2004 nominee who is now a widely touted possibility as secretary of state if Obama wins a second term, and Obama himself.
“Our commitment to Israel’s security must not waver, and neither must our pursuit of peace,” Obama said to applause during a short foreign policy aside in a speech that was otherwise dedicated to staying the course on his plans for economic recovery. “The Iranian government must face a world that stays united against its nuclear ambitions.
Democrats had scrambled to contain an embarrassing breakout after Republicans had seized on the removal of Jerusalem and God from the platform, grabbing headline space Democrats had hoped would contrast the enthusiasm in Charlotte with the relatively subdued Tampa convention.
The language was returned in a quickie session on Wednesday, but that also was not without its awkwardness: the convention chairman, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, had to call for three voice votes before declaring a two-thirds majority. But those on the floor said the vote actually was much closer – and there were boos.
Those who objected ranged from Arab Americans who had praised the removal of the Jerusalem language as an acknowledgment of the claims both Palestinians and Israelis have on the city, to religion-state separatists who objected to the God language, to delegates who were outraged at what they saw as a rushed amendment process.
Jewish Democrats, who helped drive the return of the language, depicted the change as Obama’s initiative and a sign of his control over the party.
“The difference between our platform and the Republican platform is that President Obama knows that this is his platform and he wants it to reflect his personal view,” Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), the Democratic National Committee chairwoman, told CNN after Robert Wexler, a member of the platform draft committee and a chief Jewish surrogate for the Obama campaign, told JTA that Obama directly intervened to make sure the platform was changed.
“President Obama personally believes that Jerusalem is and will remain the capital of Israel,” Wasserman Schultz said.
But that claim was at odds with repeated statements by Obama administration figures in recent months that Jerusalem remains an issue for final-status negotiations -- itself the position of a succession of Republican and Democratic presidencies for decades.
Jewish Democrats acknowledged at the outset of the convention that they needed to address perceptions that Obama was distant from Israel before pivoting to the area where they feel Obama far outpaces Romney among Jewish voters -- domestic policy.
Kerry, in his speech, cited Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in making the case for Obama’s Israel bona fides.
"Barack Obama promised always to stand with Israel to tighten sanctions on Iran — and take nothing off the table," Kerry said. "Again and again, the other side has lied about where this president stands and what this president has done. But Prime Minister Netanyahu set the record straight: He said our two countries have 'exactly the same policy … Our security cooperation is unprecedented ...' When it comes to Israel, I'll take the word of Israel's prime minister over Mitt Romney any day."
Yet while the convention was under way, a story broke that underscored the ongoing tensions between the Netanyahu and Obama administrations over how best to keep Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
Netanyahu, a top U.S. lawmaker said, erupted in anger at the U.S. ambassador to Israel over what Israel's government regards as unclear signals from the United States on Iran.
Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), the chairman of the U.S. House of Representatives Intelligence Committee, described for a Michigan radio station, WJR, an encounter he witnessed last month when he was visiting Israel. The interview was picked up Thursday by the Atlantic magazine.
"It was very, very clear the Israelis had lost their patience with the [Obama] administration," Rogers said.
Rogers described Israeli frustration at what he depicted as the administration's failure to make clear to Israel or Iran whether and when it will use military force to keep Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
By Thursday, the convention’s message about the economy and the role of government in guaranteeing a social safety net was once again front and center -- and among Jewish delegates, who crowded the floor sporting Hebrew Barack Obama buttons.
Cheers erupted when Carol Berman, a retiree from Ohio now living in West Palm Beach, Fla., lauded the president’s health care initiative.
“I'm one of the seniors who retired to this piece of heaven on Earth and I'm as happy as a clam,” Berman said. “It's not just the sunshine; it's Obamacare. I'm getting preventive care for free and my prescription drugs for less.”
Berman’s was the kind of “personal story” that Democrats had urged Jewish advocates to use when they made the case for Obama to the 5-10 percent of Jewish voters they estimate voted for Obama in 2008 and might be reconsidering this year. Wasserman Schultz also shared her personal experience with breast cancer in making the pitch for Obama's health care legislation.
The convention’s most sustained standing ovation was for Gabrielle Giffords, the former Arizona congresswoman recovering from being shot in the head in January 2011. Giffords came to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, walking on her own with a cane and accompanied by a watchful Wasserman Schultz. The two women are close, having bonded as being the first Jewish women elected to Congress from their respective states.
The theme of collective responsibility informed the one rabbinical benediction of the convention, which closed Wednesday night’s events, by Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles. Wolpe ad-libbed a Jerusalem reference in his speech, slightly tweaking the prepared remarks delivered to reporters before he spoke.
“You have taught us that we must count on one another, that our country is strong through community, and that the children of Israel -- on the way to that sanctified and cherished land, and ultimately to that golden and capital city of Jerusalem -- that those children of Israel did not walk through the wilderness alone,” Wolpe said.