Only those with long memories (or the healthy habit of using Google as they cover current events) still have recollections from the 2007 Republican Jewish Coalition Presidential Candidates Forum. But there it was, pretty much along the same lines, with Rudy and Mitt and Fred Thompson and John McCain and Sam Brownback. Ron Paul was uninvited then as he was uninvited now. His supporters were furious then as they are now. But what’s more interesting is that the candidates speaking at the Forum were critical of the Israel-policies of the administration then as they are critical of it now.
OK, this last statement was probably too strong. The 2007 candidates weren’t as critical of the Bush administration as they are of the current Obama administration. Hacking Obama on Israel was their collective theme four years ago at it is today and had become a Republican sport of sorts. All candidates offered strong language, competing with one another at making Obama look as bad as possible. Obviously, such strong language could not be used in the case of the Republican Bush administration. However – and here’s where I get to the point: Back in 2007, Republican candidates (McCain excluded) were not just critical of Obama and Clinton, they were also more cautiously critical of the direction the Bush team was pursuing by convening the so-called Annapolis Summit.
I was present at the 2007 Forum and wrote afterwards that “While the Bush administration is attempting to prove that it has changed direction and is now putting its time and energy into the peace process after neglecting it for some years, the party’s candidates want to distance themselves from the president’s position and to return to the ideas that underscored its policy during his first years in the White House” (if you don’t believe it, watch Rudy Giuliani’s speech, just below).
My point: While I’m sure all GOP candidates truly believe that Obama has stirred off the right course in the managing of US-Israel relations, I am less sure that if any of them becomes president he (or she) would be pursuing the presently prescribed course.
Mayor Giuliani at the 2007 RJC Forum:
This is silly, but the RJC forum needs a shorter name. I can’t keep writing about “The Republican Jewish Coalition 2012 Presidential Candidates Forum” because I’ll run out of space. So I’m going to try a code name: TRJC2OCF.
I also have to say that I was watching the proceedings on the web but didn’t attend TRJC2OCF (Washington was off my daily route today). This must be said since it changes the outlook of the commentator. More focus on the content of speeches, less focus on the response of the present crowd.
In April of 2007 I attended a similar Democratic forum of candidates, and one of my conclusions was this: “NJDC is not AIPAC and the fact that people here are of the Jewish faith doesn’t require one to dedicate the better part of his time to Israel. Edwards opened his remarks by delving immediately into his I’m-such-a-great-supporter-of-Israel act, but the crowd was unconvinced. They know he supports Israel - to the extent that he does - like all other candidates. They want to hear something more special. So what was it that caught the crowd’s attention? They cheered Edwards - who had a decent but not great speech - three times. Once, when he called for withdrawal from Iraq, a second time - when he started talking about Darfur, and a third time when he called to end poverty in America”. My point back then was straight forward: If you’re a Democrat, don’t just talk to Jewish voters about Israel. Jewish Democratic voters have a lot on their minds, and Israel barely makes the top of their list.
Such advice, though, doesn’t apply to GOP candidates that are speaking to Republican Jewish voters. Why? Because there’s a growing gap between Republicans’ and Democrats’ support for Israel – in other words: Israel is much more important to Republican voters in general. And this has many studied manifestations - such as:
Orthodox Jews are more inclined to vote Republican, and also put Israel much higher on their priority list as they decide who to vote for.
Another 2008 study had shown that “the level of importance attached to Israel in thinking about the vote for President bears an inverse association with the intent to vote for Obama – or a direct association with the intent to vote for McCain. That is, for both Jews and non-Jews, the more one cares about Israel as an issue in this election, the more one is likely to vote for McCain”.
Bottom line: Republican candidates have more reason to emphasize Israel – Democratic candidates, not as much.
On the other hand, all of them have similar things to say about Israel.
Santorum spent most of his time talking about Israel and got cheered, but was this the best way to use one’s time? – I’m not sure; Huntsman spent relatively little time on Israel, probably too little, leaving the crowd cold; Romney stroked the right balance, as far as I could see. Warming up to the people in the room, but then moving to speaking about the real issue of the coming election: the economy – and to explaining why he, and not the other candidates (namely, Newt Gingrich) is the better candidate (he has experience but isn’t a creature of Washington and because – read before you laugh – “I don’t have a political career”).
Poor Romney: Not only has he lost the status of “leading” candidate, he also wasted his pledge to go to Israel “first” a while ago. So while the media was quick to report that Romney promises “to make a visit to Israel his first foreign trip if he becomes the Republican presidential nominee and goes on to oust Obama from the White House in next November’s election” – this report had the taste of deja-vu.
Here’s an idea, though. Israel should start a Romney Presidency with a grand gesture: Canada first, Israel second. Make everybody happy.
Romney also said at TRJC2OCF that “The ayatollahs will not be permitted to obtain nuclear weapons on my watch”. This reminded me of another two pieces I wrote in 2007 (for Slate Magazine) about the Democratic and the Republican strategies on Iran: “The Democratic presidential candidates attack the current administration for not doing more to engage the Iranians - but their proposals are very similar to Bush’s. The Republican candidates have an even less convincing MO: They attack the Democrats for attacking the president and end up suggesting, more or less, the same thing. Maybe this is the real story here: There’s only one serious option when it comes to Iran and a lot of politicians spinning it”.
Do you see any need for an updated version? I think it still stands pretty much as is.
One amusing anecdote: As I was sorting through previous writings I also found the short comment I’ve made on President (then candidate) Obama’s appearance at the NJDC event:
“He said that he will support Israel, make sure that it’s secure, and be more engaged - like everybody else - but he was the one candidate that went even further. The special relationship between Israel and the U.S., he said, can’t be based on ‘arms sales’ alone.”
And this from a President that is now trying to prove his unshakable support for Israel, mostly by stressing his fine record of “arming Jerusalem”.
Ben Smith’s story on two major Democratic institutions that “have emerged as vocal critics of their party’s staunchly pro-Israel congressional leadership” could not have a better timing for Republican purposes. At least for the members of the (dwindling) group of Jewish voters that put Israel policy front and center as they go to the polls, the material reported by Smith might tip the balance in favor of the opposition party: “The two [Democratic] groups’ push is part of a larger revival of the liberal American Israel lobby, though one that has yet to make a policy impact. Stalwarts of the anti-settlement movement like Peace Now have new, more politically engaged counterparts like J Street and see their views reflected increasingly in the party’s central institutions. They represent – they hope – the Democratic Party’s future, if not its present, and have taken heart from recent criticism of Israel by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton”.
Why the first three speakers didn’t make use of it, I wonder (maybe it was just too late for them to notice and respond).
You think a bunch Jewish Americans cheering “regime change” in Iran actually makes regime change more likely?
I think 11 is enough for one day. More comments – tomorrow.
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