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Florida Diary 2: Mitt Shammai, Barack Hillel (or vice versa)

by Shmuel Rosner

October 17, 2012 | 3:13 am

Mitt Romney and Barack Obama face off during the presidential debate in New York, October 16, 2012. (Photo: Reuters)

I began a big-fish debate night with the little fish: Florida congressional candidates speaking to a Jewish crowd. It was seven in the evening, and at the entrance to the Beth El Temple of Boca Raton dozens of young Jewish campaign volunteers were waving signs at the coming cars, distracting the drivers from the road, threatening to scratch their side windows.

Volunteers for Republican Adam Hasner (look him up on our Jewish House Projection) were mostly yarmulke wearing young men and seemed markedly Orthodox. If their presence at the forum is any indication to Hasner's chances - he might have one. But one suspects it could also be a sign that Hasner's young Jews have the commitment and the enthusiasm - and not necessarily the numbers. It was, after all, one evening, one event, one crowded temple. Crowded but not packed (well, is a temple ever packed except on Yom Kippur?)

Rabbi Dan Levin began the evening with a couple of words about the houses of Hillel and Shammai, on which the Talmud says: "these and these are both equally the words of the living God". Which, naturally, reminded me of Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. And if their words weren’t quite godly in their second debate, the heat and combative manner can certainly be compared to the Beit Hillel–Beit Shamai battle of ideas.

And of course, moving from the Beth El forum to the Long Island debate didn’t feel like a huge change. The Forward’s Gal Beckerman tweeted towards the end of this debate that “with questions from Carol Goldberg and Jeremy Epstein bookending this debate, it is officially the Jewiest debate ever”. Noah Pollack asked: “Was that a town hall debate or a meeting of Beth Shalom congregation of Five Towns?”

More than an hour passed before the candidates got a question on foreign policy, Libya. Until then, immigration and a passing mention of China were the closest we got to the world beyond American’s borders. If anyone was still in need of any proof that American voters – Jews included – only care this election cycle about the economy and about jobs (no, not about Israel, I also didn’t hear any question on Iran), this debate was proof enough for me.

And yes, the Libya moment was one of the highlights of the evening. But it was also more about America, not about the world. It was less about the right way to fix Libya, or the guidelines for intervention in foreign wars and much more about Libya becoming political football.

It was also the moment when Obama got as angry as we’ve rarely seen him, it was a moment when the moderator unwisely intervened, attempting to give the viewers the unvarnished truth – but really giving it a distorted version of it. When Obama argued that he declared the Libya attack a terror attack at the Rose Garden the day after the attack he was overstating his position that day.

Yes, the word “terror” was mentioned once, but reading the transcript one doesn’t get the impression of an Obama who understands the nature of the attack. On the other hand, Obama was convincing in his anger when he lectured Romney on his attempt to blame the administration for playing politics with Libya.

Obama was convincing, because he was right: there is no proof, and in fact no reason to suspect that the Obama team was making the mistakes it was making for political purposes. It was, as Obama argued, an “offensive” accusation – and one that was unnecessary. One can easily make a strong case against the way the administration handled the Libya situation without resorting to such allegations.

Romney could have argued that the problem of the Obama team was its instinctive tendency to search for fault on the American side. That for Obama and his people it was easier to believe that a horrible attack in Libya was a reaction to horrible – if not as horrible – American actions. Such a claim would have been far more grounded in fact, and far less cynical.

Read the first installment of Shmuel Rosner's Florida Diary here

Follow Rosner on Twitter and Facebook as he travels across the state, meeting candidates and campaigners

Get Rosner's new book The Jewish Vote: Obama vs. Romney / A Jewish Voter's Guide

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