Netanyahu congratulates Obama on re-election


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu congratulated U.S. President Barack Obama on Wednesday for winning a second term and said the strategic alliance between their two countries was “stronger than ever”.

“I will continue to work with President Obama to ensure the interests that are vital for the security of Israel's citizens,” Netanyahu, who has had a testy relationship with the U.S. leader, said in a short written statement.

One major rift between the two leaders has been their approach in dealing with Iran's nuclear aspirations, with the United States urging Netanyahu not to launch any go-it-alone military action.

Netanyahu faces his own electoral test in January, when Israel holds a national ballot that opinion polls predict his right-wing Likud party will win.

Netanyahu's defence minister, Ehud Barak, who was a frequent visitor to Washington over the past four years, said in his own statement he had no doubt Obama will continue his policies, which “fundamentally support Israel's security”.

“It is possible to overcome any differences in positions that may arise,” Barak said.

Four more years (of bickering)


So the Jewish vote didn’t make much difference after all. Not even in Florida. Had Romney taken Florida, had he won this election, we could have argued that the 31 percent of Jews he was able to win over in the Sunshine State played an important role in his razor-thin victory. But he lost the election, Jewish gains notwithstanding. Thus, the first lesson, then, for Jewish Republicans like Sheldon Adelson should be as follows: If you have resources to spend on campaigning, if you are truly committed to the cause, spend your time and money assisting your party in winning over the people without whom elections cannot be won: Latinos. 

Saying the 2012 elections were not as important as the candidates (and many of us) said they were is easy. The two candidates were uninspiring, as is clear from the fact that neither of them was able to attract many crossovers from the other camp. Obama was supported by Democratic voters and Romney by Republicans. They masqueraded a heated debate over issues of great significance when, in fact, they were battling over a technicality: Who’s the better man to fix the economy – an issue most well-trained voters told pollsters is the “most important” for them. 

Believing the answers voters give is as dangerous as believing the candidates’ promises. Obama and Romney painted their race in ways favorable to their main cause – getting elected. But the voters were just as unreliable: They know what they need to say; they know what is expected of them. These elections early on were defined as being about “the economy” – hence, voters’ tendency to put the economy on top. However, putting the economy on top and then saying that Romney is the better candidate on the economy, and then giving Obama the White House, is exactly what American voters did, according to the exit polls. Elections are never about one issue and are almost always about how comfortable the electorate feels with the candidates. 

That more Jews felt comfortable with President Obama is not such a big surprise. No one really expected it to go any other way. It was also quite obvious that Obama will not win as strongly with Jewish voters as he did four years ago. As this article is being written, on Tuesday night, we don’t yet have all the detailed poll data that is scheduled to be released on Wednesday by both the Jewish Republican Jewish Coalition and by J Street pollster Jim Gerstein. However, early exit polls have revealed that Obama’s standings with Jews have declined to 70 percent of the vote. Did the vigorous campaign to peal away Obama Jewish voters work at all? Romney got 30 percent of the vote. And one suspects that both Jewish Democrats and Republicans will find a way to spin these results without admitting failure. 

They will be able to do it, among other reasons, because there’s never been true agreement on the percentage of the Jewish vote that went for Obama in 2008. Hence, there will be no agreement on the percentage of Jewish voters who’ve moved away from him and into the Republican column. A recent study argued that Obama’s actual Jewish number of 2008 was 74 percent — while the 2008 exit polls gave Obama 78 percent of the Jewish vote. So the scale of the decline depends how much you believe the new research. 

Those responsible for the new research want you to believe that this is the more serious analysis of the Jewish vote. But Republican Jews want you to believe that this study is a spin aimed at making Obama look better as his 2012 numbers drop. And they did drop: 8 percent fewer Jews voted for him, compared to the 2008 exit poll. Four percent fewer compared to the recent study. Whatever the final count, there’s no denying that the climb in Jewish Republican votes appears to be a continuation of a trend. In my book about the Jewish vote, I described the drop in the Republican Jewish vote since 1992 – in fact, I described the last two decades as the decades of the-Republican-Party-is-no-longer-an-option for Jews. But the graph of the Jewish vote for the Republican Party since that big drop of the early ’90s shows a slow but steady climb back to the party being an option.

On the morning of Election Day, I spent a couple of hours harassing Jewish voters in Beachwood Ohio, not far from Cleveland. These are precincts that went 71 percent-28 percent for Obama in 2008, 65 percent-35 percent for Kerry in 2004, and 77 percent-22 percent for Gore in 2000. I can’t tell you what the numbers will be like this time, but based on the dozen or so interviews I had time to do, it is likely that Romney got numbers in these precincts closer to those of the 2004 Bush than to the 2008 McCain. Possibly even higher. 

The story of the 2012 Jewish vote, then, is a story of a growing gap between the conservative wing of the community, a large part of it Orthodox, and the rest of the community, who remain loyal to the Democratic Party. Earlier this week, in Columbus, I made a pact with a local rabbi: I could ask any question and quote any answer, as long as I didn’t give away his identity. Not a hint, not a clue. Is it not problematic for a Jew in America to have such fear of exposing one’s political beliefs? – I asked him. The rabbi laughed. “You realize”, he said, “that my so-called fear has nothing to do with non-Jews – it is the Jews that I fear.” He then asked if I’d read Roger Cohen’s article in The New York Times about “The Jews of Cuyahoga County,” which, of course, I had. The rabbi didn’t like Cohen’s use of the word “ugly” at the outset of his article (“Things are getting ugly among the Jews of Cuyahoga County, with family splits and dinner invitations declined”), but he also gave the impression that at times things are, well, becoming ugly. Not for all Jews in Cuyahoga or Columbus, not in all families. But in some cases, it does – hence, the rabbi’s obsession about not wanting to be exposed. “If I get into political issues, I’m definitely going to alienate some people from one side or the other, and more likely from both sides.” These are days of tension and bickering and highly partisan spirit. These are days in which “hardly anyone can see both sides’ arguments.”

Having met and interviewed many Ohioan Jews during my week here, I discovered that it was easy to find Obama voters (“Is there even an alternative?” one Cleveland resident asked me), and also not very hard to find Romney voters (the easiest way: look for the Orthodox shul and the kosher deli), and was more rare, but still possible, to find the 2008-Obama-disappointee. But, truly, it was easier to find people who claim to know people disappointed with Obama than to find those disappointed people in person. “Yes, I have some friends that voted for Obama in 2008 and are now voting for Romney,” Jerry Mayer told me. Stewart Ain of The Jewish Week got a better quote from a Bret Caller: “I’ve had dozens and dozens of Jewish friends who voted for Obama in ’08 say to me that they are on the fence and will make a decision in the voting booth.”

And, one must admit, many of the Ohio Jews I met in recent days tended to think about Obama and Romney in the same dichotomist manner. Romney will “ban all abortions,” a weary Bev (or was it Deb? Forgive my insensitive Israeli ears) Hart explained, knowingly. Obama is “an enemy of Israel,” an angry Rob Gold told me. No article on the 2012 Jewish race can be concluded without some discussion of the Israel issue.

My first 2012 story on the U.S. election was published on Jan. 1, reported and written in Iowa, where Mitt Romney began his long journey to win the Republican primary election and become the nominee. I had a catchy headline for it: “Witnessing European Menace Invading Des Moines.” The only real foreign reference made by Romney in the political rally I attended that week “was not about the Middle East or even China,” I wrote back then. “Romney – and some of the other candidates as well – have made Europe a topic of political conversation. As in: If we continue to have policies like we have now, we might risk “ending up being like Europe.” I was reminded of this event and of that post, as I was listening on Sunday to Romney’s running mate, Paul Ryan, in a well-kept medium-size hanger, where he made a short landing in Mansfield, Ohio. Ryan was at his very best at that event, sharp and amicable. But he had no intention of talking about anything but the U.S. economy. 

I was waiting to hear a word or two about foreign affairs. Two days before an American election, as the whole world was watching, one would have been justified to expect at least a pretense interest on the part of the American candidates in what’s happening beyond America’s borders. But no such words ever quite materialized. Obama, when I saw him last week, seemed to have little interest in talking about foreign affairs. In fact, Obama made it a habit to tell American voters that electing him is important because he’s the candidate that will do “some nation building here in America.” Obama, like Romney, is an internationalist. But both of them felt a political need to make the world disappear in the final stretch of the election.  

For Israel, a less involved America is a convenience on some matters – such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – but really it’s a curse. Israel needs the United States to be leading the coalition against Iran, and needs the United States to project confidence and have influence in a region that becomes more volatile by the hour – recent exchanges of fire on the Syrian border being the most recent manifestation. Obama is likely not to have much appetite to be more engaged in the region, and even less appetite to have to deal with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, but will have no choice but to do it. 

Interestingly, not since Eisenhower has Israel had to make do with a president with whom it doesn’t quite get along for two consecutive terms. Carter, Ford and the first Bush – the three presidents at the top of Israel’s list of unfavorable presidents – were all one termers, annoying to Israel’s government, but gone quickly. With Obama, it will be eight years of bickering and mistrust and miscommunication, unless one of three things happens: If Netanyahu is not re-elected; if Obama or Netanyahu determine to put an end to the sour state of relations; or if the U.S. disengages. Option No. 1 will be an important component of Israel’s coming election – a tool that Netanyahu’s rivals are going to use in hopes of convincing Israelis that the relations with Obama are reason enough for them to replace the prime minister. Option No. 2 is the preferable option – the grown-up option – and hence the less likely one. Option No. 3 is the most dangerous of them all. Better for Obama and Netanyahu to keep the bickering going – and with it the involvement of the United States in Israel-related affairs. 

In battleground state Ohio, Jewish voters favoring Obama handily, AJC poll shows


An American Jewish Committee survey of Jewish voters in Ohio, a battleground state, has the community favoring President Obama in similar numbers to polls elsewhere.

The survey released Wednesday by the AJC has Ohio's Jews favoring Obama 64 percent to 29 percent for Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential candidate.

With a 6.4 percent margin of error, the numbers are commensurate with two other AJC polls last month that had Obama beating Romney 69 to 25 percent among Florida Jewish voters and 65 to 24 nationally.

As in those polls, the economy and health care topped voters' concerns.

The phone survey of 238 registered Jewish voters in Ohio was conducted Sept. 13-30 by QEV Analytics.

3 Views on the GOP Hammering Obama on Israel


This column went to press in advance of the Democratic National Convention. Please see the Rosner’s Domain blog at jewishjournal.com for updates. I also will be writing about the Democrats in next week’s newspaper. 

‎1.‎ President Obama came under attack yesterday for his many sins –as interpreted by ‎GOP candidates – among them the mistreatment of Israel. Senator John McCain, the ‎GOP 2008 candidate, said that the US “can’t afford to cause our friends and allies, ‎from Latin America to Europe to Asia to the Middle East and especially in Israel, a ‎nation under existential threat, to doubt America’s leadership”. Have no doubt: When ‎it comes to the “existential threat” Jerusalem indeed doubts America’s leadership (or, ‎as David Horovitz put it: “Everything you have heard about the personal hostility ‎between Obama and Netanyahu is true, and then some, according to the insiders from ‎both the pro- and anti-Iran strike camps. The prime minister thinks the president is ‎unreliable and misguided on matters Israeli, Middle Eastern and Islamist”). Whether ‎the US can’t afford such doubt is another matter. Condoleezza Rice, in her remarks, ‎also said that ““Our friends and allies must be able to trust us. From Israel to Poland ‎to the Philippines to Colombia and across the world – they must know that we are ‎reliable and consistent and determined”. But she didn’t quite explain why – what ‎might happen if these countries cease to have trust in the US? I must agree with ‎Foreign Policy’s Josh Rogin: “She said that under a Romney administration, the ‎United States will remain the most powerful country on Earth but didn’t get into the ‎details of how the former Massachusetts governor would tackle critical challenges ‎such as the crisis in Syria, Iran’s nuclear program, or the Middle East conflict”.‎

Read more at jewishjournal.com/rosnersdomain

How Ryan will motivate Jewish voters


Mitt Romney’s choice of Rep. Paul Ryan to be his running mate on the Republican ticket will help win Jewish votes.  For the Democrats.

Ryan may help Romney shore up support among Tea Partiers and evangelicals who don’t really trust his claims of conversion to their cause, but it is those issues that will cost him Jewish support.

Like everyone else in the Republican primaries, Romney ran hard to the right and was expected to follow the Nixon dictum and pivot toward the center for the general election.  Even senior advisors expected that when one spoke of the Etch-A-Sketch campaign.  But instead Romney moved further to the right with his choice of a running mate.

Turnout is critical and each party will be using Ryan to motivate its base to go to the polls, but for Republicans that appeal to hardline conservatives could cost them votes among undecided Jewish voters and independents in the center whose support will be critical in an election as close as this one appears to be.

Romney’s effort to make Israel a partisan wedge issue in this campaign is overrated.  Jews will still vote overwhelmingly Democratic again this year and it is questionable whether the GOP can draw off enough of their votes to make a difference in battleground states like Ohio, Nevada, Pennsylvania and Medicare-sensitive Florida. His real goal isn’t really votes anyway. It’s big bucks from conservative, deep-pocket donors who put Israel at the top of their agenda.

Foreign and defense policies are the Romney-Ryan ticket’s weak spots.  Neither man has any foreign policy experience — Romney’s recent overseas trip showed he’s not ready for prime time in that realm — and their combined military experience constitutes running down the gangplank on a mothballed World War II battleship Saturday morning to announce the young Wisconsin congressman’s selection.

While Republicans argue that Ryan’s presence on the ticket will enhance its focus on jobs and the economy, in reality it will shift the focus to his budget proposals that would significantly alter Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and a host of other entitlement programs high on the Jewish agenda.

Romney has praised the Ryan budget as “marvelous” and said if he were president and it landed on his desk, he would sign it.  Translation:  He just bought it and made it his own.

Campaign aides scampered to distance Romney from the Ryan proposals, saying he’d have his own plan once elected, but his longstanding aversion to providing any specifics leaves the Ryan budget — now the Ryan-Romney budget — to fill the vacuum and provide Democrats a very inviting target for hard-hitting attack ads.

Ryan’s proposals call for cutting funding for social programs so deeply that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and a national group of nuns have publicly criticized it as harmful to the neediest in society.

The National Jewish Democratic Council, a partisan group, noted that “A broad array of Jewish groups have criticized elements of Ryan’s budget proposals, although without naming him.”

Ryan, who chairs the House Budget Committee, is one of the most conservative members of the Republican Caucus.  The bishops and nuns may not like his plans to cut programs that “serve poor and vulnerable people,” but, unlike most Jewish voters, they do like his hardline views on abortion, gay marriage and reproductive rights.

Most damaging to the ticket may be his proposals to privatize Social Security, transform Medicare into a voucher system and turn Medicaid over to the states through block grants.

Democrats have dusted off their mantra and you’ll be hearing it a lot:  Romney and Ryan want to “end Medicare as we know it.”

Florida Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who chairs the Democratic National Committee and is Jewish, said “families and seniors in my home state of Florida want no part of a Romney-Ryan economic scheme that puts millionaires ahead of Medicare.”

Imagine if George W. Bush had gotten his way in 2005 when he proposed privatizing Social Security by allowing contributors to put their money into the stock market instead of the government trust fund.  Much of that money would have been lost when the Bush administration plunged the country into its deepest recession ever.

Social Security is the proverbial third rail of politics and Romney may have just stepped on it.

The Ryan-Romney budget calls for more tax cuts for millionaires like Romney and his fat-cat contributors while making Draconian cuts in federal spending on food safety, energy research, environmental protection, infrastructure, college tuition aid, food stamps, prescription drug coverage, workplace safety, women’s health coverage, consumer protection, product safety and the like.

Ryan could do more to keep Jewish voters in the Democratic column than any other single factor in this election.  Republicans will try to avoid specifics about the impact of Romney-Ryan policies and they will tout Ryan’s courage in tackling tough fiscal issues like entitlements, but voters like their entitlements (not so much yours, but they like their own), and if they fear Ryan and Romney will take them away, they’ll vote Democratic.  Again.

Jewish voters, with their strong affinity for programs serving the needy and the elderly, could be the first to punch the “no sale” button on the Romney-Ryan ticket.

©2012 Douglas M. Bloomfield

White House agrees with Netanyahu on sanctions, calls for patience


White House officials agreed with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s assessment that sanctions have not set back Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons program, but counseled patience.

“We completely agree with the prime minister’s assessment that Iran has failed to make that choice and that is absolutely a disappointment,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said Wednesday.

Netanyahu, meeting Sunday with Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, expressed skepticism about the sanctions.

“We have to be honest and say that all the diplomacy and sanctions so far have not set back the Iranian program by one iota,” he told Romney.

The Obama administration has been making the case for months to Netanyahu that he should delay any plans to strike Iran until it exhausts peaceful options.

Asked about Netanyahu’s comments in a call Tuesday with reporters, Ben Rhodes, the U.S. deputy national security adviser, also agreed with the Israeli leader.

“We continue to be dissatisfied, as Prime Minister Netanyahu is, with Iran’s continued failure to live up to its international obligations,” he said.

Rhodes said, however, that the sanctions were having a dire impact on Iran’s economy and suggested more time was needed to assess whether they would move Iran’s leadership to agree to terms for greater transparency about its nuclear activities.

“What we see today is not just a unified international community, but you see sharp divisions within the Iranian political system, far more so than we have seen in many years,” Rhodes said. “And I think that is a testament to the pressure that they’re under.”

Rhodes said that what the Obama administration has accomplished “is a steady ratcheting up the pressure that is increasing the cost for the Iranians in failing to make the right decisions. And until they do shift course, we will continue to look for ways to increase the impact.”

In Jewish election season, old themes and new concerns about Iran


Simmering beneath the presidential season’s familiar refrains of support for Israel is a passionate partisan argument over how best to confront Iran and deal with the new Middle East.

The Jewish election debate season was launched informally on May 4 at the annual American Jewish Committee global forum when longtime U.S. Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) and Weekly Standard editor William Kristol made the case for their preferred presidential candidates.

Kristol vs. Frank was lively, friendly and covered familiar territory about the Jewish tendency to vote Democrat and the commitment of both parties to Israel.

An encounter the next day between two top former Iran officials in the Obama and George W. Bush administrations, speaking at a Washington Institute for Near East Policy retreat, highlighted deep fault lines over Iran and the Middle East, not just between the campaigns but also between liberals and conservatives and the Obama administration and the Netanyahu government.

At issue were whether sanctions and diplomacy would keep Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, what circumstances would merit a military strike and whether the Arab Spring promised stability or chaos for the region.

The AJC debate between Frank, who this year is ending his 32-year run in the House of Representatives, and Kristol, the scion of a leading neoconservative family, was replete with the familiar, almost affectionate banter that characterizes much debate between Jewish Republicans and Democrats.

Kristol joked about how unlikely it was he would sway the audience, which he presumed to be predominantly made up of supporters of President Obama.

“It’s always a pathetic scene,” Kristol said of his appearances before Jewish audiences, noting that he has acted as a surrogate for GOP presidential candidates since 1996.

Frank needled Kristol for affiliating with a party that he said has moved sharply to the right on social issues.

“Whether or not the fact that you are gay disables you from being a foreign policy adviser,” Frank, himself gay, said, citing the case of Richard Grenell, an openly gay foreign policy spokesman for Mitt Romney’s campaign who recently quit under pressure from social conservatives.

Both surrogates scooped out heimishe references sure to resonate with the audience: Kristol in imagining Joseph Lieberman as secretary of state, and Frank in noting his pride in his relation by marriage to the late Three Stooges member Shemp Howard.

That revelation came after Frank likened the GOP to the Three Stooges.

“I mean that with no disrespect to the Three Stooges,” he said, evoking laughter not just from the audience but from Kristol, too.

Frank and Kristol addressed substantive issues, particularly differences over how best to keep entitlement programs solvent, through cuts and privatization programs (Kristol) or cuts and increasing taxes (Frank).

On Israel and the Middle East, however, they seemed more in agreement. Like Kristol, Frank faulted Obama for a “badly worded” speech a year ago calling for negotiations on the basis of the 1967 lines with security guarantees for Israel, but said the president had recovered.

Kristol agreed and said that on Iran, Obama and Romney “don’t sound that different from each other.” He claimed some credit for pressuring Obama toward being pro-Israel through his advocacy group, the Emergency Committee for Israel, which has run ads fiercely attacking the president’s record on Israel.

Kristol insisted that Romney would be the better choice to back Israel and face down Iran, but added that were Obama re-elected, “Some of us on the outside will continue to pressure [the administration] to do the right thing.”

The themes raised in the Frank-Kristol debate can be expected to resurface in debates in states where Republicans and Democrats agree that Jewish votes may make the difference in November, notably Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Nevada.

The tone at the Washington Institute retreat, held at a leafy golf resort deep in Virginia’s Washington suburbs, also was friendly but less prone to banter.

Neither of the panelists—Colin Kahl, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense in the Obama administration who handled the Iran nuclear file from 2009 to 2011, and Jamie Fly, who dealt with the same issue in various capacities for the George W. Bush administration—was billed as speaking for the campaigns or for the parties, although Fly stepped in at the last minute for Dan Senor, an adviser to the Romney campaign.

Launching straight into substance, Kahl and Fly offered arguments that drew short of definitive conclusions but showed sharp divergence on whether an attack on Iran could prevent the acquisition of a nuclear bomb.

Kahl outlined four arguments against a nuclear Iran: It could use the bomb, or allow a proxy to use it; a bomb would embolden Iran’s already aggressive regional posture; the profound suspicion between Israel and Iran, even if neither nation intended a strike, could result in misunderstandings that could escalate into war; and a nuclear Iran could set off an arms race.

He said each had merit to varying degrees and cumulatively made the case for threatening military action. But Kahl also said that Israel was off base in pressing for military action sooner rather than later.

His reasons: Sanctions and diplomacy had yet to be exhausted; there is no evidence that Iran was definitively committed to making a bomb; it is not clear that an attack would sufficiently degrade Iran’s capability to make a bomb; and there is no united international coalition committed to military action.

“One of the reasons I’ve been so critical about the Israelis taking action is that at this moment they cannot satisfy any of those criteria,” Kahl said.

Fly said that overall he agreed with Kahl’s assessment, but differed about what it portended. Instead of seeing the lack of hard evidence of a nuclear weapons program as reason to hold back, Fly used it to argue pressing forward with plans for a military strike.

Gaps in military intelligence mean that “we don’t know what other facilities they may have,” he said, and that “sets us up for failure.”

Fly laid out a scenario in which intelligence failure combined with prolonging the military option could result in a nuclear Iran that would have to be contained—an outcome that Romney and Obama have both rejected.

“I fear this path is leading us toward essentially accidental containment,” he said.

Fly said the Obama administration had not been consistent in making clear to Iran that a military strike was an option.

“I don’t think the Iranians think this administration is serious about taking eventual military action,” he said. “Clearly the Israelis are concerned.”

If commentary by Amos Yadlin, a former Israeli military intelligence chief who was attending, was indicative, the Israelis were indeed concerned.

“I am very much afraid that all those who explain that it is too early to attack—and this is what we have been doing for the last six years—will very soon say it is too late,” said Yadlin, whose term ended 18 months ago and who was a frequent interlocutor with Kahl when both were working for their respective governments.

Similar differences at the Washington Institute conference also played out over the meaning of the Arab Spring.

“While the change in the Middle East is working against Iran, it is our belief that it can and will work for the United States,” Denis McDonough, the U.S. deputy national security adviser, said in a keynote address. “A more democratic region will ultimately be more stable for us and our friends.”

The Obama administration has engaged with the Muslim Brotherhood, among other actors in Egypt following the outster of longtime President Hosni Mubarak more than a year ago. McDonough said such parties were unlikely to impose dictatorships.

“Any government today is going to press towards greater transparency,” he said. “As a result of more powers to individuals, more powers to Egyptians, even if someone wants to be dictatorial, it’s going to be difficult.”

Such sanguinity about the results of Arab upheaval was otherwise in short supply throughout the conference, which tends to a draw a more hawksih-leaning pro-Israel crowd.

In concluding remarks, Washington Institute director Robert Satloff noted that “The record of empowerment of Islamic political parties is not positive.”

Hopeful Dems eye top committee spots


Amid the election season tumult, behind-the-scenes campaigns are also under way for who will be the next top Democrats on two key congressional committees — with Jewish lawmakers in the running for both leadership slots.

Two veteran congresswomen, Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio) and Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.), who is Jewish, are vying for the leadership of Democrats on the Appropriations Committee, perhaps the most powerful of the U.S. House of Representatives committees because it determines spending.

And Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.), who is facing the Foreign Affairs committee’s top Democrat, Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.), in a redistricting-fueled battle, has declared that he wants his fellow Jewish Democrat’s committee leadership post if he prevails. But if Sherman prevails in his House race, Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), a Berman ally, says he would vie to become the committee’s top Democrat.

Irrespective of which party ends up controlling the House after the 2012 elections, the two committee leadership fights are significant.

If the Democrats win back control of the House, they would be able to appoint the committee chairs, who have broad discretion in determining what legislation makes it out of the committee and onto the House floor, and what issues deserve oversight. The minority party’s leaders, while not as powerful as the chairs, may convene hearings and often work with chairs in shaping and advancing legislation.

At this stage the campaigning — among other members of the caucus, the congressional leadership and donors, and, to a degree, in the media — has been more about who plays well with whom than it has been about issues. But bubbling below the surface of the contests are two issues that are central agenda items for Jewish groups: abortion rights and Israel.

Kaptur is in line to be the appropriations committee’s most senior Democrat now that Rep. Norm Dicks (D-Wash.) has announced that he is not running for re-election. Lowey is ranked fourth in seniority on the committee among Democrats. Rep. Pete Visclosky (D-Ind.), who is one slot above Lowey and one below Kaptur, is not considering a bid. Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.), who is ranked seventh, also is considering a bid but is considered a long shot.

Lowey, 74, who was active in Jewish women’s groups before she launched her congressional career in 1989, is making her support for abortion rights an issue in her outreach, her staffer said. Republicans, the Lowey staffer said, tend to flood appropriations bills with amendments that would inhibit abortion as an option in the United States and overseas.

“It’s important to have someone who is willing to stand up for women’s health and who can be relied on,” the staffer said.

Kaptur, a Roman Catholic who represents a relatively conservative northern Ohio district, has been rated a “mixed choice” by NARAL Pro-Choice America, the abortion rights advocacy group, while Lowey scored a “fully pro-choice” rating.

Lowey’s reputation as a premier pro-Israel lawmaker also may figure in the calculus of who gets the spot, although she is not making it an issue in her campaign. She has been a leader in securing assistance for Israel and has an unusually strong partnership with the foreign operations subcommittee chairwoman, Rep. Kay Granger (R-Texas), based in part on their commitment to the Israel-U.S. relationship.

Kaptur is closer to J Street, the liberal Israel advocacy group. In January 2009, in the midst of Israel’s Operation Cast Lead in Gaza, she said that “the proportionality of Israel’s response to Hamas’ incessant terrorist rocket launches is lamentable.”

Kaptur’s communications director, Steve Fought, said that Kaptur was committed to assistance for Israel, as she was to overall foreign aid. In any case, her bid for the committee’s top Democratic spot was based more on economic issues.

“It’s still about the economy, stupid,” he said, noting that Kaptur opposed NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement, saying that it brought job losses — and that she has been able to cobble together allies from both parties in pushing back against such agreements.

Just as Lowey’s emphasis on abortion implies an unstated dig at Kaptur, so does the NAFTA reference seem to undercut Lowey, one of a minority of Democrats who voted for the trade agreement in 1993.

Lowey may have the edge with the leadership; she allowed herself in 2007 to be dissuaded from standing for the committee leadership to make way for since-retired Rep. David Obey (D-Wis.), which earned her good will. Additionally, Kaptur has clashed with Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), the House minority leader, over the health care package that in 2010 was the then-speaker’s signature achievement.

Meanwhile in California, the Sherman-Berman race is already infused with pro-Israel politicking, and Sherman’s declared candidacy for the top Democratic spot on the foreign affairs committee only intensifies that element of the race. Berman, 71, and Sherman, 57, are both Jewish.

Sherman, in a statement, suggested that his tough postures on sanctioning Iran and supporting Israel were salient to his leadership bid.

“I have the breadth of experience to do the job and have worked tirelessly to help our caucus achieve a majority,” he said. “My record on Israel and on Iran sanctions is well known to all who read JTA reports.”

Berman would not comment for this article. However, the outline of their increasingly bitter race in the San Fernando Valley race already has seeped into this battle. Sherman’s backers have sought to depict Berman as bound too closely to the Obama administration and averse to aggressively confronting the president on Israel’s behalf. Berman’s defenders have countered that he is more reliable in securing the support and action that Israel needs — most recently the broad Iran sanctions packages — and advances Israel’s interests better as an influential insider.

Sherman, who has been far ahead of Berman in some polls, may not have helped his case by announcing for the committee leadership so early, before the outcome of his House race.

Much of the congressional leadership is rooting for Berman, albeit unofficially, according to a source close to party leaders. Pelosi has been publicly praising Berman, even as she has not made an endorsement in the race. Berman also has been endorsed by the overwhelming majority of California’s congressional Democrats.

Engel, who is also an outspoken supporter of Israel, has announced his intention to bid for the top spot if Berman loses to Sherman, although he said in an interview that he hopes that does not happen.

“I feel a little awkward, but I’m letting people know I would go for the job. I can’t allow someone who has nothing to lose to talk to people,” he said of Sherman, “and not talk to people.”

Adelson donates $5 million to Republican Super PAC


Casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, a major giver to the Newt Gingrich presidential bid, has donated $5 million to a Super PAC supporting Republican candidates.

Adelson and his wife, Miriam, made the donation in February to the Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC connected to House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and other Republican leaders that supports establishment Republican candidates, Politico reported, citing a newly filed campaign finance report.

Adelson also reportedly is hosting a fundraiser on Friday at one of his Las Vegas hotels for a Boehner umbrella group that works closely with the Republican National Committee and the National Republican Congressional Committee, according to Politico.

Watch Sheldon Adelson dish on all the candidates here.

The donation is a positive sign for Mitt Romney, Politico reports, because his campaign is hoping to attract wealthy donors of the GOP presidential hopefuls he appears to have beaten as Romney prepares to take on President Obama in the general election in November.

The Adelsons donated more than $16 million to Winning Our Future, an independent committee, or Super PAC, that is run by former Gingrich associates in support of the candidate. Gingrich has not dropped out of the race but Romney appears to be well on his way to the Republican nomination.

Adelson is worth more than $21 billion, according to Forbes magazine. He is a major giver to Birthright Israel, which provides free 10-day trips to Israel for Jews aged 18 to 26.

Santorum’s Southern sweep mars Romney’s front-runner status


Rick Santorum swept two Southern states in Republican primaries, complicating Mitt Romney’s status as front-runner and all but burying Newt Gingrich’s chance for the nomination.

Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator who emerged from last place in polling as recently as December to become the conservative challenger to Romney, scored 33 percent of the vote in Mississippi and nearly 35 percent in Alabama. Gingrich, the former U.S. House of Representatives speaker, finished second in both states, with 31 percent in MIssissippi and 29 percent in Alabama. Romney was third with 30 percent in Mississippi and 29 percent in Alabama.

Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) came in a distant fourth in both races after barely campaigning in either state.

Romney, who during the campaign has tried to shuck his reputation as a moderate, had campaigned hard in a bid to prove he could win in conservative Southern states. The former Massachusetts governor is leading substantially in delegates, but his path to the nomination has been far from smooth as conservative candidates continue to mount substantive challenges.

Gingrich had suggested that if he failed to win in Mississippi and Alabama, his campaign was in trouble, predicated as it was on winning Southern states.

If Gingrich leaves the race, campaign watchers will look to see who his main backer, casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, decides to support. Adelson and his wife, Miriam, twice salvaged Gingrich’s campaign with huge cash infusions; Gingrich and Adelson have been friends since the 1990s, in part because they share hard-line pro-Israel positions.

Romney has the backing of much of the Jewish Republican establishment, having attracted the bulk of Jewish donors and advisers. His appeal to Jews is based partly on his moderation and ability during his governance of Massachusetts from 2003 to 2007 to appeal to liberals and independents.

Additionally he and his wife, Ann, have referred in talks to Jewish groups to their Mormon faith, likening themselves to Jewish Republicans who have pushed for prominence in a party that still draws much of its support from a Protestant base.

Both Santorum and Romney have battered President Obama for what they depict as his hostility to Israel and his fecklessness on dealing with Iran, and both say that they will repeal much of the heath care reform package passed by Obama.

Some of Santorum’s domestic policies, including statements suggesting that a “Jesus guy” is most suitable for the presidency, have alarmed some Jewish groups.

Obama’s numbers could swing 30th district race


Rep. Brad Sherman doesn’t intend to follow Rep. Henry Waxman’s advice to give up his San Fernando Valley congressional race against Rep. Howard Berman.

Instead, he has hired a high-profile campaign manager, Parke Skelton, who has worked for many Democrats, including Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. Skelton e-mailed me the following: “Brad Sherman is running for re-election in the district that he lives in and where he represents the majority of the residents. He has a long history of effective leadership in this community and is proud to be supported by hundreds of local leaders from throughout the West San Fernando Valley.” That echoes what Sherman said last month: “I will run and am confident of winning.”

The contest for the 30th congressional seat will be one of the most-watched congressional races in the nation. Two well-known and successful Democratic Jewish candidates are opposing each other. In addition, there’s the President Barack Obama factor. His popularity is dropping in California. Will the candidates try to avoid being associated with him?

Another wild- -card factor is that the election will be run under new rules. Democrats, Republicans and independents will be on the same ballot. The top two finishers in the June primary will run against each other in the November 2012 general election. The primary and the runoff are expected to cost between $12 million and $13 million.

The state reapportionment commission created the district after giving Berman’s present Valley district a Latino majority. The commission then placed both Berman and Sherman in the 30th.

Trying to avoid such an expensive and uncertain race, Waxman, the veteran Westside congressman, feels the district should go to Berman, who is a friend and longtime colleague. “If we have this race between two Jewish Democrats, it is not because of Howard, it is because Brad chooses it,” Waxman said.

He’s proposed a solution: In Waxman’s view, Sherman should pull out of the race and run in a new Ventura County congressional district, which has no incumbent. That district would be more challenging to a Democrat than the 30th. It is 42 percent Democratic and 35 percent Republican — a margin that makes the seat winnable for the GOP. Gov. Jerry Brown lost the somewhat conservative area by 1 percent when he was elected in 2010. President Obama won the area in double digits in 2008, long before his current popularity decline.

Waxman conceded that the 30th “is not a great Democratic district,” but Sherman “has enough money to win it.”

Waxman called me to object to my analysis that it would be “suicidal” for Sherman to make that choice. “Why is it suicidal for a guy with $4 million [Waxman’s estimate of Sherman’s campaign funds]?” Waxman asked. “He could do himself a favor, he could do the Jewish community a favor, and keep himself in Congress without this unnecessary battle.”

Obama’s level of popularity will be an important factor in the 30th District race.

The Sept. 14 Field Poll showed that 46 percent of registered California voters approved of the way he is doing the job, while 44 percent disapprove. That’s an 8 percent drop from a Field Survey last June. His job approval rating is declining even among Democrats, dropping from 79 percent in June to 69 percent this month. In Los Angeles County, the decline was 9 percent, from 63 percent to 54 percent.

Polling figures on Obama for the 30th District aren’t available. But the West San Fernando Valley district tends to be more conservative than the East Valley and parts of the county across the Santa Monica Mountains. In addition, both Berman and Sherman may have to deal with the skepticism toward Obama that is prevalent among many Jewish voters, a substantial part of the district.

That skepticism was a force in the New York upset by Republican Bob Turner in the recent contest for the New York City seat vacated by Rep. Anthony Weiner. Turner’s victory coincided with a drop in Obama’s popularity in New York. The district is heavily Democratic.

As noted by Jewish Journal reporter Jonah Lowenfeld, there are differences in the way Berman and Sherman talk about the president. For example, when Obama gave his jobs speech on Sept. 8, Berman said he was “pleased to see President Obama take a definitive step tonight towards bringing this gridlock to an end and finally jump-starting efforts to get the economy moving again.” Berman added that he would soon introduce two separate jobs bills and exhorted the Republican majority to allow jobs legislation to pass.

Sherman was somewhat critical. “We need a bolder spending program over the next two years to get us out of this recession,” Sherman said. He called the president’s plan for job creation “good but insufficient,” and said it must be “paired with an even bolder program to reduce the deficit over the next 10 years.”

These are mild differences, but as Lowenfeld wrote in his jewishjournal.com Berman v. Sherman blog, “subtle doesn’t mean inconsequential.”

Watching this unfold is a Republican candidate, Susan Shelley, a novelist who is also Jewish. Rather than appearing only on a Republican ballot, as was the law in the past, Shelley and other Republicans will share the same ballot with Berman, Sherman and other Democrats.

She said in an e-mail, “Voter anger over President Obama’s Mideast policy, combined with frustration over the economy, could lead many Democrats to cross party lines and vote for a socially moderate Republican.”

Unlikely, perhaps. But whoever thought a Republican would replace Anthony Weiner in New York City?

Bill Boyarsky is a columnist for The Jewish Journal, Truthdig and L.A. Observed, and the author of “Inventing L.A.: The Chandlers and Their Times” (Angel City Press).

New U.S. envoy to Israel: Obama hoping to visit


The new U.S. ambassador to Israel, Daniel Shapiro, said President Obama hopes to visit the country.

Shapiro, 42, presented his credentials Wednesday to Israeli President Shimon Peres. He was appointed as ambassador in July.

Shapiro said no details of a visit to Israel have been worked out.

He told Israeli TV stations that the United States wants to revive the Middle East peace talks to short-circuit the Palestinian effort to win recognition for a state from the United Nations in September.

Shapiro is Jewish and speaks fluent Hebrew, as well as some Arabic. He was a part of Obama’s 2008 election campaign and has worked since with Israeli-Palestinian contacts in the president’s administration.

Obama to donors: Israel and the U.S. need ‘fresh eyes’


President Obama told Jewish donors to his reelection campaign that Israel and the United States must assess the new Middle East with “fresh eyes.”

“Both the United States and Israel are going to have to look at this new landscape with fresh eyes,” Obama said Monday night at an event in Washington that charged a minimum $25,000 a couple.  “It’s not going to be sufficient for us just to keep on doing the same things we’ve been doing and expect somehow that things are going to work themselves out.  We’re going to have to be creative and we’re going to have to be engaged.”

Obama said Israel is the United States’ “closest ally” and that he was committed to Israel facing the challenges “from a position of strength,” noting the closeness between the two countries’ defense establishments and his increase in defense assistance to Israel.

Obama, who has clashed with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government over settlement building and parameters for peace talks with the Palestinians, said that in the coming months “there may be tactical disagreements in terms of how we approach these difficult problems.”

Organizers of the event, entitled “Obama Victory Fund 2012 Dinner with the President in support of a strong US-Israel relationship” ushered the White House pool reporters out of the room at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel after Obama’s short talk so he could talk frankly with the donors.

Organizers aimed to raise $1 million in the evening. Obama’s Jewish supporters have been pushing back against reports that he is losing support in the community because of tensions with Netanyahu.

ANALYSIS: Rough race takes toll on McCain’s image


NEW YORK (JTA)—When John McCain stopped in New York one Tuesday in October 2007 to make his pre-primaries pitch to a room full of Jewish bigwigs, he spent virtually all his time discussing foreign policy—but only after an emotional introduction from James Tisch that focused less on policy than the character of the presidential candidate standing before them.

Tisch, a scion of a family real estate empire, proud Republican and decorated Jewish communal leader, invoked the memory of the late Washington power lawyer David Ifshin and his unlikely friendship with McCain.

Back when McCain was a prisoner of war being held and tortured by the North Vietnamese, Ifshin—then a hard-core anti-war protester—visited Hanoi to speak out against U.S. involvement in the war. His remarks were piped into McCain’s cell.

A few years later, the story goes, Ifshin found himself living on a kibbutz in Israel when the Yom Kippur War erupted. Watching U.S. aircraft arrive with supplies to aid the beleagured country triggered a transformation in Ifshin that would culminate with his becoming a lawyer for AIPAC and then the Clinton administration.

Along the way, after McCain had entered the U.S. Congress, Ifshin sought out the Republican lawmaker and asked his forgiveness.The two became friends and worked together on human rights causes.

“It was,” Tisch told the 50 people assembled, “an inspiration for many of us.”

And, one could reasonably add, a powerful example of why—before the twists and turns of an increasingly bitter presidential race—McCain commanded respect in Democratic and liberal circles. To be sure, the veteran Arizona senator has always been a staunch conservative on a range of economic, social and foreign policy issues. But when it comes to grand themes—his emphasis on personal redemption, reconciliation, bipartisanship, sacrifice—McCain’s message has resonated across party lines.

It is true that in the heat of the race, McCain’s “Country First” campaign slogan can sound to the Democratic ear like a swipe at the patriotism of the opposing ticket. But when voicing the fuller version—when grounding his commitment to country in his realization in a Vietnam prison camp that the greatest fulfillment in life is serving a cause greater than one’s self—McCain could be mistaken for John F. Kennedy urging a new generation to embrace the notion of putting service to country first.

Just as important in understanding McCain’s initial appeal among Democrats, independents and the mainstream media is his willingness to work with liberal stalwarts—Massachusetts Sen. Edward Kennedy on immigration and Wisconsin Sen. Russ Feingold on campaign finance—and his willingness to criticize conservative efforts to demonize politcal opponents.

During his own failed bid for the 2000 Republican nomination, McCain lashed out at the Revs. Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, calling them “agents of intolerance” after they lined up behind then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush.

And on Election Night in 2002, while others in his party were celebrating big Republican gains, McCain was on “The Daily Show” with Jon Stewart lamenting the defeat of Democrat Max Cleland in Georgia. It was not the first time that McCain tore into the GOP over its strategy of questioning the patriotism of Cleland, a fellow veteran who lost three limbs in Vietnam.

It was not so long ago, in other words, that McCain was known for palling around with liberal East Coast media elites and being a target of some evangelical leaders and conservative radio hosts like Rush Limbaugh.

In recent weeks, however, as McCain ratcheted up his attacks on Obama, he has found himself being accused of embracing the same dirty campaign tactics that he has so often criticized. McCain’s detractors argue that his reputation for straight talk is no longer deserved, pointing to ads suggesting that Obama wants to teach kindergarten students how to have sex and accusing him of associating with domestic terrorists.

Even several Republican lawmakers and McCain’s own running mate have joined Democrats in criticizing his campaign’s recent strategy of flooding the phone lines in swing states with anti-Obama robo-calls.

Democrats have also taken aim at McCain’s status as a maverick, increasingly painting him as a clone of President Bush when it comes to the economy and foreign policy. They note that the candidate has surrounded himself with neoconservative advisers who back the Iraq war and oppose robust diplomatic intiatives with Syria and Iran.

Despite McCain’s opposition to abortion rights, as well as the mounting assertions that he has betrayed his reputation as a straight-shooting maverick, the Republican nominee had seemed poised to make serious inroads among Jewish voters. Polls for months showed McCain already surpassing the 25 percent of the Jewish vote that Bush took in 2004, with plenty of undecideds still up for grabs.

Undoubtedly, McCain received a boost from his reputation for bipartisanship and bucking religious conservatives, his long record of support for Israel, tough talk on Iran, a prominent endorsement from U.S. Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.) and lingering questions about Barack Obama.



AUDIO: John McCain and Joe Lieberman’s conference call with Jewish leaders



While Jewish GOPers have attempted to paint Obama as someone who might end up tilting toward the Palestinian side in the peace process, McCain has focused more on Iran and Iraq in attempting to challenge Obama’s preparedness to lead on the Middle East. McCain has pounded again and again on Obama’s stated willingness to meet with Iran’s president, and argued that Obama’s timeline for a pullout from Iraq would threaten Israel and the United States.

“Allowing a potential terrorist sanctuary would profoundly affect the security of the United States, Israel and our other friends, and would invite further intervention from Iraq’s neighbors, including a very much emboldened Iran,” McCain told thousands of pro-Israel activists in June. “We must not let this happen.”

One of his key advisers on such issues is Lieberman, who crossed party lines to endorse the McCain shortly before the New Hampshire primary. Even before the endorsement, Lieberman had infuriated many Democrats with his unflinching support for the Iraq war and decision to carry on with a third-party bid after losing Connecticut’s Democratic senatorial primary in 2006.

In the process, however, his stature seemed to grow within centrist and right-leaning pro-Israel circles, and he still can draw a crowd at Florida retirement communities that remember him fondly as the first Jewish vice-presidential candidate.

“From the moment the next president steps into the Oval Office, he or she will face life-or-death decisions in this war,” Lieberman told a Republican Jewish Coalition crowd in January during a stop in Boca Raton shortly before the GOP primary in Florida. “That’s why we need a president who is ready to be commander-in-chief from day one, a president who won’t need any on-the-job training. John McCain is that candidate and will be that president.”

It was one of the first of many appearances that Lieberman would make in the Sunshine State and in front of Jewish audiences on behalf of McCain.

But Lieberman has emerged as more than a surrogate. The Connecticut senator is a trusted adviser and has become a regular travel buddy joining McCain on many of his campaign trips, as well as his visit in late May to Iraq, Jordan and Israel.

It was Lieberman who quietly pulled McCain to the side during a news conference in Jordan, prompting the candidate to correct his mistaken assertion that Iran was training members of al-Qaida. And it was Lieberman who was dispatched by the McCain campaign to brief reporters after Obama and McCain both delivered solidly pro-Israel speeches at the AIPAC policy conference in June.

Soon after, in the weeks leading up to the Republican convention, speculation was rampant that McCain wanted to tap Lieberman as his running mate—a move that some observers say would have helped the Republican nominee with many Jewish undecideds. But according to some reports, warnings from prominent Republican strategists that the selection of a pro-choice quasi-Democrat would trigger a conservative revolt ultimately led McCain to settle on the surprise choice of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.

(Lieberman is said to remain on the short list for either secretary of state or secretary of defense in a McCain administration.)

From the start, the McCain camp appeared bent on underscoring Palin’s pro-Israel bona fides. Her first meeting at the convention was a closed-door session with leaders of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. The Republican Jewish Coalition circulated a video clip showing a small Israeli flag displayed in her office in Alaska.

Palin herself took up the task of speaking out against Iran and defending Israel’s right to defend itself. Like McCain, she did so while also voicing support for a two-state solution, saying during the vice-presidential debate that it would be a “top priority.”

Ultimately, however, it appears that attempts to paint her as unqualified and a product of the religious right have been successful. A survey conducted by the American Jewish Committee in early September found that 54 percent of American Jews disapproved of the Palin choice, compared to just 15 percent who felt that way about Obama’s selection of U.S. Sen. Joe Biden (D-Del.).

Increasing unhappiness with Palin, along with the economic crisis, has coincided with a drop in the polls for McCain, both in the general electorate and among Jewish voters. New polling data from Gallup released Oct. 23 shows Obama winning 74 percent of the Jewish vote. Of course, even more alarming for the McCain camp is the overwhelming majority of surveys showing him trailing nationally and on the state-by-state map.

And if a signifcant defeat were not enough, McCain’s critics appear ready to carry on the fight beyond Election Day.

“Back in 2000, after John McCain lost his mostly honorable campaign for the Republican presidential nomination, he went about apologizing to journalists—including me—for his most obvious misstep: his support for keeping the Confederate flag on the state house” in South Carolina, Time magazine columnist Joe Klein recalled in a recent blog post titled “Apology Not Accepted.”

“I just can’t wait for the moment when John McCain—contrite and suddenly honorable again in victory or defeat—talks about how things got a little out of control in the passion of the moment,” he added. “Talk about putting lipstick on a pig.”

This view is the overwhelming verdict among liberal bloggers as they rush to permanently redefine the real McCain as a dishonorable fraud, and it is gaining ground among media pundits and Democratic officials. In fact, the attempts at McCain revisionism during this presidential cycle go back to at least 2006, when he faced criticism for accepting an invitation from Falwell to speak at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va.

Liberal bloggers ripped into McCain, pointing to the speech and the accompanying sit-down with Falwell as proof that the Arizonan was set to sell out his principles to win the GOP nomination in 2008.

But taken together with separate addresses McCain delivered in New York a few days later to students at Columbia College and the New School, the speech at Liberty could just as easily be seen as reinforcing the image of McCain as someone willing to cross lines and build bridges. After all, how many other presidential candidates could boast of such a trifecta, especially in one week?

In all three speeches, McCain argued for vigorous debate—and mutual respect. To help make the point, during his Columbia speech, McCain reflected on his relationship with Ifshin.

“I came to admire him for his generosity, his passion for his ideals, for the largeness of his heart, and I realized he had not been my enemy but my countryman … and later my friend,” McCain reportedly said.

“His friendship honored me. We disagreed over much. Our politics were often opposed, and we argued those disagreements. But we worked together for our shared ideals,” he said. “David remained my countryman and my friend until the day of his death, at the age of 47, when he left a loving wife and three beautiful children, and legions of friends behind him. His country was a better place for his service to her, and I had become a better man for my friendship with him. God bless him.”

If nothing else, for anyone paying attention, McCain’s willingness to bury the political hatchet with Falwell should have seemed perfectly in character.

One-Day U


Maybe it was because I had just helped my daughter move into her freshman dorm room and I was envious of the deliciously named courses she was thinking of
taking. Or maybe it was because I’ve always been a sucker for pitches like “Conversational Hebrew in One Day!” Or maybe it was because I didn’t know what else to do with my rage about the anti-intellectual matches that the Republican presidential campaign is playing with.

Whatever the reason, I was a sitting duck for a publicist’s offer to comp me to the first “One Day University” in Los Angeles. Judging from the full house paying $259 a pop at the Skirball’s Magnin Auditorium, I wasn’t alone.

The lineup included teachers from Columbia, Harvard, Dartmouth and USC. The subjects were Lincoln, the psychology of happiness, the history of cosmology and the foreign policies of an Obama or a McCain administration. The audience included not only the retirees seeking educational nourishment and brain fitness whom I had expected, but also boomers like me and more than a few people who looked to be in their 40s and 30s and even younger.

Three out of the four speakers really knew how to work a room, making good on the publicist’s promise of a day of engaging “edutainment,” and the fourth — even though, unlike the others, he worked from a prepared text and never left his spot behind the lectern — nevertheless held people’s attention with his material.

All day long, while learning things like the average age for the first onset of depression (14 1/2, compared to twice that a generation ago), and the proportion of the universe containing carbon, oxygen and nitrogen, the elements that people are made of (less than 1 percent), I kept wondering what bound us students together, besides our common jones for knowledge.

The answer came home to me during the foreign policy lecture by my friend and USC colleague, professor Steven Lamy.

In the midst of providing an analytic framework for understanding the traditions and belief systems of U.S. foreign policy, he pointed out the substantive poverty of the discussion of foreign policy occurring during this campaign, despite so many grave foreign policy issues that will face the next president. Security challenges and security strategies? Yes, those are in the campaign mix. But dealing realistically with the global economy, or thinking creatively about using the U.S.’s non-military power, or grappling with the social threat that traditional cultures see posed by the massive exportation of American entertainment, or with the environmental threat posed by exporting our consumerist culture: issues like these — not so much, or not at all.

The reason for this neglect is that the conduct of foreign policy is now all about electoral considerations, and the majority of the American people return the favor by not paying attention to it. The result, says Steve Lamy, is an uninformed American public easily manipulated by power players in Washington who prefer that the wide range of options potentially available for America’s role in the world not be put on the table for scrutiny.

The irony is that there is a rising generation that does see foreign policy as something more than shouting, “9-11!” At USC, as Steve pointed out, the 791 undergraduates majoring in international relations — one of the most popular majors in the college — do know what the Bush doctrine is.

Which brings me to the thread binding the newest alumni of One Day U. Yes, I could be projecting my own feelings onto them. But from the questions they asked the faculty, from conversations I heard during breaks, from the room’s reaction to Steve Lamy’s mention of the foreign policy credential claimed by Sarah Palin with a straight face (you can see Russia from an island in Alaska), I had the strong impression that the people in that auditorium were connected by a common sense of outrage at the demonization of learning going on in this campaign.

To be sure, every campaign, in both parties, relies on bumper-sticker slogans and 30-second ads, and, at least since the 1980s, television has proven itself dismally unequal to the opportunity for covering a campaign as a national conversation about the big issues facing the country.

Yet the way the McCain campaign has turned “elite” into a dirty word, and delightedly derided Obama’s education as effete, and turned the sow’s ear of Sarah Palin’s lack of foreign policy experience into the silk purse of salt-of-the-earth small town values — you have to go back to Spiro Agnew and his bullyboy ventriloquists, Pat Buchanan and William Safire, to find this kind of sneering contempt for educated people.

The neoconservative intellectuals who have fanned these fires have particularly dirty hands. With their Ivy League degrees and their perches as columnists and commentators, their collaboration with the Republican defamation of learning is especially unctuous. By being accomplices to what is arguably the most lying campaign in modern history, they are complicit with the same noxious rejection of reason that has brought us the teaching of “intelligent design” (aka creationism) in our schools; the politicization of science in everything from climate change to environmental regulations; and the intrusion of fundamentalist religious doctrines into the shaping of public policy.

I see adult education as a political act, a refutation of this neo-Know Nothingism. I see reading a good newspaper as a thumb in the eye to this anti-intellectual hypocrisy and to candidates who refuse to hold press conferences. I see the conversation occurring in some online precincts, and among people who have abandoned cable news for actual discussions about issues they care about, as a patriotic response to the political porn served up to us by mainstream media. I see studying and going to the best school you can and learning to think critically as a powerful antidote to the homespun yahooism that is being held up to us as the gold standard of competence.

Sure, some people may have signed up for One Day U because it looked like fun, or to get out of the house, or just because they were curious. But curiosity is a quality that has been lethally absent in the occupant of the White House these last eight years, and if you listen to the team that could well replace him, having a healthy intellectual appetite is wussily un-American.

I don’t doubt that Americans who love learning may constitute a minority. I just hope that enough of them live in battleground states to make a difference.

Marty Kaplan has been a White House speechwriter, a deputy presidential campaign manager, a studio executive and a screenwriter. He holds the Norman Lear Chair in Entertainment, Media and Society at the USC Annenberg School. He can be reached at martyk@jewishjournal.com.

McCain and Obama campaigns focus on sanctions as Iran threat looms


WASHINGTON (JTA) — The mounting anxiety over Iran’s nuclear program is sparking campaign chatter over a possible Israeli strike and prompting a bipartisan effort to revive long-stalled sanctions legislation in the U.S. Congress.

Time is running out, say advocates of new congressional sanctions against Iran, with some wondering if a nuclear deadline for the Islamic Republic looms as early as next year. But an election or three — in the United States, Israel and Iran — seem to stand in the way of coordinated action, and conventional wisdom posits that a U.S. president who is perhaps the lamest duck in decades is hardly in a position to carry through with meaningful action.

Against this backdrop, attention has turned increasingly to the possibility of Israel launching a pre-emptive strike, with reports claiming that U.S. officials have told Jerusalem not to take such action. At the same time, however, both vice-presidential candidates have said in recent weeks that the United States should respect any Israeli decision on the matter and both campaigns were planning this week to discuss their Iran policies with Jewish communal leaders.

In the Congress, escalating concerns about Iran have prompted Democrats and Republicans to set aside sharp election-year differences to coordinate with Israel and the pro-Israel lobby to push through sanctions legislation before year’s end, including the Iran Sanctions Enabling Act sponsored by Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.).

The measure would mandate the publication every six months of a list of companies invested in Iran’s energy and defense sectors in order to facilitate divestment from Iran by state pension funds. It also protects from lawsuits fund managers who divest from Iran.

Obama’s bill and the Iran Counterproliferation Act are under consideration for attachment to a defense authorization measure that must be passed this term.

The bills have been held up until now because of resistance from the Bush administration and congressional Republicans for myriad reasons: Some business interests have opposed the counterproliferation bill because it would close loopholes that have allowed American companies to continue working with Iran through foreign-owned subsidiaries.

Additionally, the Bush administration has aggressively opposed limitations on its executive prerogative in foreign policy. Pro-Israel insiders say that some Republicans have opposed the sanctions-enabling legislation because they don’t want to give Obama, the Democrats’ presidential nominee, a legislative victory in an election year.

But many of those differences have been set aside in recent weeks, pro-Israel insiders told JTA.

Dan Shapiro, an Obama foreign policy adviser and top Jewish outreach coordinator, confirmed to JTA that Obama’s bill, which would offer tort protections to pensions that divest from Iran, is likely to be part of the defense authorization measure that is set to pass.

“It has the support of several dozen senators,” Shapiro said.
He would not, however, count out resistance from the White House.

Earlier sanctions have had an impact: Businesses increasingly are reluctant to invest in Iran in part because of sanctions Bush has implemented on Iranian banks through executive order.

The perceived need for some kind of action has been exacerbated by the lame-duck status of Bush, who is exiting office as one of the least popular presidents in modern history, and Wednesday’s primaries in Israel. The Israeli vote is likely to be followed by weeks or months of political realignments ahead of new general elections.

In addition, Iran is set to hold presidential elections next June, raising hopes of ousting Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose fiery rhetoric has fanned much of the anxiety about a nuclear Iran.

According to experts, the next president — whether it is Obama or U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) — is likely to ramp up the pressure on Iran. But differences persist in how each man would go about increasing the pressure.

A bipartisan slate of five former secretaries of state — including Henry Kissinger, now a McCain adviser — met this week under CNN auspices and agreed that talks with Iran would likely be on the agenda next year, whoever is president. McCain repeatedly has criticized Obama’s willingness to talk with Iranian leaders and painted the Democratic candidate as dangerously naive on the matter.

Obama is considering how best to establish an international commitment to further isolate Iran; McCain is considering ways to encourage internal Iranian dissent toward regime change.

Both campaigns are making their case on Iran this week to segments of the Jewish community. On Wednesday, McCain’s senior advisers were to meet with Jewish backers in Arlington, Va., while Obama himself was to take part in a conference call with rabbinical leaders.

“This is an extremely important issue, an extremely serious issue, and an extremely urgent issue,” Tony Lake, Obama’s top national security adviser, said at an event organized by the Center for U.S. Global Engagement in Denver during the Democratic National Convention last month. “It could well lead to the worst crisis that we will see over the next five years because the development of an Iranian nuclear weapon will present a huge threat to the security of Israel, to others in the region, to the Europeans, including the Russians, and many others.”

Obama wants to see “progress between now and next January,” Lake said, but already is planning action “as soon as he takes office.”

Dennis Ross, the former top Middle East negotiator under Bush’s father and Bill Clinton, and now a senior Obama adviser, said the candidate’s preferred approach would be “serious sticks and serious carrots” — in that order.

“You’ve got to change the formula from weak sticks and weak carrots, which is not enough to concentrate the Iranian mind in terms of the negotiations and make them change behavior,” Ross told JTA.

An Obama administration would rally the international community to cut off refined petroleum exports to Iran, hitting almost half of its gas supply, and end investment in the Islamic Republic’s antiquated energy infrastructure.

The obstacles to such a strategy remain China and Russia, which maintain extensive business contacts in Iran. Ross described a strategy of first targeting China, which depends heavily on Iran for its oil supply. China, he noted, is even more dependent on Saudi oil, yet no serious effort has been made to recruit Saudi Arabia into leveraging the Chinese into isolating Iran, even though the Saudis have even more to fear from a nuclear Iran than Israel.

Ross said Obama also became interested, after touring Israel in July and meeting top security officials there, in targeting the five major re-insurers — the companies that underwrite insurance companies. A re-insurance boycott would go a substantial way toward crippling Iran’s energy sector.

The McCain campaign is similarly exercised about Iran, but is mapping a different approach focused on supporting internal political resistance to the regime.

“I think you’ll see John McCain, diplomatically, working very aggressively with countries throughout the Middle East who feel, and properly so, a threat from the rise of the Shi’a extremist regime, and try to get a larger condominium to address them,” said Richard Williamson, the Bush administration’s envoy to Sudan who also is advising the McCain campaign, earlier this month in Minneapolis.

McCain campaign officials did not return requests for interviews on the topic, but Williamson advocated a “soft” campaign of encouraging democratization within Iran as well as building up a regional front that would isolate the regime.

“There has to be a recognition that that regime has its own fissions, and divisions within it,” he said, before rattling them off: “The balance of power between the president, Ahmadinejad, and the supreme leader, constituencies, it has economic growth problems, it has an increasingly dissatisfied younger population and the majority of the country is under 30 years of age, and it has stresses with neighbors.”

Williamson added: “I think you’re going to see John McCain utilizing the instruments he has been involved in, all over the world, in over 90 countries, in trying to help civil society, endemic democratic institutions grow.”

There’s too much religion in presidential campaign, says ADL’s Foxman


NEW YORK (JTA)—The political campaign season is now in high gear as the curtain falls on the Democrats in Denver and the Republicans in Minneapolis-St. Paul.

While much of the media’s focus has been on handicapping the candidates and their chances in November, we would like to call attention to one less-publicized aspect of the U.S. political scene in 2008, which we find troubling.

This year, there have been increasing signs that the presidential race will present the American public with a profoundly unsettling infusion of religion and religiosity.

The trend toward this growing insertion of faith into the presidential race was first evident in Denver, and then equally so in the Twin Cities.

At the Democratic National Convention, the program included panels on “How an Obama Administration will Engage People of Faith,” “Moral Values Issues Abroad,” “Getting Out the Faith Vote” and “Common Ground on Common Good.”

Members of the clergy from across the religious spectrum had a significant presence, conducting Scripture readings at a multifaith “kickoff event” and offering invocations and benedictions. There was a clear effort to be interdenominational, but it was also apparent that the Democrats felt compelled to infuse religion into their convention in order to be politically viable.

At the Republican convention, religiously themed events played a prominent role as well. Members of the clergy led the convention in prayer each day, and there was considerable time devoted to discussing subjects such as “faith-based initiatives and family values,” which one Republican spokeswoman recently identified as being “at the heart of our party.”

There was less focus on religious diversity and less of an effort to call public attention to the convention’s religious content, probably because it was less of a departure from past Republican programs.

In raising our concerns, we mean no disrespect to religion or to family values. But there comes a point when being open about faith crosses a subtle line into pandering.

Some of what we have been seeing in this campaign is excessive and aggressive. It goes beyond a candidate’s discussing how religion shapes his or her worldview. Rather, it’s saying, “Vote for me because I’m a person of faith”—and that is directly contrary to the constitutional principle that there shall be no religious test for public office.

Both parties seem to have reached the conclusion that appealing to religious voters is good politics. But what kind of message does it send, in our religiously diverse society, when the two major presidential candidates sit in a church and forthrightly answer Pastor Rick Warren’s questions about their personal relationship with Jesus?

Renewed faith-based initiatives, religious outreach teams and religious programming at the conventions all work to curry favor with those who care which party is most favorable toward the religious.

This may be good politics, but it is not healthy for our nation.

This is not to say that Americans should oppose candidates who are religious, or that candidates shouldn’t feel free to discuss their religious beliefs with the body politic. It is understandable that candidates, from time to time, will want to express their religious beliefs—and how their faith will inform and influence their policymaking. And there’s nothing wrong with a candidate expressing his or her religious perspective—especially when confronted with misinformation, innuendo and rumor.

However, appealing to voters along religious lines can be divisive, and it is certainly contrary to the American ideal of including all Americans in the political process.

It is deeply troubling when religion is no longer just an element in understanding the character of a candidate but becomes a central part of a party’s efforts to win votes or to pander to a certain religious group or constituency. Government should not endorse, promote, or subsidize religious views—and particular religious views should not be the determining factor in public-policy decision making.

Anyone who legitimately aspires to public office in the United States must be prepared to set an example and to be a leader for all Americans, no matter his or her faith, or whether he or she even has a faith.

When candidates campaign, they should be encouraging voters to make decisions based on an assessment of their qualifications, their integrity and their political positions, not on how religious they are.

The next time a debate moderator asks the candidates to discuss their personal relationship with God, it would be refreshing to hear an answer similar to the one President Kennedy gave nearly 48 years ago, when he confronted questions about his Catholicism: “I am not the Catholic candidate for president. I am the Democratic Party’s candidate for president who happens also to be a Catholic.”

Religion, he was saying, is part of him, but it does not define him, and it should not be the primary lens through which Americans view him.

In this season, it is important to remind all political players that in this religiously diverse nation, there is a point at which an emphasis on religion in a political campaign becomes inappropriate and even unsettling.

(Abraham H. Foxman is national director of the Anti-Defamation League and the author of “The Deadliest Lies: The Israel Lobby and the Myth of Jewish Control.”)