Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey addresses the AIPAC annual policy conference in Washington, D.C., March 5, 2013. Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images.

Senate introduces bipartisan bill with new Iran sanctions on eve of AIPAC conference


A bipartisan slate of senators has introduced new sanctions targeting Iran for its missile testing and destabilizing actions days before AIPAC’s national conference.

The Countering Iran’s Destabilizing Activities Act of 2017 was introduced Thursday by Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J. Ten senators, from both parties, co-sponsored the measure.

The act establishes new sanctions targeting Iran’s testing of ballistic missiles and its backing for terrorism, and also seeks to block the property of any entity involved in the sale of arms to or from Iran. It does not reintroduce sanctions lifted from Iran as part of the 2015 nuclear deal.

The text was not yet available.

The bill is timed ahead of the annual American Israel Public Affairs Committee conference taking place March 26-28 in Washington, D.C. AIPAC, after two years of tensions with Democrats over Iran policy, and emerging tensions with Republicans over the lobby’s endorsement of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, wants the conference to celebrate its reputation for bipartisanship.

Bipartisanship was a theme in the release announcing the sanctions.

“The spirit of bipartisanship of this important legislation underscores our strong belief that the United States must speak with one voice on the issue of holding Iran accountable for its continued nefarious actions across the world as the leading state sponsor of terrorism,” Menendez said.

Corker said the bill “demonstrates the strong bipartisan support in Congress for a comprehensive approach to holding Iran accountable by targeting all aspects of the regime’s destabilizing actions.”

Tensions arose between AIPAC and Democrats over the Obama administration’s deal with Iran trading sanctions relief for a nuclear rollback. AIPAC, along with the Israeli government and most Republicans, opposed the deal. A key stumbling block to bipartisan bills extending sanctions to Iran was Democratic fears that measures backed by republicans were aimed at killing the deal, known as JCPOA.

The areas targeted for sanctions in the new bill are outside the ambit of the nuclear deal.

“This legislation was carefully crafted not to impede with the United States’ ability to live up to its commitments under the JCPOA, while still reaffirming and strengthening our resolve by imposing tough new sanctions to hold the Iranian regime accountable for threatening global and regional security,” Menendez said in the release.

A staffer for Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., the ranking Democrat on the foreign relations committee, said Cardin led Democrats in their efforts to make sure the bill did not undercut the Iran deal. Sen. Joe Donnelly, D-Ind., also played a leading role in making sure the bill was in compliance with the agreement.

Among measures favored by Republicans but removed by Democrats, the staffer said, were language that would have limited the ability of a president to waive the provisions of the bill for national security reasons; language that would have written oversight of the Iran deal’s sanctions relief into the new bill; language targeting the sale of commercial aircraft to Iran, which was liberalized as part of the nuclear deal, and limitations on dollar transactions allowed Iran under the nuclear deal.

Also introduced this week in time for the AIPAC conference were identical bipartisan bills in the Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives that would “encourage new areas of cooperation” between Israel and the United States in the economic sphere.

AIPAC officials have said the lobby stands out as a focal point for bipartisanship at a time of polarization under President Donald Trump.

The crowd at last year’s AIPAC conference at the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C. Photo by Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images.

AIPAC seeking bipartisan spirit in a polarized capital


Maintaining Iran sanctions, crushing BDS and ensuring aid to Israel are high on the agenda, of course.

But the overarching message at this year’s conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee is, if you want a break from polarization, come join us.

“This is an unprecedented time of political polarization, and we will have a rare bipartisan gathering in Washington,” an official of the lobby told JTA about the March 26-28 confab. “One of the impressive aspects of our speaker program is that we will have the entire bipartisan leadership of Congress.”

That might seem a stretch following two tense years in which AIPAC faced off against the Obama administration – and by extension much of the Democratic congressional delegation – over the Iran nuclear deal.

But check out the roster of conference speakers and you can see the lobby is trying hard.

Among Congress members, for instance, there are the usual suspects, including stalwarts of the U.S.-Israel relationship like Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., the minority whip in the U.S. House of Representatives, and Rep. Ed Royce, D-Calif., the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Vice President Mike Pence is speaking, and so are the leaders of each party in both chambers.

But also featured is Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., a freshman who had the backing of Bernie Sanders, the Democratic presidential candidate who had his request for a satellite feed at last year’s conference turned down. Also present this year and absent last year, for the most part: Democrats who backed the Iran deal.

Among the other speakers are Obama administration architects and defenders of the nuclear deal, which traded sanctions relief for a rollback of Iran’s nuclear program.

One striking example is Rob Malley, a National Security Council official who didn’t join President Barack Obama’s team until his second term in part because pro-Israel objections kept him out in the first four years. (Malley, a peace negotiator under President Bill Clinton, had committed the heresy of insisting that both Israelis and Palestinians were to blame for the collapse of talks in 2000.)

If there’s a let-bygones-be-bygones flavor to all this, it results in part from anxieties pervading the Jewish organizational world about polarization in the era of Trump. Jewish groups get their most consequential policy work done lining up backers from both parties.

“We continue to very much believe in the bipartisan model because it is the only way to get things done,” said the official, who like AIPAC officials are wont to do, requested anonymity. “This is the one gathering where D’s and R’s come together for high purpose.”

J Street, the liberal Middle East policy group, demonstrated at its own policy conference last month that it was only too happy to lead the resistance to President Donald Trump, who has appalled the liberal Jewish majority with his broadsides against minorities and his isolationism. J Street’s president, Jeremy Ben-Ami, explicitly said he was ready to step in now where AIPAC would not.

AIPAC is also under fire from the right. Republican Jews who consider the lobby’s bipartisanship a bane rather than a boon were behind the party platform’s retreat last year from explicit endorsement of the two-state solution. More recently, Trump has also marked such a retreat, at least rhetorically.

The Israeli American Council, principally backed by Sheldon Adelson, the casino billionaire who in 2007 fell out with AIPAC in part over its embrace of the two-state outcome, has attempted to position itself as the more conservative-friendly Israel lobby. The right-leaning Christians United for Israel is similarly assuming a higher profile on the Hill.

And so, in forging its legislative agenda, AIPAC is doing its best to find items both parties can get behind. There are three areas:

* Iran: Democrats are still resisting legislation that would undo the nuclear deal, but are ready to countenance more narrowly targeted sanctions. AIPAC is helping to craft bills that would target Iran’s missile testing and its transfer of arms to other hostile actors in the region.

* Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions: AIPAC will back a bill modeled on one introduced in the last congressional session by Sens. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, and Ben Cardin, D-Md., that would extend to the BDS movement 1970s laws that made it illegal to participate in the Arab League boycott of Israel.

* Foreign assistance: AIPAC activists will lobby the Hill on the final day of the conference with a request to back assistance to Israel (currently at $3.1 billion a year, set to rise next year to $3.8 billion). Support for such aid is a given, despite deep cuts to diplomatic and foreign aid programs in  Trump’s budget proposal.

Also a given will be the activists’ insistence that aid to Israel should not exist in a vacuum and should be accompanied by a robust continuation of U.S. aid to other countries. With a Trump administration pledged to slashing foreign assistance by a third and wiping out whole programs, AIPAC is returning to a posture unfamiliar since the early 1990s, when it stood up to a central plank of a Republican president.

Notably absent from the agenda is any item that robustly declares support for a two-state outcome. AIPAC officials say the longtime U.S. policy remains very much on their agenda, but the lobby’s apparent soft pedaling of the issue is notable at a time when other mainstream groups, including the American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League, have been assertive in urging the U.S. and Israeli governments to preserve it.

No need to shame the Federation


This column is a response to a column posted March 17 at jewishjournal.com, “A Deafening Silence from the Jewish Federation,” taking the Los Angeles Jewish Federation to task for not speaking out against certain policies and statements of President Donald Trump. You can join a Facebook discussion on this issue here.

Our local Federation can do no right. When it took a public stand two years ago against the Iran nuclear deal—which many of us considered bad for Israel and America, and still do—it got reamed by local Jews who felt the Federation should not exclude the many Jewish voices who favored the deal.

Although I was against the deal, I had sympathy for that pushback, since politics in general is very divisive and the Federation’s role is to be as unifying and inclusive as possible. The Federation learned its lesson. 

But now that Donald Trump is in the White House, some of those same voices are taking the Federation to task for staying out of politics and keeping quiet. In a joint op-ed in the Journal by four prominent progressive Jews, the Federation is shamed for remaining “deafeningly silent” in the face of the outrageous words and actions from our new president.

This goes against a long local tradition, the authors write, where “Los Angeles has had active Jewish community organizations that often spoke with one voice, took stands, ventured into politically risky territory and helped mark Jews as a force to be reckoned with on the community relations and political scenes.”

But the authors cite no precedent of past Federations taking on a president, or even a political cause. They use the loose term “Jewish leaders” without specifying if those were Federation leaders.

What they do suggest is that if anyone as bad as Trump would have become president over the past forty years, “The non-profit leadership of this community would have been vocal, visible and busy organizing in opposition.” 

If there’s any “statement” the Federation can make, it might be to organize “Open Nights” where different voices of the community would be heard in a civil and open way.

Fair enough, but here’s the problem with that position: I know a lot of Jews in Los Angeles who think Obama was pretty bad, too. They believe Obama increased the racial tensions in our country, did virtually nothing to stop the massacre of 500,000 civilians in Syria and the worst refugee crisis of the century, and tried to turn America into another failed, socialist European state.

Some of those Jews claimed Obama’s policies violated Jewish values, and that it was a Jewish value to oppose him. In fact, had progressive Jews mobilized to oppose Obama during the massacres in Syria, and implored the Federation to speak out in the name of Jewish values against Obama’s Syria policy, they might be getting a better hearing today.

Either way, I have no political dog in this fight. I’ve written columns urging Republicans to “dump” Trump and even wrote a piece calling him worse than a liar. Personally, I enjoy seeing the Trump opposition movement—it shows me our diverse community in action.

That long and noble tradition that the authors write about, of Jews being “active participants in meetings, demonstrations, legislation, community events and forming alliances,” is alive and well. It reminds me of how much I cherish our freedom to protest and hold our leaders accountable, which I never take for granted.

But should that be the role of the Federation at the expense of further dividing our community? I don’t think so.

It’s interesting to note that when the authors try to strengthen their case by showing examples of prominent conservatives who had the guts to take on Trump, they cite three newspaper pundits. These pundits, they write, “all have readers, long-time admirers and fee-generating organizations that they have angered and alienated because of their courage—but they spoke out nevertheless.”

Yes, but speaking out is the core role of a pundit. Pundits don’t have the duty to unify a community or help it heal. Federations do. Our Federation has made its share of mistakes over the years; I just don’t think that aiming for bipartisanship in tremendously divisive times is one of them.

If there’s any “statement” the Federation can make, it might be to organize “Open Nights” where different voices of the community would be heard in a civil and open way. Instead of picking one voice, the Federation would convene multiple voices. Maybe really smart people will find a middle ground that can project Jewish values in a Trumpian world without dividing us any further.

As the Journal’s Esther Kustanowitz wrote on a Facebook post, “It’s easy to emerge as leaders, with a statement to rouse community to action, when everyone agrees. It’s when people disagree—when a community holds different beliefs in tension with each other—that emerging as a community leader gets difficult.”

If you ask me, any leadership move that can bring Jews together under the most divisive and stressful circumstances would be worthy of the highest Jewish value—Trump or no Trump.

Melanie Steinhardt comforting Becca Richman at the Jewish Mount Carmel Cemetery in Philadelphia, Feb. 26. Photo by Dominick Reuter/Getty Images.

Poll: 87 percent of Democrats, 53 percent of Republicans say anti-Semitism a ‘serious’ problem


Seventy percent of American voters see anti-Semitism in the country as a “very” or “somewhat serious” problem, up from 49 percent a month ago, according to a new poll.

The responses differed by party identification, with an overwhelming majority of Democrats, 87 percent, seeing anti-Semitism as a “very” or “somewhat serious” problem, and slightly more than half of Republicans, 53 percent, seeing it as such, according to the poll released Thursday.

The survey was was conducted by Quinnipiac University at the beginning of March.

Jewish institutions, including community centers and Anti-Defamation League offices, have been hit with more than 100 bomb threats so far this year, all of them hoaxes. In the past three weeks, Jewish cemeteries were vandalized in Philadelphia,St. Louis, and Rochester, New York.

Respondents were split on President Donald Trump’s response to the bomb threats and vandalism, with 37 percent approving and 38 percent disapproving. Most Republicans, 71 percent, approved of Trump’s response, while most Democrats, 66 percent, disapproved.

The poll also found that 63 percent of American voters think hatred and prejudice has increased since Trump’s election, while two percent say it has decreased and 32 percent say it has stayed the same.

Trump has come under fire for his delayed response to the incidents. Concerning the threats on Jewish establishments, Trump at first deflected questions – and in one instance shouted down a reporter who asked him about it – before calling them “horrible.”

Last month, the president noted the bomb threats and vandalism of cemeteries in his first address to a joint meeting of Congress.

“Recent threats targeting Jewish community centers and vandalism of Jewish cemeteries, as well as last week’s shooting in Kansas City, remind us that while we may be a nation divided on policies, we are a country that stands united in condemning hate and evil in all its forms,” Trump said.

The Kansas City incident occurred after a patron ejected from a bar after hurling racial epithets at two workers from India allegedly returned with a gun and killed one of the men and wounded another.

Lee Zeldin: Trump’s Jewish mini-me


At a time when most Congressional Republicans are trying to distance themselves from Donald Trump, one is behaving like a cheap clone of his party's presidential candidate, complete with mind-numbing outrageous charges and incendiary rhetoric.

Rep. Lee Zeldin, the lone Jewish Republican in the 114th Congress, has called Barack Obama a “racist,” sounded like a Trump birther clone questioning the president's heritage and loyalty and accused him of having “no idea what he is doing.”

Zeldin, a freshman representing New York's first district at the eastern end of Long Island, likes to imitate his idol, Trump, by phrasing an accusation as if he's not the one who actually made the charge.

He said the return of $400 million in frozen funds to Iran was a “cash ransom to the world's largest state sponsor of terrorism,” virtually accusing the president of treason by suggesting he “is playing for the other team.”

The charge of dual loyalty is particularly offensive coming from a Jewish congressman.

Speaker Paul Ryan's called Trump's attack on the Mexican heritage of Indiana-born Judge Gonzalo Curiel “the textbook definition of racist,” but Zeldin defended the mogul, telling CNN not Trump but “the president of the United States is a racist with his policies and his rhetoric.” 

Trump, like many on the right, have trouble accepting an African-American or a woman as the president of their white man's Christian country.  Sounds like Zeldin does, too.

Huffington Post has said Zeldin has “shown a willingness to engage in some of the basest forms of politics.”

As the GOP's lone Jew in Congress Zeldin is often expected to give a hechsher or approval to his colleagues' positions on Israel. He is a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee, but the New York Post reported he “skipped out” on two thirds of the meetings in his first year that focused on ISIS and the Syrian crisis despite all “his tough talk” on those issues.

Zeldin told the Jerusalem Post that Trump would be a more reliable friend of Israel than Hillary Clinton despite saying he'd be neutral in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations and that neither side really wants peace. He also flip-flops on where in Israel the U.S. embassy should be located, and has said Israel and other countries should reimburse Washington for past foreign aid.  

More alarming, 50 leading Republican former national security officials have said Trump would be an unreliable ally to America's foreign friends like Israel and is unqualified to be commander in chief.

The GOP approach to the Jewish community is based on being super-hawks on the three I's – Israel, Iran and ISIS – and hoping we're stupid enough to overlook their generally dismal records on domestic and social issues that are at least if not more important.

It doesn't work, and as new evidence listen to the far right Israeli politician and settlement leader, Dani Dayan, who just became Prime Minister Netanyahu's consul general in New York.  “Any American president is good for Israel,” he told the New York Times. 

After former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani returned from Israel recently saying Netanyahu prefers Trump, the prime minister's office quickly announced he is not taking sides this year.

When Netanyahu criticized Trump's planned Muslim ban last December, the reality TV performer was offended and cancelled a planned trip to Israel. 

Hating Muslims has been a cornerstone of Trump's campaign and no doubt some Jews, especially on the right, may share that, but the overwhelming Jewish reaction has been rejection, perhaps because they understand that for hatemongers like Trump “we could be next.”  

Zeldin, 36, an Iraq war veteran, has predicted Trump would “annihilate” Clinton in his Long Island district, which went Democrat in the past two elections.  

His opponent is Anna Throne-Holst, a former Southampton town supervisor.   Unlike the incumbent, she supports the Iran nuclear agreement, the two-state solution and is receiving contributions from the pro-peace JStreet PAC. 

Zeldin has strong support from anti-abortion and gun groups. The NRA gave him its A rating and National Right to Life scores him 100 percent. Planned Parenthood, NARAL, ACLU and the Friends Committee on National Legislation all give him zero ratings.

He opposes same-sex marriage and is sponsoring legislation that would sanction discrimination based on “a religious belief or moral conviction” opposed to same sex marriage. GOP vice presidential candidate Mike Pence signed a similar law as governor of Indiana.

Zeldin has met at least twice with the rightwing group Oath Keepers, which the New York Daily News said dabbles in “fringe conspiracy theories,” claims the Sandy Hook school massacre was a hoax and called President Obama a “Muslim/Extremist.”  Its founder has said war hero Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) is “a traitor who should be hung by the neck until dead.” 

Zeldin initially justified the meetings by saying he's available to all constituents, but after numerous protests said he doesn't agree with “100%” of the group's message.

He also defended majority whip Steve Scalise's (R-LA) meeting with white supremacists linked to former KKK grand dragon David Duke, saying it wouldn't harm “Republican progress towards reaching minorities and the Jewish community.”  Three months later Scalise For Congress sent Zeldin a $2,000 campaign contribution.

In Trumpian tradition, Zeldin excoriated the media for bringing up the “not a big deal” incident and attacked Obama for having “82 meetings with Al Sharpton.”

Zeldin has tied his wagon to Donald Trump in a district that went Democrat in three of the past four elections.  Non-partisan election experts rate Zeldin's race a toss-up.


Douglas Bloomfield is a syndicated columnist; Washington, D.C., lobbyist; and consultant. He spent nine years as the legislative director and chief lobbyist for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).

House Dems: GOP sanctions bill undermines bipartisan stance on Iran


House Democrats are urging Republican leaders to forgo a vote on new Iran sanctions before the House adjourns on July 14 in order to maintain Congress’s traditionally bipartisan approach to Iran.

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) is expected to bring three Iran-related bills to the floor for a partisan vote exactly one year after the Iran nuclear agreement was announced in an effort to shine light on Iran’s illicit behavior and alleged violations of the nuclear deal, the Washington Post first 

Corker: Republicans are not more supportive of Israel than Democrats


Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee pushed back against those who are trying to make the U.S.-Israel relationship a wedge issue in the presidential campaign, during an appearance at the AJC Global Forum on Monday.

“I would love to say to the audience that, you know, Republicans are much more supportive of Israel than Democrats are, but that’s not true,” Corker said during a discussion on the U.S.-Israel relationship. “Thankfully, that is not true.”

According to the Senate Foreign Relations Chairman, while there’s an unprecedented “tenseness” that currently exists in the relationship between the Obama administration and the Israeli government, once a new president is elected, “What you are going to see is a return to the norm, regardless who comes out of this cycle.”

“But in Congress, certainly, there is bipartisan support for Israel,” Corker said.

A recent Gallup poll 

Jewish Republicans, come home to the Democratic Party!


This is a dismal time to be a Jewish Republican. Unless he’s struck by lightning or attacked by a swarm of killer bees, Donald Trump will be the Republican Party candidate for president.

(If you are an enthusiastic, die-hard Trump-ette, you can stop reading this. You are beyond reasoning with.)

To briefly recapitulate just some of the reasons Trump is so awful, and unimaginable as president:

• Trump encourages his followers to beat up protesters.
• He promises to torture terrorists, and kill their wives and children.
• He has to be prodded and berated to unenthusiastically repudiate the support of white supremacists and neo-Nazis.
• He mocks and denigrates women and the physically handicapped, among others.
• On his foreign policy advisors: “I’m speaking with myself, number one, because I have a very good brain and I’ve said a lot of things.”
• He admires strongmen and dictators like Vladimir Putin and Kim Jung-Un.
• He’s “neutral” on the Israel-Palestinian conflict, then Israel’s best friend, and who knows what next week.
• He has no fixed principles in either domestic or foreign policy, no allegiance to truthfulness, and no ethical or moral standards.

When “Is he more like Juan Perón or Benito Mussolini?” is a genuine question about your candidate, your political party is in more trouble than a convention of radical feminists in Saudi Arabia.

Nevertheless, millions of people have voted for Trump. Republican leaders who earlier rated him lower than bubonic plague now endorse him. He could indeed become the next president, particularly since a dispiriting quantity of Berniacs swear that they’ll vote for Trump rather than Hillary Clinton in November.

Where does that leave a rational Jewish Republican? Many current Jewish Republicans are former Democrats who checked out because the party shifted too far from the political center. As Dennis Prager has said, “I didn’t leave the Democratic Party; the party left me.”

But the GOP has been boarded and captured by people who prefer David Duke and Patrick Buchanan to William F. Buckley and Mitt Romney. Under Trump, the Republican Party is no longer a place for any self-respecting moderate voter, which most Jewish Republicans are. And that means supporting Clinton, maybe even rejoining the Democratic Party.

Now, Hillary is a flawed candidate. That’s another way of saying she isn’t a perfect candidate. Is there ever a perfect candidate? Does she hold precisely the positions on, for example, Israel, we would like? Probably not, depending on who “we” are. But she is the most consistently pro-Israel—and generally the most sensible—candidate on the ballot. Republicans are in the habit of demonizing Clinton as a radical, but the Huffington Post recently ran a piece titled, “There Is a Moderate Republican in This Race, But She’s Running as a Democrat.” That’s how the illiberal Left understands Clinton, which should reassure moderate Republicans.

Jewish Republicans, come back to the Democratic Party. At least organize a chapter of “Republicans for Clinton.” Anything to keep Trump out of the White House.

Paul Kujawsky is an Executive Board member and former President of Democrats for Israel, Los Angeles. The opinions expressed here are his own.

Incendiary?


After the recent disruption and cancellation of a Donald Trump campaign event in Chicago, the media — and Trump’s Republican opponents — blamed Trump for what had transpired. Specifically, he was blamed for the incendiary remarks he had made at previous events encouraging violence against some protestors. For example, he announced that he would pay the legal bills to defend a man who punched an anti-Trump protestor as he was being escorted out of a Trump event (while extending his middle finger to the crowd).

That those comments were incendiary is incontrovertible. In my last column, I listed many additional reasons for my opposition to Donald Trump.

However, when the left levels the charge of “incendiary,” it betrays a lack of self-awareness that is a marvel to behold. When it comes to incendiary statements in American life, the left has close to a monopoly. And these statements are not made by one individual whose affiliation with the left is new and tenuous — as Trump’s affiliation with Republicans and conservatives is — but by the most distinguished politicians, artists, writers, academics and journalists on the left.

Such comments are made so often that most folks on the left do not consider them incendiary — just everyday truths.

The president of the United States has contributed to a level of racial tension unlike any we have seen in a generation. Black anger at America has actually increased since Barack Obama was elected. Perhaps this was inevitable given how many hopes most Black Americans placed on having a Black president. But incendiary statements by the president have exacerbated this tension. 

The most egregious and damaging has been the president’s reiteration of the term “Ferguson,” as if the killing of Michael Brown by a white police officer in that Missouri city was an act of wanton — and race-based — murder. That is incendiary, because it is a lie. Blacks who witnessed that incident and who have no love for the police testified to how legitimate the white officer’s actions were. 

Nearly every Democratic leader and liberal columnist has stated that much of the Republican criticism of Barack Obama is due to racism — as if Republicans were easier on Bill Clinton or will be on Hillary Clinton because they are white. 

Writing during the debate over the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), New York Times columnist Paul Krugman wrote that Republicans are “probably reacting less to what Mr. Obama is doing, or even to what they’ve heard about what he’s doing, than to who he is.” It’s not Obamacare the Republicans opposed, he suggests, it’s largely Obama’s race. “The driving force,” he continued “is probably … cultural and racial anxiety.”

Is that incendiary?

Former President Jimmy Carter: “I think an overwhelming portion of the intensely demonstrated animosity toward President Barack Obama is based on the fact that he is a Black man, that he’s African-American.” 

Is that incendiary?

New York Times editorial page editor Andrew Rosenthal: “There has been a racist undertone to many of the Republican attacks leveled against President Obama for the last three years.” 

Is that incendiary?

What about the “White Privilege” doctrine that the left uses in almost every college to indoctrinate students against whites? Or the notion close to universally held among left-wing academics that only whites can be racist?

Are those incendiary?

The left labels every white who opposes race-based affirmative action a racist, and labels every Black who opposes it an “Uncle Tom.”

Is that incendiary?

While Donald Trump’s provocative comment that he’d like to punch the nose of a protester who disrupted one of his rallies may have led to one man being punched at a different rally, the left’s drumbeat of incendiary anti-police rhetoric has led directly to police and innumerable others being killed. So many police have disengaged from proactive policing in Black neighborhoods because of the “Ferguson Effect,” that the number of murders in cities such as Chicago has increased dramatically. 

But the left’s incendiary comments are hardly confined to charges of racism.

Left-wing professors at virtually every American university regularly call Israel an “apartheid state.” In my debate at the venerable Oxford Union in 2014, one of my opponents, a left-wing Ph.D. from Berkeley, said that Israel is doing to the Palestinians what the Nazis did to the Jews. And during the last Israel-Hamas war, actors Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz, and director Pedro Almodovar labeled Israel’s actions in Gaza “genocide” and a “war of extermination.”

Are these left-wing libels of Israel incendiary?

For that matter, recall the left-wing reactions to my completely respectful column in the Jewish Journal on the Torah teaching the importance of maintaining the male-female distinction. I was accused of cruelty, intolerance, bigotry, hate, publicly humiliating someone, being like a murderer, ignorance, and much more by left-wing rabbis and other left-wing Jews in leadership positions.

Is that incendiary?

The left labels every American who believes that marriage should remain defined as the union of a man and a woman a hater, a bigot, and, of course, a homophobe.

Is that incendiary?

The left labels Americans troubled by the influx of many millions of illegal immigrants “xenophobic,” “nativist” and “racist.”

Is that incendiary?

Here’s a difference between conservatives and liberals one might ponder. Virtually every major Republican and conservative, myself included, has called Donald Trump’s statements incendiary. Yet there isn’t a left-wing voice of which I am aware that has labeled any of the above incendiary.

Conservatives criticize their own. The left only criticizes the right. 

Dennis Prager’s nationally syndicated radio talk show is heard in Los Angeles from 9 a.m. to noon on KRLA (AM 870). His latest project is the Internet-based Prager University (prageru.com).

A 2016 election column that doesn’t mention Donald Trump


The 2016 presidential campaign is a real doozy and not only because of colorful personalities and bitterly fought primaries. It is nothing less than a test of the strength of two competing visions of America grappling with a wide range of issues that have been sucked into what increasingly seems a zero-sum game.

If 2008 was a big step, 2016 is the other shoe dropping, and we don’t know if that second shoe will be on the left or the right foot.

Everything else is noise.

The historic 2008 election was a turning point, when a reshaped Democratic coalition backing Barack Obama came to power. With Obama’s election, the Democratic coalition was transformed by a new multiracial and younger party base quite different from the 1990s party that had backed Bill Clinton. This new coalition won two presidential majorities for Democrats, a rarity since Franklin D. Roosevelt. And it made a profound difference in government.

The Affordable Care Act was the biggest expansion of medical coverage since Medicare passed in 1965. Diplomatic agreements with Cuba and Iran have changed the calculus of world politics. A new global agreement on climate change has created the possibility of a unified human response to the greatest threat the species has faced. New executive orders moved immigration reform forward.

Obama’s election set off a profound reaction on the conservative side that implicated everything about people’s view of themselves and of America. The conflict is about the role of government, but also about identity — about whose America this is. The stakes of winning and losing keep getting higher. It’s no coincidence that there is a “hope gap” in the polls and in political rhetoric. Older white voters are the most pessimistic about the country’s direction, while Latinos are among the most optimistic.

Who will prevail in 2016 — the vision of change that Obama presented and, to a significant degree, accomplished and on which he was re-elected in 2012, or the dream of rolling back those changes that prevailed in the off-year elections of 2010 and 2014? The final nominees from the two parties will completely disagree about whether these changes should stand or be rolled back.

With the sudden death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, the stakes got even higher. A 5-4 conservative majority has become a 4-4 split, and the battle over whether Obama can name the ninth justice has occupied Washington. If a new 5-4 liberal majority emerges, a host of decisions made by the conservative court, including the campaign finance ruling known as Citizens United, might be overturned. What had seemed to necessitate a constitutional amendment is now within reach. Conversely, a renewed conservative majority on the Court will last a generation, and Roe v. Wade might be overturned.

In fact, the next president will be able either to consolidate the direction charted by Obama and take it further, or conversely, go beyond eliminating what Obama did and push in the other direction. A Democratic president might be able to appoint a new Supreme Court majority, or extend the health care law and environmental regulations. Based on the experience of states controlled by Republicans, a Republican president and Congress might pass a national voter ID law that would drastically reduce Democratic voting, or pursue legislation to limit collective bargaining by unions.

There was a time when an election to succeed a two-term president was not about everything. We could assume that some things would change and some would stay the same, no matter who won. Those days are gone.

It does not matter who wins the Republican nomination, whether one of the four in the field, or one of those watching from the sidelines and waiting for the call of his party. While each Republican will come from a different place in the party, with a unique style, each will be pledged to undo the policies of the last eight years. If, as seems likely, Hillary Clinton is the Democratic nominee, she will be pledged to protect Obama’s policies and “finish the job” (in the words of Vice President Joe Biden).

Despite all the turmoil in the Republican Party today and the divisions over who will be the nominee, Republicans are likely to be highly unified and mobilized around the direction they want the country to go. Democrats are different, struggling to connect with their own grass roots and not quite able to explain to undecided or reluctant voters the stakes of the election in a way that will resonate. Republicans have invested in their vision of stopping and reversing Obama’s presidency, while Democrats have been struggling to paint a picture of a mountain climb that requires the nation to keep ascending against great resistance, portraying change as a marathon, not a sprint.

Behind this consequential battle, one that has largely been overlooked in the daily, personality-driven media coverage of this campaign, is a potential tipping point in American democracy.

Juan José Linz, a Yale political scientist and sociologist who died in 2013, has been getting some attention lately. When I was a Yale graduate student in the early 1970s, I took his course “Why Democracies Fail.” It was a remarkable and at times alarming class as we saw how democracies have fallen (and, at times, risen again). In his later work on “presidentialism,” Linz argued that the United States was the only nation with a separation of powers between president and Congress that had survived. He believed that our presidential system had survived because the parties were not fully cohesive in the way of parliamentary parties, but instead were filled with diverse and contradictory ideological forces. Now, as each party becomes more ideologically cohesive than ever before, we could be headed for a crackup. With Democrats doing well in presidential elections and Republicans dominating midterms, we have competing legitimacies.

Republicans have taken the lead in transforming our system of a separation of powers into a quasi-parliamentary model, at least for Democratic presidents. In other words, they have tried to prevent Democratic presidents from governing when Republicans hold one or both houses of Congress on the grounds that congressional legitimacy is equal to that of the president. This was the basis for the famous meeting held by Republicans on Capitol Hill in 2009 right after Obama’s victory, and it is evident again in their current refusal to consider an Obama nominee for the Supreme Court vacancy. There is reason to think that if the Republicans hold onto the Senate in the upcoming election, they would not confirm a Hillary Clinton appointee to the high court by arguing they have the electoral legitimacy to refuse. 

Given this, Democratic presidents will succeed only by putting public pressure on Republicans or by solving their colossal and increasing problem of low voter turnout in midterm elections magnified by rampant voter suppression. They have to explain to their own supporters why change is so agonizingly slow. The Republican strategy has the political virtue of demoralizing Democratic voters who expected change to happen much more quickly.

I will definitely be watching and enjoying the presidential race with all of its drama, its personalities and down-low fun. I’m no prude about this stuff. But I am also keeping my eye on the actual stakes of the election and on the prospects for a successful American democracy. 

Raphael J. Sonenshein is the executive director of the Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs at Cal State L.A.

Cartoon: Scalia’s final action


Trump beats Republicans, not Clinton, in one-on-one matchups


Donald Trump would win a hypothetical head-to-head contest against either of his two closest Republican U.S. presidential rivals, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, but he would fall short of beating Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton if the election were held today, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll on Monday.

If the Republican primary featured a face-off between Trump and Cruz, a Texas senator, Trump would win the support of 41 percent of Republican and independent voters, the poll showed. Cruz would take 31 percent, while 28 percent said they would not vote in a Cruz-Trump contest.

If Rubio, a Florida senator, were pitted against Trump, the billionaire real-estate mogul would take 40 percent support of Republican and independent voters to Rubio's 34 percent, according to the poll. Twenty-seven percent said they would not vote. In this matchup, Trump's lead over Rubio is within the survey's credibility interval.

Cruz and Rubio currently sit in second and fourth place of all Republican candidates, respectively, in the run-up to the November 2016 presidential election, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll on Friday.

Despite months of leading the Republican polls, Trump would fall short in a general election competition held today against Clinton, the poll showed. In a one-on-one match-up, the former secretary of state would take 40 percent support of all voters to real estate mogul Trump's 29 percent.

Eight percent of respondents said they did not know which candidate they would support in a Clinton-Trump competition. Fourteen percent said they would not vote for either one, and another 9 percent said they would not vote at all.

The survey of 1,627 likely voters from all parties was conducted between Dec. 16 and Dec. 21, with a credibility interval of 2.8 to 3.7 percentage points.

For whom the polls toll


The horserace polls dominating today’s political news are worse than misleading – they’re bad for democracy. They’re as corrosive of America’s self-image as the news industry’s obsession with murder and disaster, a black hole wildly unwarranted by actual crime and catastrophe. They’re as toxic to our spirit as the advertising industry’s brilliant cultivation of loneliness and desire, a yearning it persuades us to slake by spending money. Worse, once the nominees are chosen, the point of poll coverage will be that, unless you live in a handful of zip codes, your vote for president is irrelevant. How’s that for civic uplift?

It’s more instructive to look at the people being polled than to look at the candidates. This cycle, despite a race on the Democratic side, it’s the Republican electorate – specifically, likely Republican primary and caucus voters – whose enthusiasm for Donald Trump, Ben Carson, Carly Fiorina et al has so disproportionately affected the nation’s sense of its psyche. Who are these 120,000 Hawkeyes, these quarter-million Granite Staters, these engaged Republicans in a small number of states whom pollsters have repeatedly surveyed in batches of a thousand? How representative are they of you or me or people we know? According to a “>quiz here: “>11, “>five or just “>decided by a crowd that wouldn’t fill the Rose Bowl. Though there will be some effort to pump up the turnout of the base, most advertising buying, ground game spending and candidate scheduling will be driven by the pursuit of those undecided voters.

Next fall, if you want to know what winning the White House is about, ignore the liberal or conservative tribes. The data most worth knowing will describe people who will have spent the past two years ignoring pretty much everything that Democrats and Republicans say they stand for and will do. These Americans will be unlike you, but the difference will not be ideological. It will be the difference between being passionate about a leader who shares your beliefs, and being uninformed, disengaged, alienated, indifferent.

Just like you, they’ll have only one vote to cast. But theirs will actually make a difference.

Marty Kaplan is the Norman Lear professor of entertainment, media and society at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. Reach him at martyk@jewishjournal.com.

No, there are still two pro-Israel parties


Last week, Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC) head Matthew Brooks told The Hill, “We as a Jewish community have to take a long, hard step back and acknowledge the reality … that today there is one pro-Israel party and that is the Republican Party.”

What a boneheaded thing to say – both because it isn’t true, and because it’s a sure-fire way to hurt Israel. 

(Full disclosure: I’m a proud RJC member.)

Let’s look at some of the ways we know the Democrats continue to support Israel:

• In a survey last December (https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/monkey-cage/wp/2014/12/15/widening-democratic-party-divisions-on-the-israeli-palestinian-issue/), nearly three times as many Democrats said they want US policy to lean toward Israel than those who want the country to support the Palestinians.

• CNN found that Democrats were more likely to feel that Israel’s actions in Gaza last summer were justified than unjustified.

• In fact, 40 out of 55 Democrats in the U.S. Senate voted for a resolution offering strong support for Israel in its conflict with Hamas. None of the rest voted against. 

• There are many powerful voices within the Democratic Party taking Israel’s side even on hot-button and mostly partisan issues, such as the four Senators who voted against the Iran nuclear deal. One of them is widely expected to lead the entire Democratic caucus after next year’s election – Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.).

• All of the Democratic presidential candidates are on the record supporting Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state and defend itself against attack. Each has visited Israel at least three times.

Granted, a lot of those numbers are better, even much better, when the statistics regarding Republican Party are examined. But the question is not which party is best for Israel. Brooks says the GOP is the only pro-Israel party, and his claim is plainly not true.

In fact, at least some of the Democratic drift from Israel can be fairly laid at our own party’s feet. Every time we have treated support for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s conservative policies as a litmus test for supporting Israel as a whole, it was entirely predictable that support for Israel among liberals would diminish. In the last few years, our party (mostly with an eye on pro-Israel Evangelicals) has sought to make Israel a partisan issue, such as when it invited Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to speak to Congress in a manner disrespectful to Democrats.

I would of course love all my fellow Jews to vote Republican (you should hear my conversations at various Shabbat tables and family events). But within today’s Jewish community, proclaiming the GOP the only pro-Israel Party is more likely to hurt Israel than to hurt the Democrats. The “social justice” mantra and irrational phobia about conservative Christians entrenched among American Jews means that given the choice, liberal Jewish Democrats will turn against a Likud-led Israel much more quickly than against a Clinton- and Obama-led Democratic Party.

Worse than being unwise, though, the triumphalist language is completely unnecessary. 

Let’s say Israel, God forbid, once again had to enter Gaza to stop rocket attacks, and prominent Democrats began to press Israel to withdraw. The RJC should put aside partisanship and say something like this:

“The Republican Jewish Coalition wishes to express its concern about the voices in the Democratic Party urging Israel to put the lives of its citizens in danger. We are glad to be allied with the seven Democratic Senators and 38 Democratic Congressmen who are on record against this move, and we encourage other Democrats to return to their party’s historic roots in supporting the only democracy in the Middle East, which is one of America’s greatest friends anywhere.”

Even if someday Democratic support for Israel really does dry up, Republicans still mustn’t trumpet that change, because Israel needs support from both parties. The fact is, sometimes the Democrats do control one or more branches of government, and when that happens, Israel supporters need to find an open door and a willingness to listen.

Certainly, if Matthew Brooks and the rest of the leadership of the Republican Jewish Coalition are more interested in GOP electoral success than the safety of Israel, they can continue declaring themselves the only pro-Israel party. But doing so shows American Jewry that they put political self-interest over defending Israel – which couldn’t be more off-message.

David Benkof is Senior Political Analyst at the Daily Caller, where this essay first appeared. Follow him on Twitter (@DavidBenkof) or E-mail him at DavidBenkof@gmail.com.

Amid GOP disarray, Jews in DC search memories and Rolodexes


“Do I know this person?” has been a common refrain in the Washington offices of national Jewish organizations since Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, resigned as House speaker last month and his chosen successor, Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., the majority leader, flamed out last week.

Every day sees a new Republican contender named in the media. Some, like Rep. Pete Roskam of Illinois, are well known to Jewish officials. Others, like Rep. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, have community professionals flipping through their virtual Rolodoxes trying to pinpoint the last time they had a meaningful chat.

“The community has a history of building relationships, and we’ll reach out and build relationships where they do not exist, not just in D.C. but in field offices,” said Richard Foltin, the American Jewish Committee’s national and legislative affairs director. “To the extent that I have concerns, it’s having voices who oppose compromise and who are not comfortable with the notion that governing is about reaching accommodation both within the party and the other side.”

Rabbi Levi Shemtov, the director of American Friends of Lubavitch, said that his Chabad-affiliated group already had ties with a broad swath of the 247 GOP members, noting that Chabad had offices in 320 of 435 congressional districts.

“If it’s not one of the members we know, we’ll have someone we can connect to them,” he said before noting that Blackburn met recently with a Chabad rabbi from Tennessee.

Among the half dozen or so unconfirmed contenders for the post are Blackburn and Roskam, who led House opposition to the Iran nuclear deal, as well as Texas Rep. Bill Flores, who chairs the Republican Study Committee, the party’s more established conservative caucus. Declared candidates include Reps. Jason Chaffetz of Utah and Daniel Webster of Florida, members of the harder-line conservative wing of the Republican Party that prompted Boehner to step down.

Hovering above them all is Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, the chairman of the tax-law writing Ways and Means Committee. Ryan has indicated that he does not want the top spot, but is under pressure by the party establishment to step into the breach.

The GOP caucus is overwhelmingly pro-Israel — each of the prospective speakers put out a statement in March welcoming Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to Congress, an address that riled the White House and congressional Democrats.

But the Jewish community has closer ties to the establishment figures who have fallen out of favor among Republican conservatives. Boehner, who orchestrated the Netanyahu speech, has ties to Jewish federations in Ohio dating to his days in the 1980s as a municipal official in the Cincinnati area.

McCarthy and Ryan, together with former Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va., were the self-described “Young Guns” who rode the wave of GOP disaffection in 2010 to win the House and assume party leadership positions. Cantor is Jewish and has longstanding ties to national Jewish groups. Ryan, the 2012 vice-presidential pick of Mitt Romney, grew close to Romney’s Jewish backers. And McCarthy is a favorite of the Republican Jewish Coalition — his speech to the group in April generated vice-presidential buzz.

In recent years, however, the Tea Party insurgents have been gunning for the Young Guns they had raised to leadership, saying they were doing too little to reverse President Barack Obama’s agenda, particularly his signature health care reforms. Cantor was ousted by an anti-immigration candidate in the primaries, losing his historic post as the first Jewish majority leader in the House of Representatives.

McCarthy succeeded him as leader and seemed eager to step into Boehner’s slot. But he withdrew last week upon realizing that he would not win the speakership on GOP votes alone and was loath to rely on Democratic votes.

Ryan does not appear ready to give up the chairmanship of his committee — one of the most powerful in the House — assuming the speakership would require that move.

One worry for pro-Israel groups is that newcomers, while broadly pro-Israel, may not yet get the nuances of the pro-Israel lobby’s agenda — for instance advancing funding not only for Israel’s defense, but for other nations as a means of maintaining U.S. influence abroad.

A staffer for a senior GOP House member said the turnover in the caucus presented a challenge for pro-Israel groups who seek to educate lawmakers.

“About half if not more of the GOP conference has changed in the last six years,” said the staffer, who asked not to be identified.

Cantor decried in a New York Times Op-Ed on Sept. 25 the unwillingness of the party’s hard-line wing, numbering 40 or 50 members, to accommodate Obama on any level.

“Somewhere along the road, a number of voices on the right began demanding that the Republican Congress not only block Mr. Obama’s agenda but enact a reversal of his policies,” Cantor wrote. “Strangely, according to these voices, the only reason that was not occurring had nothing to do with the fact that the president was unlikely to repeal his own laws, or that under the Constitution, absent the assent of the president or two-thirds of both houses of Congress, you cannot make law.”

In the short term, Boehner’s resignation helps keep government running. Freed from threats from the right to unseat him, he can use his lame duck period to pass spending laws, including a defense bill that boosts Israel’s anti-missile capability. Boehner originally said he would leave on Oct. 31, but has indicated he may stay until a credible array of candidates emerges.

The AJC’s Foltin named immigration reform, voting rights and energy security as issues the AJC and the broader community want addressed in the longer run.

“We have to be able to move forward on the basis of negotiation and compromise,” he said. “How will we deal with the big picture on these issues?”

Rep. Lee Zeldin, R-N.Y., the sole Jewish Republican in Congress, said he was confident that whoever became speaker would protect pro-Israel funding.

“I would not anticipate any delay whatsoever with regards to any legislation that strengthens the relationship between the United States and Israel,” he said in an interview.

The Republican Jewish Coalition spokesman, Mark McNulty, said his group had ties into virtually every caucus member and was ready to educate anyone who got the slot.

“That’s why we’re here, we have the resources to educate people,” he said. “We have a lot of confidence in the resources our legislative team has developed over the years.”

At Politicon, diversity and polarity make for entertaining (and loud) political fare


Partisan, political theater was on full display mid-afternoon on Oct. 10 at the Los Angeles Convention Center, as two of the panels at the inaugural Politicon conference overlapped.

In “Independence Hall,” a panel included Democratic strategists David Axelrod, James Carville and former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich, while next door in “Freedom Hall,” right-wing firebrand Ann Coulter debated Cenk Uyger, a left-wing activist and commentator.

Some of the louder Democrats in the crowd chortled as Gingrich talked economics, and whooped when Axelrod defended President Obama’s economic record. Meanwhile it seemed Uyger and the standing-room only crowd next door couldn’t quite tell whether Coulter was serious when she said it would have been better had the United States dropped a nuclear weapon on Iraq instead of toppling Saddam Hussein and then withdrawing.

“ISIS, when they put somebody in a cage and burned him alive, we thought they were the worst monsters on earth. You say you’d like to do that on a grand scale, because that’s what a nuclear weapon does,” Uyger said to Coulter, to large applause. 

“In response to 9/11, yes,” Colter responded, “we should not have sent ground troops. We should have dropped…in retrospect, now that we know we’re in a country that can elect Barack Obama, instead of bothering to create a democracy in Iraq, which we did, and which was working beautifully,” she said, to boos. “Are we getting back to immigration, the topic of my book, and technically the topic of this panel?”

The two-day conference, which ran Oct. 9-10, attracted about 9,000 attendees, according to event organizers, and brought together some of the nation’s most recognizable figures in politics, media and entertainment, including “The Daily Show” host, Trevor Noah, who performed a stand-up routine followed up by a conversation with Carville, the political commentator who helped Bill Clinton win the presidency, as well as Paul Begala, former Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), John Avlon, editor in chief of the Daily Beast, with Edward Snowden, who became famous for leaking classified information from the NSA, appearing via live video from Russia.

Modeled after the wildly popular Comic-Con, Politicon’s first run was a sort of cholent for the political mind. There was the good – former Obama speechwriter, Jon Favreau, and Jay Leno-monologue writer and Democratic political consultant, Jon Macks on speechwriting; conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt, broadcasting his show live and interviewing, via telephone, Republican presidential candidate Carly Fiorina. There was the bad – a woman who screamed out “bulls**t!” to one of Gingrich’s points and then bragged about it after the panel. And there was the weird – ranging from the “Beats, Rhymes and Justice” slam poetry session to the cleverly and thematically cosplay-dressed attendees who got in for free.

In “Democracy Village,” the physical proximity of booths from different organizations, despite their stark ideological contrasts, created a bit of a compromising, kumbaya feel. Local conservative radio station KRLA, for example, bumped shoulders with the LGBT Republican Log Cabin Republicans, while just a few feet away were a Teamsters Local Union booth, and one for the Los Angeles County Young Democrats.

“This is really the intersection of politics and entertainment,” said Macks, who, in addition to his comedy writing, has also done debate preparation sessions with Obama, Bill Clinton, Joe Biden, John Kerry, and has done speechwriting for Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and others. “When politics is entertainment, when 24 million people are watching Donald Trump debate, this is a chance for everyone from your political junkies to political nerds to your issue-oriented people to everyday citizens who are just interested in finding out and having some fun.”

Did Politicon, with its variety and diversity, change minds or create some ground for compromise? Probably not, but that wasn’t really its purpose. Like any convention – whether for comic books, fashion, politics or entertainment – many, maybe even most of the attendees, were those already passionate about, and probably set in, their political and ideological beliefs. But with commentators on opposite sides of the spectrum sharing a stage, and with activists from the left and the right schmoozing and working only a few feet apart, Politicon did deliver on its slogan, “Entertain Democracy.”

Republicans and Planned Parenthood square off in Congress


Congressional Republicans on Tuesday challenged Planned Parenthood's U.S. taxpayer support, while the health organization's president said defunding it would disproportionately hurt low-income women.

Allegations that Planned Parenthood improperly sells fetal tissue to researchers for profit have reignited anti-abortion voter fervor during a turbulent Republican presidential primary campaign.

At a U.S. House of Representatives committee hearing, Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards appeared alone to respond to hostile questioning from Republicans, some of whom have vowed to shut down the U.S. government if federal support for the group is not cut off.

“As far as I can tell … this is an organization that doesn't need federal subsidy,” said House Oversight Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz.

Republican Representative Cynthia Lummis asked Richards why Planned Parenthood needed federal funding.

“You're making a ton of dough,” Lummis said, referring to Richards's annual salary of more than $500,000.

Richards said, “We don’t make any profit off federal money.” She added that Planned Parenthood was one of few health centers that will take in uninsured patients.

Planned Parenthood gets about $500 million annually in federal funds. It has been under fire for months over a series of secretly filmed videos. Produced and posted online by an anti-abortion group, the videos purport to show Planned Parenthood doctors discussing the illegal sale of fetal tissue.

At the hearing, Richards repeated the organization's stance that it has done nothing wrong. “There's been a great deal of misinformation,” she said. “The latest smear campaign is based on efforts by our opponents to trick doctors and clinicians into breaking the law … and our opponents failed.”

Democrats on the panel defended the group and questioned Republicans' motives.

“The disrespect, the misogyny rampant here today tells us what is really going on,” said Democratic Representative Gerald Connolly. “This isn't about some bogus video.”

“This is about some constitutional philosophy that says … we believe in rugged individualism and personal liberty with one big carve-out, and that is except when it comes to women controlling their own bodies and making their own health decisions.”

Candidates in GOP debate divided on whether to honor Iran deal


Candidates in a Republican presidential debate were divided over whether to honor the Iran nuclear deal.

The question of whether or not to abandon the deal drew unusually sharp divisions in the CNN debate on Wednesday evening at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum in Simi Valley, California. The sanctions relief for nuclear restrictions deal reached in July between six major powers and Iran has been described as President Barack Obama’s signature foreign policy achievement.

Of the 15 candidates, seven said they would kill the deal and three said they would abide by it. Two said they would make demands that would effectively quash the agreement and one urged Congress to stop it while there was time. Two candidates did not directly address how they would treat the deal.

Billionaire businessman Donald Trump, the front-runner in polls, called the Iran deal “one of the worst contracts of any kind I’ve ever seen,” but did not say whether he would kill it.

The exchange among the 11 candidates in the second round, which featured those with the most support in polls, was launched when moderator Jake Tapper asked Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, to react to published comments by Ohio Gov. John Kasich deriding a pledge by Cruz to rip up the deal.

“This deal abandons four American hostages in Iran, and this deal will only accelerate Iran’s acquiring nuclear weapons,” Cruz said. “You’d better believe it. If I am elected president, on the very first day in office, I will rip to shreds this catastrophic Iranian nuclear deal.”

Cruz pivoted to an attack on Kasich.

“If there’s anyone up here who would be bound by this catastrophic deal with Iran, they’re giving up the core responsibility of commander in chief and as president. I would never do that,” Cruz said.

Kasich responded that he agreed the deal was a “bad” one, but said it was better to work with the allies who helped negotiate it.

“If we find out that they may be developing a nuclear weapon, then the military option is on the table,” he said. “We are stronger when we work with the Western civilization, our friends in Europe, and just doing it on our own I don’t think is the right policy.”

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., agreed with Kasich, calling Cruz’s proposal “absurd.”

Candidates seemed eager to weigh in one way or the other. Asked about his China policy, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker added, “I was one of the first ones to call for terminating the bad deal with Iran on day one.”

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush rejoined to Walker that “as it relates to Iran, it’s not a strategy to tear up an agreement.”

Instead, Bush said, “The first thing that we need to do is to establish our commitment to Israel which has been altered by this administration. And, make sure that they have the most sophisticated weapons to send a signal to Iran that we have Israel’s back.”

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee also insisted on interjecting his view, saying that “we must, simply, make it very clear that the next president, one of us on this stage, will absolutely not honor that agreement, and will destroy it and will be tough with Iran, because otherwise we put every person in this world in a very dangerous place.”

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., derided those “who said we should trust this Iranian deal, see if the Iranians will comply.” Referring to the Iranian supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Rubio said, “Anyone who is paying attention to what Khamenei says knows that they will not comply.”

Former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina inserted her answer into a question about whether to fund Planned Parenthood, which was involved recently in an abortion controversy.

She said that on her first day in office, she would first call Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to assure him “we will stand with the state of Israel” and then Khamenei “to tell him that unless and until he opens every military and every nuclear facility to real anytime, anywhere inspections by our people, not his, we, the United States of America, will make it as difficult as possible [to] move money around the global financial system.”

Fiorina did not directly say she would abrogate the agreement, but threatened sanctions unless Khamenei allows in American inspectors with unfettered access. Fiorina’s demands would effectively quash the deal.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie in his closing remarks said, “I will not agree to anything with a country that says death to us and death to Israel and holds our hostages while we sign agreements with them.”

Among the 11 candidates in the second round, only Ben Carson, a physician, did not say how he would approach the deal.

Christie was among four candidates who included a reference to Israel in his closing remarks; the others were Cruz, Rubio and Huckabee. Cruz said one of his first acts would be to move the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

Kasich quoted in his closing remarks from a Holocaust memorial on the statehouse grounds: “If you’ve saved one life, you’ve changed the world.”

Of the four candidates who participated in an earlier debate for candidates who were polling poorly, two – Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and former New York Gov. George Pataki – said they would abrogate the deal. Former Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., stipulated the same conditions as Fiorina, which would effectively kill the deal. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal called on Congress to seek avenues to kill the deal.

Why we lost the debate to kill the Iran deal, and how we could ultimately win


Early on in February of this year, as the President and his Secretary of State were starting to leak information on the  negotiations around the proposed deal with Iran, the world looked on and assumed like so many attempts before it, the prospects of success where slim – they would fail.  But the Israeli government took them seriously, they went into high gear, sending out messages through government operatives, generals and eventually the Prime Minister. This culminated in Prime Minister Netanyahu’s grand performance before congress. 

Mistake number #1.  No sitting president wants to be upstaged, nor embarrassed.   And no Democratic member of congress wanted to be part of a political maneuver that was staged not just by the Republican majority, but was blatantly used to manipulate the elections in Israel.  With that move, so began the slippery slope of alienating the key members of congress, the key democratic constituencies that could have turned the tide and killed what is arguably a “poor deal with Iran”.   

Then after the Netanyahu grandstanding, negotiations began to heat up as deadlines approached.  And Israel turned up the heat with its propaganda machine.  Leaking information on the Iranian nuclear program, placing editorials in newspapers, sending operatives from the Israeli lobby in the U.S. to media and events like congressional hearings. 

Mistake number #2 – Its not all about Israel — Its about the spread of terrorism and the importance of keeping sanctions.   As the elements of the deal leaked out in earnest in late April early May, the Israeli lobby began to attack the deal without any substance.  “We know this will be a bad deal for Israel.” stated a email from AIPAC.  “We cannot trust the Iranian's to keep their word” stated another one.  

Mistake number #3  While the Israeli lobby did the inside the beltway dance and shuffle, all the while the President and his people were out working the world stage putting pressure on our strongest allies to support a deal that they themselves had concerns about.  And setting in place U.S. based support with key Democratic constituencies.

Next up, the deal is getting done, the Iranians were close to walking away according to sources in the talks.  They did not want an extension.  We could have killed the deal right then and there.  But instead pro-Israel forces and members of the Israeli government chose a different path.  They focused their efforts on stirring up their base, sending out fundraising letters and attacking the wrong folks – the important Democrats that they were going to need in the coming months. 

Mistake number #4.  While the pro-Israel forces focused on attacking Democrats and let their Republican allies carry the message, the President and Secretary of State John Kerry were traveling the world, further pushing our allies into supporting the deal, and meeting regularly with the Democratic leadership to prepare for the eventual rollout of a flawed deal.  They knew it was flawed, yet they continued to think as they do today that this is the best deal we can get. 

Mistake number #5.  Already behind the eight-ball only weeks before the final announcement of the deal, finally the pro-Israel lobby meets in secret meetings in DC to plan what to do about a deal.    What do they do – they hire a Republican PR firm and Republican operatives to oversee the campaign, while leaking their strategy to the conservative media.   Not a great strategy, when you have to convince 30+ Democratic House members and a dozen or more Democratic Senators to oppose a flawed deal.   And in a typical inside baseball strategy they start running ads in national publications and doing TV advertising to an audience that has not been contacted in months as to their position, and has little connection to what is now become a partisan battle. 

Mistake number #6.  Panicked and playing catch up, they put into place a last minute attempt to lobby members of congress during the recess.  The big problem —  they have no base of support, the constituents that would make the most impact to members are already either neutral or are not going to go up against the President.  Having been worked for months by the administration, the supporters have convincingly framed the debate, and the Israeli government having counted the votes now knows they need to be careful for fear of a increased Obama backlash. 

Is it too late?

So where are we today, the pro-Israel groups for the last 40 days have been desperately trying to work constituencies that have no skin in the game, and are more concerned about the last two years of an Obama presidency and important members of Congress that will be critical to their issues in the coming years.  Throw on top of this members being lobbied by the leadership to tow the line or else they may end up in the smallest office, working on the subcommittee on Post Office operations. 

And so we have a misguided plan, late execution, a lost moral high ground, and many pro-Israel supporters like myself left confused and disappointed.

So can we win this? Probably not.  But we could inflict enough damage and pain that the administration and the world will listen- – implementation is still yet to be determined.    How can we achieve this.  We need to enlist the Obama coalition – go grassroots, and capture the debate by shifting the narrative away from Israel and back to terrorism and protecting the Homeland. 

We cannot re-write the history of the last 6 months.  We cannot undo the Netanyahu speech, or even bring together members of the Democratic caucus to rally behind their most trusted allies – the Jewish community.  Nor can you take back the millions wasted on national media campaigns and robo calls to staff members who have more to loose in bucking the leadership.  

Opportunity number #1.  What we could do and what we should have done is to reach out to the traditional Democratic base, the coalitions of minorities, women and seniors, labor and others that have stood side by side with the American Jewish community for decades.  Fighting for human rights, civil rights and personal freedoms.   We should have utilized this most powerful of coalitions to push back on our friends in the Democratic establishment to support what is right and what is important.   There is nothing more persuasive than a local constituent or large contributor calling or writing a member of congress to say.  “Please think before you cast this vote….”   Staff members catch on when calls come in from individuals that don't even know whom they are talking to – pushed through by eager political operatives that are making big bucks, while the President and his team count favorable votes.

Over and over again, our community falls into the same trap.  We take for granted that the communities we have been so closely aligned with, will be there when we need them. 

Opportunity number #2. So moving forward as a community, lets cast off the traditional playbook, put energy into local third-party Democratic and independent groups and focus on the importance of protecting the USA.    We as a Jewish community need to dig deep into our strong alliances with groups that have for decades relied on our support to achieve personal justice – we need them now, and they should be with us.  We need to ask them to reach key Democratic leaders and tell them its important that this deal not be implemented without the support of the community it will impact.  

That is where we should be, that is where we need to be – unfortunately, we are weeks away from approval of this deal, while continuing to  watch ads that point fingers and talk down to the same people that we need to support us.

Cartoon: Republican Slogans


With Biden opting out, partisan row over Netanyahu speech intensifies


In a blow to Israel’s efforts to contain the controversy over Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s upcoming speech to Congress, Vice President Joe Biden announced that he would not attend the address.

Biden’s office informed the media on Friday that the vice president would be out of the country and would not fill his role as the president of the Senate during the joint meeting of Congress on March 3.

The announcement came as leading black and Hispanic Democrats indicated that they also would not attend. A Jewish lawmaker, Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.), told JTA that blacks in his district were asking him not to attend because they saw the speech as disrespecting President Barack Obama.

Meanwhile, Abraham Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, in an interview with the Forward on Friday urged Netanyahu not to follow through with his plans to address Congress, saying the fracas had devolved into a “circus.” Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, made the same call in an interview with the paper.

Administration officials had already said that the president and other senior officials would not meet with Netanyahu, ostensibly because the March 3 speech is just two weeks before the Israeli election. But until Friday it was not clear whether Biden would abjure his role of presiding over the Senate during the session.

Congressional Democrats say the speech is unacceptable because Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio), the House of Representatives speaker, invited Netanyahu to rebut Obama’s continued backing of nuclear talks between the major powers and Iran. Netanyahu, like most Republicans, believes the talks are headed for a bad deal that will leave Iran on the threshold of a nuclear weapon.

Netanyahu has phoned senior Democrats and Ambassador Ron Dermer has met with many of the rank-and-file in an effort to smooth over their differences. Netanyahu and Dermer have said the speech will emphasize bipartisan support for Israel and praise Obama for his backing of the country at critical times. They also said that Netanyahu is determined to keep the date because he believes he must urgently convey his warning about a nuclear Iran ahead of a March 24 deadline on achieving the outline of a deal.

Democrats, however, have grown more adamant in opposing the speech, with a growing number of prominent minority Democrats saying they will stay away. Party leaders in both chambers say they will attend but are warning that the speech might backfire.

Among the black lawmakers, Rep. James Clyburn of South Carolina, the third-ranked House Democrat, joined Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), a civil rights hero, and Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.), the chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, in saying he will not attend. The Hill newspaper has also reported that Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), a prominent Hispanic lawmaker and the chairman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, will not attend.

Jewish lawmakers have met with Dermer and expressed their displeasure with the timing of the speech. Cohen, who is circulating a letter among colleagues urging Boehner to postpone the speech until after Israeli elections and congressional votes on an Iran sanctions bill, told Dermer on Thursday that African-American leaders in his Memphis district were asking him not to attend.

“It’s become less and less attractive” to attend, Cohen told JTA after the meeting. “My district is majority African-American and a lot of people see this as dismissive of the first African-American president.”

Cohen said Dermer told him that Netanyahu is determined to go ahead with the speech.

Israel’s deputy foreign minister, Tzachi Hanegbi, suggested that Boehner misled the Israelis about the invitation, which Boehner said was made in the name of both parties. Within hours of Boehner announcing the invitation on Jan. 21, Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), the House minority leader, and the White House said they had been kept out of the loop.

“It appears that the speaker of Congress made a move in which we trusted, but which it ultimately became clear was a one-sided move and not a move by both sides,” Reuters quoted Hanegbi as saying Friday on an Israeli radio station.

A slate of 48 GOP House members signed on to a letter countering the one circulated by Cohen asking for a speech delay. The GOP letter, initiated by Reps. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.), Lee Zeldin (R-N.Y.) and Leonard Lance (R-N.J.), thanked Boehner for organizing the speech, saying “it is necessary now for Congress to hear from Prime Minister Netanyahu, and welcome his expertise on Iran’s regional designs.”

Matt Brooks, the director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, suggested on Twitter that his party would use the issue against Democrats in elections.

“Dems have a choice — stand w/PM Netanyahu and the Jewish com against Iran or w/Pres Obama,” he said. The RJC “will make sure people know what they choose.”

After Scalise debacle, more hardball expected in the fight for minority vote


A recent revelation that a top Republican addressed a white supremacist group is reviving an age-old Washington debate: How important are false steps from the past in evaluating a party today?

Not very, say Republicans, in the case of Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.), the majority whip in the U.S. House of Representatives sworn in on Tuesday. In 2002, when he was a state legislator, Scalise spoke to a group affiliated with the white nationalist David Duke.

Not so fast, counter Democrats, who say the speech, while not indicting Scalise as a racist, underscores what they claim is the GOP’s propensity to flirt with extremists.

Aaron Keyak, a consultant to Democrats and Jewish groups, says the issue is potent and serious enough to merit continued attention as both sides bid for the votes of Jews, blacks, Hispanics and women ahead of the 2016 presidential election.

“There will be increased scrutiny of the schedule of Congressman Scalise and other Republicans,” said Keyak, who until last year was a senior adviser to Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.).

He added: “There is a whole litany of reasons the Republican Party is out of step with the Jewish community, and this is only one symptom of how out of touch they are.”

Jewish Republicans say they would prefer that the past remain the past – but they are prepared to give as good as they get.

“You’re referencing a meeting that took place a dozen years ago,” said Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-N.Y.), the sole Jewish Republican in the incoming Congress. “The next person may be concerned about the president meeting with Al Sharpton 82 times in the White House.”

Sharpton, a civil rights activist who is known for his fiery rhetoric about Jews during the 1991 Crown Heights riots, has visited the Obama White House 72 times, the majority for large events, according to a recent Washington Post report.

Scalise has said he regrets the 2002 speech and was not aware that the group had been founded by Duke, a former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard.

The Anti-Defamation League said that Scalise’s statement puts the matter to rest for now, but also that the threat posed by Duke and other white supremacists should not be minimized.

A number of recent profiles of Scalise noted that as an ambitious Louisiana pol, he cultivated friendships and alliances with black leaders. However, he also looked to the base that had propelled Duke to prominence in Louisiana state politics in the 1990s, when Duke served as a state legislator and ran for several other offices.

Kenny Knight, a longtime Duke adviser, donated $1,000 to Scalise’s congressional campaign in 2008. And Scalise voted twice in the State Legislature against making Martin Luther King Day a holiday.

“It’s part of a narrative, a steady drip of policy announcements and appearances at events that seem to suggest a deaf ear to Jewish sensitivities and to minorities’ sensitivities,” said Greg Rosenbaum, the chairman of the National Jewish Democratic Council.

Ann Lewis, who headed communications in the Clinton White House, says the controversy is reminiscent of remarks made during the 2012 campaign by Todd Akin, a GOP candidate in Missouri for the U.S. Senate who suggested that rape could not lead to pregnancy in arguing against a rape exemption to any abortion ban.

Lewis, who also advised Hillary Rodham Clinton during her 2008 presidential run, says the GOP showed discipline in the 2014 elections in controlling such problematic statements, but charges that the policies underpinning the statements persisted.

“Candidates understood why 2012 was a problem,” she said. “That doesn’t mean we’re going to see any better support for women’s health issues.”

Lewis notes a concerted national campaign by the state Republican parties to add abortion restrictions through state legislative bids.

“Do you take this kind of behavior seriously, do you understand the signal you send?” she said. “With Scalise, what I hear from the Republican leadership is they are the victims because they are getting criticized.”

News of Scalise’s speech comes as Republicans are making a concerted effort to appeal to minorities and women, playing up the election to the House of Zeldin and Mia Love, a black woman from Utah.

But controversies over past political moves are hardly the domain of a single political party, says Matt Brooks, the director of the Republican Jewish Coalition.

“On both sides of the aisle there’s a lot of this gotcha politics that goes on,” he said. Whether charges would stick, he says, depended “on the totality of the individual and the circumstance.”

Scalise will survive, Brooks says, in part because the incident is in the past and some Democrats are defending him now.

Zeldin says Republicans will appeal to minorities by focusing on bread-and-butter issues that trumped identity politics.

“When the debate is focused so much on budgets and job creation and improving the business climate, it becomes much more of a strategic advantage for Republicans to improve on that outreach with groups that have been primarily voting Democrat in the past,” he said.

Rabbi Jack Moline, who until November directed the NJDC, says Democrats should pitch their fight on an issues level and not focus on bad past decisions.

“What we needed to demand from Rep. Scalise was an explanation and we got it,” he said.

He cites issues where Republicans would easily lose Jews, including rolling back the social safety net, opposition to immigration reform bills and the growing wing within the GOP that opposes a robust U.S. role overseas.

“Those are things we ought to be debating, not whether or not someone who grew up in Louisiana has been exposed to bigotry,” Moline said.

 

Barney Frank on practically everything


Long a legislative lion for Democrats, Barney Frank retired from Congress two years ago. But he remains famously shrewd and caustic, feisty and funny, as well as the most prominent gay politician in the nation. With current roiling debate over the financial reform that Frank helped to legislate, along with his frequent appearances on CNBC and the publication of his memoirs in March, he's back in the spotlight.

Frank was in the U.S. House of Representatives for 32 years. In Congress, he was the controversial Democratic leader on the House Financial Services Committee and was a co-sponsor of the eponymous 2010 Dodd-Frank act, which brought sweeping reform to the financial industry. Now 74 and married, when he's not on TV or relaxing on the coast of Maine, he's giving paid speeches and teaching at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard.

David A. Kaplan recently talked to Frank for Reuters in mid town Manhattan. During a wide-ranging exchange, in his characteristic Bayonne-meets-Boston mumble, Frank discussed the 2016 presidential election and his fear of Chris Christie; his prediction on a Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage; the future of Dodd-Frank; his disappointment over President Obama; his distaste for Jon Stewart; and why, no, he didn't cause the 2008 financial crisis. Edited excerpts:

REUTERS: What do you make of Congress last weekend watering down Dodd-Frank, your signature bill?

BARNEY FRANK: One small piece of the law was affected, but it's mostly good news because of the furious response, which shows that financial reform continues to be a major public concern.

R: Would you encourage President Obama to consider not signing the bill?

BF: Yes.

R: And thereby shutting down the government?

BF: He could say, “Send me the same bill without the provision [affecting Dodd-Frank].” Any shutdown would be brief.

R: Did supporters of changing Dodd-Frank, even a little, miscalculate politically?

BF: Yes, Republicans misread public opinion. So did the Senate Democratic leadership and the White House.

R: And the banks themselves-the ones affected by Dodd-Frank?

BF: They're not concerned with public opinion.

R: What will Republicans do in terms of further rollback since they'll soon be in control of Congress?

BF: Given the response we just saw, it will be difficult for them to make any major changes in the face of what I am now confident will be very loud public disapproval.

R: Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) was most vocal in opposing the current bill. How do you think she comes out?

BF: She showed she's a force to be reckoned with.

R: Do you miss not being part of the legislative action?

BF: I wouldn't want to have had to be involved in complex negotiations. But I was glad to speak out last week.

R: Are you happy with how Dodd-Frank has been implemented so far?

BF: Yes, with one exception. There's been one chip-away, but it came a coalition of left and right, with the support of lenders, realtors, homebuilders and in particular, advocacy groups. I wanted to say that no mortgage loans could be made and then 100-percent securitized without risk-retention; people refer to that metaphorically as “skin in the game.” But to get the bill through, we had to give in to create a special category of super-safe loans that didn't have to be risk-retained. I also was disappointed the Republicans under funded the Commodity Futures Trading Commission and the SEC, but that hasn't really done any harm. Ideally, I'd have liked to merge the SEC and the CFTC.

THE SCOURGE OF POLITICS

R: What do you think of the midterms?

BF: I'm discouraged by more than simply the God-awful turnout. The root of our problem is people who are frustrated we haven't produced for them economically. You get into a vicious cycle in which people are disappointed in government because it hasn't delivered, so they then get mad at government and vote for people who dislike government, which makes it even less likely that government will do anything for them.

R: What's the fix?

BF: There are two things we should do to free up money. One, and I'm sorry the President appears to be back-pedaling on this, is cut military spending. And the time has also come for Democrats to look at the environmental issue. Part of that community makes two mistakes. They take a morally superior tone. It's possible to support laws on climate change, but still understand it will have a negative impact on some people and figure out how to compensate them. Not every environmental issue has the same moral importance.

R: So, better turnout next time isn't the solution?

BF: We have to persuade white guys that we really do care about their economic interests.

R: Do the midterms portend badly for Democrats in 2016?

BF: Not so much. We have a temporary advantage in that the Republicans are so badly split that they're going to have a hard time putting together a ticket that gets unified support. They're going to have the same problem Romney had.

GAY RIGHTS

R: Has the velocity of change gay rights surprised you?

BF: It's astonishing. I filed the first gay rights bill in Massachusetts history in 1972. And at any time these past 40 years, if you'd asked me to say, “Where's it going to be three years later?” I'd have been wrong.

R: Is that speed a function of the progressivity of the American people?

BF: Absolutely. If it hadn't been for gender equity and race, we wouldn't have gotten started. But once we did, the reason [for progress] is simple: We're much less different. Almost every straight person has gay and lesbian friends, relatives, etc. When we all started saying who we were, people realized it didn't make any difference. Reality beat the prejudice.

R: Will the U.S. Supreme Court rule on same-sex marriage?

BF: Yes, next year. Of course they'll say yes. Unless Ruth Ginsburg dies. But then they'll still say yes because it will be a 4-to-4 tie. Based on his prior votes [in other gay rights case], I'm sure [Justice Anthony] Kennedy is going to vote to uphold same-sex marriage.

R: So, you predict 5-to-4?

BF: Yes. Potentially 6-to-3, if [Chief Justice John] Roberts joins, but I doubt it. I was struck by what they did recently-their refusal to act. [Without comment, the Court let stand lower-court rulings that upheld a constitutional right to same-sex marriage.] There's a perfect sports analogy. They gave same-sex marriage an intentional walk. They weren't going to let us hit a home run, but they weren't going to try and get us out.

THE RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE: 2016

R: Would you support Hillary?

BF: Pretty enthusiastically. I have slight differences with her on foreign policy-she's more hawkish. But the reality's going to force Democrats into a less intervention position. And you have an appealing candidate. So I'm supporting her and I'd urge others not to run against her.

R: Think there's a chance others will?

BF: No, especially because it doesn't look like we have the luxury of a fight. After the midterms, it's particularly hard for anybody who's thinking about running against her from the left.

R: Who will the Republicans nominate?

BF: They have a terrible problem. You have Jeb Bush on the one hand who has real problems on the right. You have Rand Paul or even a Rubio who have a certain implausibility. God is not that much of a Democrat for Ted Cruz to get nominated.

THE GOP AS LEADERS

R: Will the GOP behave differently now that it controls both houses of Congress?

BF: The real problem is House-versus-Senate. You're going to see great dysfunction. The House Republicans are a very right-wing group, They understand they're going to have a hard time getting anything done, so they're preemptively blaming Obama for their own failure to get together.

R: Is current congressional dysfunction unique in U.S. history?

BF: You have to go back to the Civil War. Things were not ground down under George W. Bush, Clinton, George H.W. Bush, Reagan, or Carter. It starts in 2011. In 2009 and '10, we passed financial reform and health care. We repealed “Don't ask, don't tell.” We did women's pay equity. Go back to W. You got No Child Left Behind, the prescription drug program. Under Clinton, even when Republicans were impeaching him, he was still working on a budget deal.

R: What will break the fever?

BF: If the Republicans lose badly in '16. The Democrats take back the Senate, win the presidency, and make gains in the HouseUsually when a party goes far to the extreme, as the Republicans did in '64 with Goldwater, or the Democrats in '72 with McGovern-they're punished at the polls. What was unique in 2010 was Republicans went to the right, but so did the country. It was anger over the things we had to do to respond to the financial crisis. So the Republicans didn't get penalized.

R: Which '16 Republican candidate would worry you most?

BF: Chris Christie maybe, although that bridge scandal was bad. But he'll have terrible trouble getting the nomination, because there's this perception of him being more moderate.

R: More so than Jeb Bush?

BF: If I thought Bush, I would have told you Bush.

R: He's articulate and thoughtful, and from an important state electorally.

BF: And he's a Bush. And his brother went out very unpopular. There's a sense of establishmentism. Christie conveys a sense of being an outsider.

R: If Hillary doesn't run, would Senator Warren be interested?

BF: Of course she'd be. Who's got an ambition in life to be a Triple-A shortstop?

OBAMA

R: You've praised Obama at times, even though you initially supported Clinton in 2008. What are the lessons from his presidency?

BF: He misunderstood partisanship in its best sense. I was worried when he said in 2008 he was going to be post-partisan, It gave me post-partisan depressionHis mistake was to think you can talk your way out of things and undervalue the reality of genuine disagreement. You win the right to cooperate only by being tough to start with. He skipped that part.

R: Is his failure related to race?

BF: Obviously he got elected. And I don't think that's why Tea Party members of Congress were so bad. But the whole birther thing was clearly based on race. And by the way, any sense that race is not a big factor in America is totally refuted by Ebola. If Ebola had broken out in Israel or Ireland, rather than with black people in Africa, it would be treated very differently here.

THE FINANCIAL CRISIS OF 2008

R: In prior financial epochs like Enron and the S&Ls, people went to jail. Why not this time?

BF: The abuses in many cases weren't yet illegal-ethically awful, but not illegal.

R: Was the Justice Department too timid?

BF: I think so. But liberals have to remember that an essential element of due process is you shouldn't be convicted on behavior that's ambiguously criminal. Part of it, though, was early on were worried about the fragility of the economy, and those other things-Enron, Tyco, World Com-didn't occur when the economy was on the brink.

R: Why would a fragile economy deter prosecutions?

BF: Because you'd make it more fragile by crashing institutions and high-level individuals.

R: Are you given insufficient credit for supporting free enterprise?

BF: I have a fundamental philosophical view, which is we have two systems in our democratic, capitalist society: private sector and public. In the private sector, the more money you have, the more influence you have. That's how a market economy works. If you work harder, you get more moneyAnd that's a good thing. the public sector is supposed to be one-person, one-vote. But weak campaign-finance laws allow you to buy more influence. You're supposed to be able to buy influence in the private sector, not in the public sector.

R: Don't people get the government they deserve?

BF: I agree absolutely. My formulation is this: politicians make a lot of mistakes, the press drives me crazy, and voters are no bargain, either. But part of the problem is unequal money.

R: What do you mean by “voters are no bargain, either”?

BF: It's interesting that the institution the public values the least is the one in which they have the greatest input in selecting: Congress.

PRESS PROBLEMS

R: If the press were so influential, wouldn't Paul Tsongas have been elected president in 1992?

BF: The press is very different today. It's a major contributing factor to pro-right-wing, anti-government feeling. Because even the liberal press is anti-government. Ever watched Jon Stewart say anything good about government?

R: He's part of the problem?

BF: Him and others. The effect is to tell people it doesn't make any difference who they vote for. I differentiate Bill Maher from Jon Stewart. Maher's very funny, but also has good and bad guys on the show. You say, “Oh, I agree more with this side than that side.” You come away from Stewart and especially Colbert, and say, “Oh, they're all assholes.”

R: Is your media critique that different than it would've been a generation ago?

BF: The most active people in society live in parallel media universes, which only reinforce what they believe. That's one reason we don't get compromise. Because when people who represent one faction try to compromise, they're told by supporters, “Why are you doing this?” If the response is, “We didn't have the votes,” you hear, “Of course you have the votes. Everybody I know is for it.”

R: Isn't there some good in how the Web makes information more accessible?

BF: Before the Internet, if you read something, except on a bathroom wall, people generally had to persuade somebody else that what they said had some plausibility. The Internet destroys that.

R: Shouldn't I expect my legislators to be smarter than to believe the echo chamber reflects reality?

BF: You missed the point entirely. You have the people who are going to vote for you overwhelmingly threatening not to vote for you if you compromise. If you think elected officials are entirely indifferent to their voters, you're wrong.

R: Might there not also be – God forbid I use the phrase-a “silent majority”?

BF: Not who vote in primaries.

R: Is your press critique an argument for greater press regulation?

BF: No. Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

R: Say again?

BF: Who will guard the guardians?

R: What do journalists not ask you that they should?

BF: Good question. There's this misperception about who did what during the financial crisis, and particularly the irony that it was conservatives pushing for subprime loans. The liberals were trying to regulate them! There's been this great historical effort by conservatives to suggest otherwise.

R: Trying to turn you into the bad guy?

BF: Yeah. In 2007 a Wall Street Journal attacked me because we had a bill to restrict subprime loans. They said, “Don't you want poor people to have homes? These loans are wonderful-80 percent of them are paying off.” That's not a very good percentage.

PRIVACY IN PUBLIC

R: Is it fair game for journalists to speculate about the sexual orientation of public figures?

BF: There's a right to privacy, not a right to hypocrisy. If you're gay and you're voting for anti-gay stuff, then you should be outed. Let me ask you this: If the leader of the right-to-life movement got his daughter an abortion, would you publish that?

R: I'd have trouble. Because it's the daughter's privacy.

BF: If [gun-control advocate] Sarah Brady had an Uzi, would you report it?

R: Yes. That's not within the zone of privacy.

BF: Why not?

R: It's not about health, sexuality, finances, religion, and so forth.

BF: Here's the deal: Nobody thinks there's a zone of privacy as to whether or not you're heterosexual.

R: So if someone is gay that's not in a zone of privacy that journalism ought to respect?

BF: I didn't say you would go out [a public official]. I said it would be a good thing if he did it.

'TOO HARD ON PEOPLE'

R: What do you know now that you wished you'd known 30 or 40 years ago?

BF: I didn't fully understand how to integrate a democratic society with a capitalist system. I also wish I had a better sense I could be too hard on people. I've gotten a little gentler-being less explicit when I thought something was incredibly stupid.

R: Do those amount to regrets?

BF: Most people tell me that a lot changed when I fully came out in '87. If you muffle your sexuality and try to have your career make up for it, I believe that infects your career.

Lee Zeldin becomes Congress’ sole Jewish Republican as GOP retakes Senate


Results late Tuesday showed Republicans winning control of the United States Senate as well as wins for fresh faces with close Jewish and pro-Israel ties.

In Long Island, Lee Zeldin, a state senator, was set to become the sole Jewish Republican in Congress, ending a short drought that commenced with the defeat of Rep. Eric Cantor in the Republican primary in June.

As of 11:45 pm eastern time Tuesday, Republicans were projected to pick up seven Senate seats, one more than the six they need to win control of the upper chamber. Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), the Senate minority leader who handily beat back a challenge from Alison Lundergan Grimes, spoke in his victory speech as if he was ready to lead the Senate.

“Friends, this experiment in big government has lasted long enough,” he said, alluding to Republican claims that President Obama overreached with his signature health care reform. “It is time to go in a new direction. It is time to turn this country around.”

As of late Tuesday, two other Jewish House candidates had come up short, while the two Jewish senators up for reelection both kept their seats.

Rep. Brad Schneider (D-Ill.) lost to Robert Dold in Illinois’ 10th after serving just one term in Congress. And in Colorado, Democratic challenger Andrew Romanoff failed in his bid to unseat incumbent Republican Mike Coffman

In Minnesota, Sen. Al Franken defeated Republican Mike McFadden to win a second term. And in Hawaii, Brian Schatz defeated Republican Cam Cavasso to hold the seat he was appointed to when Daniel Inouye died in 2012.

In New York’s 3rd district, Zeldin defeated Democratic U.S. Rep. Tim Bishop. Zeldin had campaigned in part by saying he would revive the Jewish GOP presence in Congress after Cantor’s defeat. Dave Brat, the Tea Party candidate who defeated Cantor, also won the general election Tuesday.

Jack Moline, who directs the National Jewish Democratic Council, said the Democratic defeats in the sixth year of Barack Obama’s presidency demonstrated a frustration with gridlock.

“Results produce results,” Moline told JTA. “For whatever reason, and I would attribute it to the obstinacy of Republicans in Congress, the president hasn’t been able to accomplish what he wants to accomplish.”

Matthew Brooks, the director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, agreed that the election was a referendum on Obama’s inability to get results.

“The Republicans have made significant gains and the American people have clearly spoken and clearly want a different direction for the country.” he said.

Brooks predicted early action on Iran in the next congressional session. The current majority leader, Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), has been able to head off GOP bids to intensify sanctions against the Islamic Republic, which the Obama administration opposes while negotiations are underway to reach a long-term deal over the country’s nuclear program.

“Obama is going to have real tsuris because he won’t have Harry Reid to block and tackle for him,” Brooks said, using the Yiddish word for “troubles.”

Brooks’ RJC congratulated the national party and noted its own role in bringing about the gains.

“Our members contributed and raised millions of dollars for campaigns around the country,” its statement said. The RJC political action committee “made significant contributions to critical races,” it said. “And our grassroots events energized our members to participate in get-out-the-vote efforts.”

Moline also faulted Democrats and his own organization for ignoring Jewish voters in key states, including Georgia and Virginia. In Virginia, Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) faced an unexpectedly strong challenge from Ed Gillespie. In Georgia, Michelle Nunn, the daughter of the long-serving Democratic senator Sam Nunn, was defeated by Republican David Perdue.

“There are more Jewish voters in Georgia than in Michigan,” Moline said. “There was a tremendous effort to turn out Latinos and African Americans, but very little effort for Jewish voters.”

There were some wins for candidates with unusual Jewish community ties. Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), named by the state’s governor to the seat in 2013 after Jim DeMint retired, was elected outright, remaining the only African American Republican in the Senate. He is close to Nick Muzin, an Orthodox Jew who formerly served as his chief of staff and who now advises Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) a likely candidate for the GOP presidential nod in 2016.

In New Jersey, Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), elected in a special election last year after Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) died, won his first six-year term outright. Booker, an African American who headed a Jewish studies group when he studied at Oxford University, remains close to the New Jersey Jewish community.

In Pennsylvania, Democrats scored a rare win, picking up the governor’s mansion. Tom Wolf, the victor, is close to the small Jewish community in his native York, Pa. and is a major contributor to the local Jewish community center.

Tough road ahead for Obama after Republicans seize U.S. Senate


Republicans rode a wave of voter discontent to seize control of the U.S. Senate on Tuesday, dealing a punishing blow to President Barack Obama that will limit his legislative agenda and may force him to make a course correction for his last two years in office.

The Republican rout was wide and deep in what was bound to be seen as a sharp rebuke to Obama, who has lurched from crisis to crisis all year and whose unpopularity made him unwelcome to Democratic candidates in many contested states.

The Republicans also strengthened their grip on the House of Representatives. When the new Congress takes power in January, they will be in charge of both chambers of Congress for the first time since elections in 2006.

The Republican takeover in the Senate will force Obama to scale back his ambitions to either executive actions that do not require legislative approval, or items that might gain bipartisan support, such as trade agreements and tax reform.

It will also test his ability to compromise with newly empowered political opponents who have been resisting his legislative agenda since he was first elected. And it could prompt some White House staff turnover as some exhausted members of his team consider departing in favor of fresh legs.

Obama, first elected in 2008 and again in 2012, called Democratic and Republican leaders of Congress to the White House on Friday to take stock of the new political landscape.

He watched election returns from the White House, and saw little to warm his spirits.

Before the election results, the White House had signaled no major changes for Obama. Officials said Obama would seek common ground with Congress on areas like trade and infrastructure.

“The president is going to continue to look for partners on Capitol Hill, Democrats or Republicans, who are willing to work with him on policies that benefit middle-class families,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said on Tuesday.

Obama, a one-term senator before he became president, has often been faulted for not developing closer relations with lawmakers.

He will find one familiar face in a powerful new position. Republican Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who won a tough re-election battle against Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes, will replace Democrat Harry Reid as Senate majority leader. Reid has been one of Obama's top political allies and helped him steer the president's signature healthcare law through the Senate in 2010.

“Some things don't change after tonight. I don't expect the president to wake up tomorrow and view the world any differently than he did when he woke up this morning. He knows I won't either. But we do have an obligation to work together on issues where we can agree,” McConnell said in his victory speech in Louisville.

TOSS-UPS BECOME REPUBLICAN WINS

In Tuesday's comprehensive rout, Republicans won in places where Democrats were favored, taking a Senate race in North Carolina, pulled out victories where the going was tough, like a Senate battle in Kansas, and swept a number of governors' races in states where Democrats were favored, including Obama's home state of Illinois.

Of eight to 10 Senate seats that were considered toss-ups, Republicans won nearly all of them. They needed six seats to win control of the 100-member Senate, and by late evening they had seven.

The winning margin came when Iowa Republican Joni Ernst was declared the winner over Democrat Bruce Braley and Republican Thom Tillis defeated incumbent Democratic Senator Kay Hagan in North Carolina.

The Iowa race was particularly indicative of Republican fortunes. Ernst came from behind and surged in recent weeks despite herculean efforts by powerful Democratic figures to save Braley, including a campaign visit by Obama's wife, Michelle.

Republican Senate candidates also picked up Democratic seats in Montana, Colorado, West Virginia, South Dakota and Arkansas.

'RESPONSIBILITY … TO LEAD'

Once the euphoria of their victory ebbs, Republicans will be under pressure to show Americans they are capable of governing after drawing scorn a year ago for shutting down the government in a budget fight. That will be a factor in their ambitions to take back the White House in 2016.

Republican Senator Ted Cruz, a conservative firebrand who may run in 2016, told CNN: “The American people, they're frustrated with what's happening in Washington, but now the responsibility falls on us to lead.”

While there was talk of conciliation, no major breakthrough in Washington's chilly climate is expected soon.

Partisan battles could erupt over immigration reform, with Obama poised to issue executive actions by year's end to defer deportations of some undocumented immigrants, and over energy policy, as Republican press the president to approve the Keystone XL pipeline carrying oil from Canada.

Jay Carney, Obama's former spokesman, said he expects Obama to make an “all-out push” on his priorities regardless of the makeup of Congress.

Whatever the case, Obama will face pressure to make changes at the White House. A Reuters/Ipsos poll showed 75 percent of respondents believe the administration needs to “rethink” how it approaches major issues facing the United States (bit.ly/1ph8sLs). Sixty-four percent said Obama should replace some of his senior staff after the election (bit.ly/1rTVVbb).

The Republican victory had been widely predicted ahead of Tuesday's voting to elect 36 senators, 36 state governors and all 435 members of the House of Representatives.

Obama and other White House officials blamed the electoral map – noting that many key Senate races took place in conservative states that Obama lost in 2012.

Election Day polling by Reuters/Ipsos found a dour mood among the electorate with less than one-third of voters believing the country is headed in the right direction.

Roughly 40 percent of voters said they approved of the job Obama is doing as president, though they were split over whether they expected the economy to improve or worsen in the coming year.

In a consolation for Democrats, Jeanne Shaheen won re-election over Republican Scott Brown in New Hampshire in what polls had forecast as a tight race.

In Virginia, heavily favored Democratic incumbent Senator Mark Warner found himself in a surprisingly close fight against Republican challenger Ed Gillespie, with much of the vote counted. By late evening, he claimed victory but Gillespie had not yet conceded.

In the most closely watched governors' races, Florida's Republican Governor Rick Scott edged out Democrat Charlie Crist, and Republican Scott Walker survived a challenge from Democrat Mary Burke in Wisconsin.

Additional reporting by Jeff Mason, Susan Heavey, Tim Ryan and Ian Simpson in Washington; Marti Maguire in Raleigh, North Carolina; David Beasley in Atlanta; Steve Bittenbender in Louisville, Kentucky; Barbara Liston in Orlando, Bill Cotterell in Tallahassee and Zachary Fagenson in Miami Beach; Colleen Jenkins in Winston-Salem, North Carolina; Jonathan Kaminsky in New Orleans; Editing by Frances Kerry

Is Obama’s presidency done?


Is it too early to declare Barack Obama’s presidency a failure?  It seems to be the talk of Washington pundits lately and a new poll showed a clear majority thinks so.

When Obama came on the scene, I like others, warned that someone who had pretty much done nothing of significance short of giving a great speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, and that alone did not show any gravitas, was not a good choice to be leader of the free world and commander in chief.

Before I continue, let me say this.  Although I did not vote for Obama, either time, I think it was a great thing for the country to elect a black president.  And because it was so historically significant, I even recorded his first inauguration, and I still have the tape.

But by the same token, I will also say, I get very tired of people who accuse critics of the president of being mentally deficient in some way, unpatriotic or worse, racist.  And the word “racist” continues to be the excuse du jour of those who just can’t say, “Yeah, our guy screwed up.  Again.”  Are there bigots who castigate Obama because he is black?  Of course.  Every ethnic and religious group has their haters.  There are white racists and black racists, and Christian and yes, even Jewish racists.  But the histrionics of many liberals to find the race card every time Obama is denounced, and he deserves it, believe me, is way out of control.

When Obama started his presidency in 2009, his popularity was close to 70%, even higher in some polls.  Now it is in the low 40’s, sometimes lower.  Did 30% of the country all of a sudden become stupid, unpatriotic or heaven forbid, racist?  Is Jimmy Carter – and in my opinion, Obama is mimicking his ineptitude – who just criticized Obama for waiting too long to confront ISIS, a racist?  (Wow, when even Jimmy Carter thinks you are too slow to act forcefully, Barack, you have a problem.)  Is Leon Panetta, the well-respected and highly experienced public servant (Army veteran, Congressman, Bill Clinton’s Office of Management and Budget Director and White House Chief of Staff, Obama’s CIA Director and Secretary of Defense), a racist?  It was OK to lambast both Bush’s and Ronald Reagan when they were president, and even call them racists (and a lot worse), but say Obama has screwed up, and well, you are a racist.  By the way, it is hard for some Democrats to label Panetta a racist so he is being called disloyal and even unpatriotic.  Right.  A guy who has devoted nearly his entire life to serving our country is unpatriotic.  And if he is being disloyal, good for him.  Loyalty to one’s country comes before loyalty to one’s boss.

[And I am sure we will hear more about the so-called “war on women” when Hillary Clinton finally ends her “tease tour” and officially announces her presidential candidacy.  I would like to remind all who support her of her own words, forcefully given, words that can be used now regarding the current president: “I am sick and tired of people who say that if you debate and you disagree with this administration, somehow you’re not patriotic.  We should stand up and say we are Americans, and we have a right to debate and disagree with any administration.”  Of course if Hillary becomes president, many who criticize her will be called misogynists rather than patriots.]

Look, both sides make ridiculous assertions when defending their own, and Republicans have had, and yes, do have, their own irrational and obstinate pols and supporters, but some people on the left are just so hysterically biased and unreasonable that it is impossible for them to be objective and fair.  They hurt their credibility when they yell, “Racism!” at every turn, and it only makes those who legitimately condemn the president and others, more angry and reactive, and the political discourse even more poisonous than what it should be in a normal democracy.

Has Obama done anything right?  Certainly he has.  And I will list a few things.  Ordering the killing of Osama bin Laden, even though I think any president would have, was a very good thing.  Increasing the drone attacks against terrorist targets another good thing.  Ordering the navy to kill Somali pirates back in 2009 who were holding the captain of a US cargo ship hostage, yep.  The surge in Afghanistan, although it took him way too long to approve and order it, and so, keeping and putting US troops there in danger.  Requesting funding for Israel's Iron Dome missile defense system.  And by the way, its development and initial funding was done by Israel itself.

But what else?  Our foreign policy is a mess; the list of mistakes and failures keeps growing.  And domestically, yikes.   Don’t get me started. Either Obama has done the wrong thing, domestic or foreign, not done or given up on doing the right thing, or just plain waited too long to do the right thing, as with ISIS.  And this newest mission is still confused and weak.  Obama’s incompetence is no surprise to me.  He did not have the right experience; in fact he had hardly any experience.  And he had had some very questionable associations to say the least.  Our president was just the “perfect storm” of a candidate in 2008.

As loyal as his base is to him, and the Democratic base is more loyal to their own than the Republican base, Obama has caused major damage to his party much like George W. Bush did to his.  The current president lost his House of Representatives majority because of Obamacare among other things in 2010, when the Republicans claimed victory in a landslide of 63 seats gained.  And he will lose his Senate majority, which could have already been in Republican hands had that party not fielded weak and even laughable candidates in the last couple election cycles.

In this election cycle, Democratic Senate (and other) candidates are doing their best to distance themselves from Obama.  He is so radioactive that a couple days ago, Kentucky’s Democratic Senate candidate even refused to say, when asked repeatedly, if she had voted for him.

And it’s not just Republicans chastising Obama.  Liberal pundits and other Democrats have been disapproving.  David Axelrod, Obama’s former chief campaign strategist said it was a mistake for the president to say that he may not be on the ballot this election cycle, but his policies are.  Sometimes, even the script shown on the teleprompters can be sloppy and not well prepared.

So is it too early to say Obama has had a failed presidency?  Yes, I think it is.  He has a couple more years to turn it around.  The odds are not in his favor considering how I think he just doesn’t care anymore.  I have said it almost from the start, and I will say it again, Obama wants to be president, he just doesn’t want to “do” president.  And I think the chances of him leaving as a successful leader are about as good as Joe Biden going two weeks without saying something insulting, offensive or just downright nonsensical.

Time will tell.

What a GOP Senate would mean for the Jewish communal agenda


Should Republicans win the Senate and maintain control of the House of Representatives on Nov. 4 — as many observers expect them to do — the political gridlock that has characterized much of President Obama’s term is poised to intensify.

Jewish strategies, however, will remain the same: focus on areas, however marginal, where successes are within reach. Among the areas: funding for elderly care and resettling refugees; working at the state levels on issues such as poverty relief and advancing gay rights; and keeping the major issues suffering from legislative neglect, like immigration, alive in the public eye.

An exception is foreign policy, where a GOP win could mean movement on some issues, including Iran sanctions.

With midterm elections less than a month away, here’s an issue-by-issue look at what the Jewish community can expect if Republicans gain control of the Senate and House.

Social welfare spending

With deadlock expected, reforms to major programs like Medicare and Medicaid are not anticipated.

William Daroff, director of the Jewish Federations of North America’s Washington office, named as his group’s priorities relatively small-bore issues like increased funding for long-term elderly care, advocacy for the disabled, providing for impoverished Holocaust survivors and preserving current tax deduction rates for charitable giving.

“On those issues there is bipartisan support,” he said.

Meanwhile, Rabbi Steve Gutow, the president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, which in recent years has expanded its focus on income inequality, said it’s OK to work the margins when the partisan divide makes it impossible to advance bigger issues, and he expected the divide to grow after the next election.

Gutow cited as an example the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, also known as food stamps. Republicans in 2011 started out by proposing $39 billion in cuts, half the program’s budget. JCPA was among the groups that this year helped broker bipartisan agreement to cut SNAP spending by $9 billion over the next decade.

“We look at what’s realistic and go for it,” Gutow said. “You support the efforts that seem to be those that might win.”

Foreign policy

Republican majorities in both houses may mean more stasis on domestic issues but could advance a number of foreign policy issues. Chief among them is the effort by some pro-Israel groups, led by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, to pass new sanctions on Iran that would kick in should nuclear talks between Iran and the major powers collapse.

The Democratic leadership in the Senate, at Obama’s behest, has stymied new sanctions, although enough Democratic senators back the legislation that it would likely have a majority should it come to a vote. Obtaining Democratic support even under a Republican majority would be key for a lobby that is keen to show that its initiatives have the backing of both parties.

“It’s likely that an emboldened Republican presence in Congress will want to pursue that vigorously,” said Eric Fusfield, the director of legislative affairs at B’nai B’rith International, a group that has backed the new sanctions.

That does not necessarily mean a confrontation with the White House, Fusfield said. Instead, the majority could spur Obama to reach an agreement with Congress on sanctions.

“There will still need to be a bipartisan consensus,” he said.

Much depends on whether Iran and the major powers meet a Nov. 24 deadline for a deal, Fusfield said.

Dylan Williams, the director of government affairs for J Street, which opposes new sanctions, agreed that Republicans would find it tougher to pass sanctions that may sabotage a deal with Iran.

“If an agreement is reached, it will survive both the current Senate and the next Senate, whatever its constitution,” he said. “I think senators from both parties will understand that if a deal is reached that does provide assurance that Iran will not acquire a nuclear weapon, that it is that or something far worse.”

Obama’s recent pivot toward greater intervention in Syria and Iraq would find a more sympathetic ear in a Republican-majority Congress, said Daniel Runde, the director of the Project on Prosperity and Development at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“You would definitely see the willingness to use the full spectrum of American power,” said Runde, a top foreign aid official under President George W. Bush.

Runde noted that much of the reluctance to support the enhanced Middle East involvement that Obama has favored comes from Senate Democrats, as well as some anti-interventionist Republicans like Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.).

Health care

Obamacare is here to stay, Fusfield said — at least through the 2016 elections.

“Unless the GOP reaches a supermajority of 60, any attempts to repeal Obamacare will not pass the Senate, and even if both chambers will repeal Obamacare, everyone understands the president will veto it,” said Fusfield, who tracks the issue closely in part because B’nai B’rith maintains a network of elderly care homes.

“You may see Republican tweaks,” he added, for instance in increasing the law’s definition of the workweek from 30 to 40 hours, or the removal of the law’s tax on the sale of medical devices.

Immigration

On paper, a wholly Republican Congress should see an advance in the most famously deadlocked issue: how to address the 11 million and counting undocumented migrants in the United States, said Hadar Susskind, the Washington director of Bend the Arc, a social advocacy group.

Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio), the House speaker, has cited differences with Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), the Senate majority leader, to explain the House’s failure to act on a bill passed by the Senate in 2013. Having Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) in the majority seat would do away with that obstruction.

Republicans, while eager to court the Hispanic vote, have resisted outlining a path to citizenship until border security is addressed. Democrats want to fast-track citizenship for undocumented migrants who arrived here as minors.

Don’t bet on a change, though, Susskind said.

“They’re spooked by Cantor,” he said, referring to the precipitous fall this year of the former House majority leader, Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), who lost a primary to a Tea Party challenger who said Cantor was soft on immigration — although as majority leader he had actually blocked the Senate bill from advancing.

Melanie Nezer, the Washington director of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, agreed that advancing an overhaul was unlikely and outlined a familiar strategy: work the smaller issues, including renewing the Lautenberg Amendment. Originally fashioned to address the Soviet Jewry crisis in the 1980s, the amendment named for the late Sen. Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey extends refugee status to those persecuted for their religion.

Another focus would be maintaining funding for refugee resettlement, a HIAS focus in recent years, which Nezer said had bipartisan support in part because of the killing fields in Iraq and Syria.

Confirmations

The single area domestically that would likely mean far-reaching change with a Republican majority in both chambers is in confirmations.

Reid changed the rules last year to allow simple majority confirmations and has been rushing this year to fill posts long stymied since 2011 by the earlier 60-vote rule. The majority leader has made some headway, although Republican senators are still able to delay the process to a degree by placing personal holds on nominees.

A GOP majority could put on hold nominations as high profile as the replacement for Eric Holder, the attorney general who has announced his intention to retire, as well as an array of lower court judges.

Nancy Kaufman, the CEO of the National Council of Jewish Women, which has made what she calls “judicial emergencies” a centerpiece of its advocacy, has said that a Republican Senate could precipitate a crisis.

“They have to live up to their responsibility to consider and vote,” she said of GOP senators. “It’s serious now and it’s going to be more serious come the new session.”

One nomination of interest to the Jewish community is that of Rabbi David Saperstein, the longtime director of the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center who has been nominated to serve as the ambassador at large for international religious freedom.

On a sharing economy and politics


Uber has pulled off what few others can these days: The beloved car service (if I’m allowed to describe it so prosaically) has united politicians of all persuasions. Republicans, Democrats, and Libertarians are all vying to outdo each other in portraying the popular company, and its political struggles to avoid regulatory strangulation, as a poignant validation of their worldview. 

Uber last month hired David Plouffe, President Obama’s former campaign manager and White House advisor, to direct its “campaign” against “Big Taxi” and local transportation regulators across the country.  At the same time, conservative Republicans like Senator Marco Rubio and anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist championed Uber even though it is the darling of harried urbanites in Democratic enclaves like San Francisco and New York City.

The Republican Party is embracing Uber’s popularity in such hostile jurisdictions with a plaintive “See, this is what we have been complaining about all along” pitch, complete with a “petition in support of innovative companies like Uber.” Republicans understandably salivate at the sight of liberals, for once, railing against government overreach – excessive licensing requirements, taxes, and safety regulations – threatening a service they love. Is it too much of a stretch to hope that these ride-share fans might rise up to oppose similar government-imposed obstacles facing plenty of other American businesses – power utilities, financial companies, industrial manufacturers, and other “companies like Uber”?

Good luck with that.  The big regulatory clashes of the Internet era – the various iterations of net neutrality, the Microsoft antitrust case, the disputes over taxing online commerce, the Napster music download battles, the recent Aereo TV Supreme Court case, and the current fight over how to regulate Uber, Airbnb, and other “sharing economy” firms – haven’t produced new thinking or  conceptual breakthroughs for how regulate other areas of the economy.

Instead, these “new economy” fights have deepened the dysfunction of our very old political system. Because they have typically involved definitional squabbles— Is Uber merely another limo company?  Was Aereo TV more akin to your old VCR or a rogue cable company?  — and because it is so difficult to dismantle or update regulatory approaches rendered obsolete by disrupting technologies, these Internet-era fights stand out for their brazen hypocrisy, cynicism, and intellectual inconsistency.

Take Uber. It’s hard to imagine Republicans cheering the company on if, instead of stealing market share from local union-controlled monopolies, it was stealing market share from a handful of large, publicly traded national taxi companies that had invested heavily in their infrastructure while satisfying regulations the new entrant was trying to avoid.  

That alternative scenario is pretty much how things stand in the telecom sector, where Republicans have generally defended the prerogatives of incumbent players against regulators and new competitors preaching “net neutrality” (the principle that owners of the Internet’s pipes or airwaves cannot make separate deals with content providers on price or speed depending on their traffic volume or other considerations, but must treat everyone equally). When it comes to the long-running net neutrality battles at the FCC and in the courts, the GOP has been far more sympathetic to what economists call the “stranded costs” and property rights of established incumbents who built their businesses the old-fashioned way.

But conservatives aren’t alone in their hypocrisy, or semantic creativity, when it comes to Uber.  Liberal Uber lovers, instead of addressing cities’ burdensome transport regulations head-on, are more comfortable arguing that the company doesn’t belong in the same category as those old yellow taxis and limo companies.  Uber, you see, is a technology company!

This sort of semantic nonsense has been a staple of all Internet regulatory fights — and, on the business side, of the hype used to try to justify stratospheric valuations for dot-coms during the Internet bubble early on. For a long time Internet enthusiasts felt it was OK to “share” copyrighted music and films online widely, since it was somehow different than old school piracy. And if you think Tesla shouldn’t be forced to sell their cars through third-party dealers, arguing that it’s a tech company that shouldn’t be subject to the old rules is far easier than seeking to take on the anachronistic and anti-consumer laws hurting all car companies. Better to create a loophole or carve-out for the new players than to bother modernizing the entire system.

For years, online retailers like Amazon benefited from the dubious notion that taxing online sales would stifle the development of the Internet, and that online retailers, because they are primarily tech companies, shouldn’t be subject to those pesky burdens imposed on brick-and-mortar retailers.  I am a huge fan of Amazon, but it is unfair to its competitors in the physical world (not to mention to state revenues) for my purchase of shoes on the site to be treated as some mystical high-tech event that is not, contrary to all appearances, a retail transaction.

The “sharing economy” moniker, as applied to the likes of Uber and Airbnb, is itself a brilliant but disingenuous fiction. What exactly am I “sharing” in an Uber transaction?  As far as I can tell, the company owners are “sharing” with me a driver it has hired so long as I pay a certain amount of money to get from Point A to Point B.  The service is good and prompt, but I am not sure what is being “shared” that my community’s yellow cab service doesn’t also “share” with me. Similarly, calling Airbnb part of the “sharing economy” seduces us into thinking it’s so different from everything that has come before it. But isn’t the underlying transaction involved – me paying you $100 to rent a room for the night – basically the same one I engage in if I book a hotel room on Expedia?

So let’s get real. The transformation of numerous industries by nimble players leveraging formidable information technologies on behalf of consumers is to be celebrated, but not to the point of pretending that things that are aren’t, or that aren’t are.  There’s plenty of that already taking place in our traditional politics.

Andrés Martinez is editorial director of Zocalo Public Square, for which he writes the Trade Winds column.

Obama takes on critics of Iran nuclear deal


President Barack Obama took on critics of a newly brokered nuclear deal with Iran on Monday by saying tough talk was good for politics but not good for U.S. security.

Top Republicans – as well as U.S. ally Israel – have criticized Obama for agreeing to the deal, which the United States and its partners say will prevent Tehran from obtaining a nuclear bomb.

Obama has long been criticized for his desire to engage with U.S. foes. As a presidential candidate in 2008, the former Illinois senator took heat for saying he would talk to Iran, which has not had diplomatic relations with Washington for decades.

The president seemed to want to make a victory lap with his remarks on Monday, which were mainly focused on immigration reform. He noted he had ended the war in Iraq and would end the war in Afghanistan next year, two things he also pledged to do as a candidate.

If Tehran follows the agreement, Obama said, it would chip away at years of mistrust with the United States.

To his critics, Obama was especially direct.

“Tough talk and bluster may be the easy thing to do politically, but it is not the right thing for our security,” he said.

The White House has declined to identify a date for the next round of talks between Iran and world powers Russia, China, the United States, France, Britain, and Germany. But a spokesman said on Monday that Washington was eager to get started quickly.

Obama is in the middle of a three-day western swing to raise money for the Democratic Party while promoting his policy priorities on the economy.

Additional reporting by Mark Felsenthal; Editing by Tim Dobbyn

Self-inflicted wounds