The Republican candidates fight it out over who’s good for the Jews.
Photo by JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images.
Rick Santorum found his place, right on top of a circular platform shaped like the presidential seal, and told the supporters of the Republican Jewish Coalition that they were being proven right.
“We’ve seen a dramatic transformation in this country,” said Santorum, “with Jews all across this country now understanding that the values of the Republican Party are in concert with theirs.”
Santorum gave the credit to the RJC. They took it. When 360-odd conference attendees arrived for this day of speeches and briefings, they got info packets reminding them of how the 25-year-old RJC bought ads in Anthony Weiner’s old district, successfully convincing Jewish voters to cast an anti-Democrat, anti-Obama vote. They ran into old friends like Frank Gaffney, Daniel Pipes, and I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby. They got offered red, white, and blue buttons with the slogan “Obama … OY VEY!” When they put them on, they became targets for teams of reporters hoping to figure out whether Republicans will win the Jewish vote.
Short answer: no. Even in the polls that give Republicans hope (like a summer Gallup survey), Barack Obama retains solid majority support from Jews. Jeremy Ben-Ami, the president of J Street, dropped through the RJC’s hermetic seal to assure reporters that this event was a sham. “Every election, they say that this is going to be the year Republicans win over Jews,” he said. “It never happens. What you’re seeing here is a very vocal minority.”
Some attendees even acknowledged that. “I think the RJC has a good strategy,” said Dean Armandroff, who isn’t Jewish but who’d come to check out the scene. “They target the conservative Jews who might vote Republican. Maybe that’s only 25 percent, but if Republicans get that, it’s a big deal.”
So on the surface, Republican presidential candidates were celebrating and predicting a breakthrough year with Jewish voters. One inch below the surface, they were making pitches to the voters and donors they could actually win. The plan, for every candidate, was nearly identical. Find the sharpest adjectives to stab into Barack Obama. Promise the moon to the government of Israel. Agree that Iran was an “existential threat,” and explain—or, actually, just sort of muse about—the struggle it would take to defeat them.
Santorum got to speak first, and he set the bar in the stratosphere. It was fitting that Republicans were meeting on December 7, he said, because the Obama administration had made all the mistakes that Americans nearly made in the run-up to World War II. They’d engaged in “appeasement”—a reference to the Munich Agreement that other candidates would repeat all day.
“The United States—I didn’t say Israel!—the United States will stop Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, period,” Santorum said. With a quick rhetorical twist, he was committing the United States to the first strikes on Iranian nuclear facilities. “The principle virtue of the revolutionary republic of Iran is martyrdom. This is what they hope for, because it will deliver them to their 72 virgins. Mutually assured destruction is not a deterrent to Iran. It is an inducement to Iran.” How should we go about shutting down Iran’s nuclear quest? “We need to say clearly that we will be doing covert activity.”
Santorum, perhaps the last Republican candidate who hasn’t gotten the requisite anyone-but-Romney poll surge, got long and loud applause. A little bit later, at a luncheon keynoted by Gov. Chris Christie, RJC Chairman David Flaum basically endorsed the Santorum doctrines. “Your views are so widely held here,” he said, “in our hearts and in our minds.”
But this wasn’t Santorum’s crowd. This was a room of wealthy donors who want to win the presidency. They had a candidate: the former governor of Massachusetts, the guy who’s raised the most money and has poll leads in swing states when he’s pitted against Barack Obama.
“A lot of people here like Newt, too,” said Ari Fleischer, the former Bush spokesman and current RJC adviser, “but they’re conscious of the other factors that come along with Newt.”
Romney had to follow Jon Huntsman, which wasn’t hard. The former ambassador to China noted that he had moved up to “third or fourth in New Hampshire.” As evidence of his bona fides, he said that he considered “the Israeli ambassador to China one of my very best friends.” It was up to Romney, then, to whack Obama.
“He’s publicly proposed that Israel adopt indefensible borders,” said Romney. (A good and undying trick here: What Obama actually proposed was a two-state solution with territory swapped to make the landmasses equal to the pre-1967 map but with more defensible borders.) “I will travel to Israel on my first foreign trip. I will reaffirm as a vital national interest Israel’s existence as a Jewish state. I want the world to know that the bonds between Israel and the United States are unshakable. I want every country in the region that harbors aggressive designs against Israel to understand that their ambition is futile and that pursuing it will cost them dearly.”
This was vague, but it got over. Romney didn’t even pick the low-hanging fruit, and go after Ambassador to Belgium Howard Gutman for remarks he made about the roots of anti-Semitism and Muslim anger toward Israel. He may have been chastened by the fact that Gutman’s original quote was misreported—something that didn’t faze the other candidates. Nobody, actually, seemed bothered by the vagueness, or by how Santorum had gone further than Romney.
“I worked on a lot of stuff with Rick,” said Norm Coleman, the former senator from Minnesota who now runs the American Action Forum. “He’s talking specifically about projects he worked on. The president can look at things from 30,000 feet.”
Newt Gingrich, up next, blended the high and low concepts. “Frankly,” he said, “the ambassador to Belgium should be fired.” It was one in a series of gimmicks. “On my first day in office, the American embassy [in Israel] would be moved from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.” This was a pure pander, a wedge issue almost out of nowhere, but it got applause that lifted half the audience off their seats. Gingrich is simply better than Romney at spooning out political viscera.
Rick Perry is not as good at this. He spoke to a crowd just slightly diminished from the excitement over Gingrich. He swung at the great ambassador controversy: Our man in Belgium, said Perry, “blames anti-Semitism among Muslims on Israel's failure to accommodate the Palestinians.” From there, Perry came off as a naïf. He isn’t. He’s been fascinated by Israel for 20 years, since “I first visited the Holy Land.” But a crowd half concerned with electability and half concerned with smacking Obama didn’t need a guided tour of Israel’s greatest hits.
“I have been to the Western Wall,” said Perry, “that most sacred of symbols where Jewish pilgrims gather to pray today, and that has withstood the assaults on the Jewish people since the times of the early Romans. I walked in the footsteps of the heroes of Masada, a fortress of defiance symbolizing their loyalty to freedom more than life itself.”
No danger there of pulling the faithful, electability-conscious voters away from Romney. Perry just added to a consensus. And so did Michele Bachmann, who in senescence was given the last speaking slot of the day. (Ron Paul was explicitly denied a slot; he nursed his wounds by announcing five new campaign offices in later primary states.)
Bachmann was hit with the same curse as everyone who has to close out a jamboree: Everything had been said. Somebody else had promised to move the embassy. Somebody else had referred to the “indefensible borders.” All Bachmann could do was add to the pro-Israel suggestion box.
“I have already secured from a donor to pay for the ambassador’s home to be moved to Jerusalem,” she said. “So we’re good to go! The boxes will be out back.”
David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or tweet at him @daveweigel.