Representatives of the Republican Jewish Coalition and National Jewish Democratic Council usually spend much of their time trading charges, accusing each other of smears and other assorted provocations.
So it was perhaps a little surprising, to say the least, to see the partisan groups come together for tonight’s final presidential debate between Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John McCain at Hoftsra University in Hempstead, N.Y.
The cause of this detente, which we understand to be completely temporary, is a debate watch party at Washington Hebrew Congregation jointly sponsored by RJC and NJDC.
The behind the scenes story, we’re told, is far less noble than bipartisan accord and world peace. Rather, it boils down to the synagogue tax status and the desire for such an event to be non-partisan.
Oh, well. For those interested $10 will get you two beers, unlimited sodas, snacks and one can only assume some awkward moments.
Dueling ads by the Republican Jewish Coalition and the National Jewish Democratic Council that have been gaining a lot of attention in the Jewish press are getting some mainstream attention.
National Journal’s Ad Spotlight shines a light on this increasingly bitter fight for the Jewish vote.
“I’ll introduce you to some Jewish women,” offered Suzanne Kurtz, spokeswoman for the Republican Jewish Coalition.
It wasn’t exactly the typical sales pitch to attend a political event and there was no official matchmaker, yet it proved effective.
A joint vice presidential debate-watching party that RJC’s National Women’s Committee co-hosted with the Republican womens’ groups RightNOW! and Women Impacting the Nation (WIN) drew a crowd of a couple hundred Republicans including many Republican Jews to cheer Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and jeer Sen. Joseph Biden to a downtown Washington law firm.
The event attracted a crowd of mostly young women, but also a large number of men, who not surprisingly gave Palin stellar reviews for her debate performance.
“Sarah Palin is going to kick some tuckus,” Shelley Hymes, a member of all three organizations predicted during a reception prior to the debate.
Hymes was not disappointed in the Republican vice presidential nominee’s performance.
“I thought she was amazing,” she said immediately after the 90-minute debate ended. “She surpassed expectations.”
Thursday night’s event was one of a number of events planned by RJC’s women’s committee since GOP nominee John McCain selected Palin as his running mate.
Though analysts say Palin’s selection may scare off some Jews concerned about her lack of foreign policy experience, it’s been a boon to the women’s group.
“For groups like mine, this is an unprecedented time,” said Lisa Spies, the group’s executive director. Spies said she’s receiving 20 to 30 e-mails a day compared to three to four a week pre-Palin.
The group is planning other watch parties for upcoming debates and election night, but no major fundraising push is planned to take advantage of the enthusiasm.
“Right now I’m just excited to get people participating, to have people excited,” Spies said.
Like many Republicans, Jews and non-Jews, in the audience, Michael Berenhaus, an optometrist in nearby Bethesda, Md., worried before the debate about about how Palin would perform because of several shaky recent interviews with Katie Couric on CBS News and Charles Gibson of ABC News. So, he was relieved when she took strong and unwavering positions, and particularly her staunch support for Israel during the debate.
“I was nervous, but deep down I knew she could do it,” said Berenhaus, who added that “The difference between her and Democrats is she’s not going to change how she feels about Israel the next day when the Arabs protest.”
The National Jewish Democratic Council did not host a similar vice presidential debate watch party. But a spokesman said that the group doesn’t need to use promises of dating opportunities to lure guests to its events.
Days after telling a group of Jewish Democratic leaders that “Anybody toting guns and stripping moose don’t care too much about what they do with Jews and blacks,” Florida Congressman Alcee Hastings is apologizing for his not so smart comments about Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin during last week’s National Jewish Democratic Council’s Washington conference.
“I regret the comments I made last Tuesday that were not smart and certainly not relevant to hunters or sportsmen,” Hastings said in a statement.
Of course, Hastings, who is African American, isn’t completely apologetic. As inarticulate as he might have been, “The point I made, and will continue to make, is that the policies and priorities of a McCain-Palin administration would be anathema to most African Americans and Jews,” he said. “I regret that I was not clearer and apologize to Governor Palin, my host where I was speaking, and those who my comments may have offended.”
Jewish voters unsure whether to cast their vote for Barack Obama or John McCain, might want to think about this little bit of advice U.S. Representative Alcee Hastings offered about Sarah Palin, the Republican vice presidential candidate:
“If Sarah Palin isn’t enough of a reason for you to get over whatever your problem is with Barack Obama, then you damn well had better pay attention,” the Florida congressman said during a National Jewish Democratic Council panel.
“Anybody toting guns and stripping moose don’t care too much about what they do with Jews and blacks. So, you just think this through,” Hastings said.
Congressman Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., later told the same group that Jesus was “a great Democrat,” according to CNN.
The Republican Jewish Coalition, which has been accused of its own share of gross distortions, is denouncing Hastings’ comments as “the worst kind of politics.”
“Hastings’ unconscionable remarks do nothing but sow seeds of fear and divide people,” said RJC Executive Director Matt Brooks in a statement. “There should be no place in our country for this sort of political discourse. We can constructively disagree on the issues without denigrating others.”
He also said Cohen’s remark “inappropriate, offensive and should be repudiated.”
Orthodox Jews represent an estimated 10 percent to 11 percent of the American Jewish population. They also represent the fastest growing segment of the American Jewish community and overwhelmingly vote for Republican presidential candidates. They still often vote for Democratic House and Senate candidates.
That wasn’t always the case. Orthodox Jews used to be more open to Democratic candidates.
With demographic estimates and that history in mind, Democrats hope to persuade Orthodox Jews to vote Democratic again – or at least remain open to the possibility.
“It at times might seem like an oxymoron – Orthodox Jews in the Democratic Party,” said Jeff Wice, an activist involved in the National Jewish Democratic Council. He moderated a panel discussion Wednesday at the organization’s Washington conference on what Democrats can do to reach out to Orthodox voters.
“Will this group be the Log Cabin Democrats?” he joked in a reference to Log Cabin Republicans, the gay rights group that is often at the fringe’s of its party’s politics.
Panelists, including Rabbi Menachem Genack of the Orthodox Union, pollster Mark Mellman, and Rabbi Yeruchim Silber of the Metropolitan Jewish Health System, predicted that Democrats have a good case to make to Orthodox voters. But they predicted it will be no quick fix.
Silber said not much can probably be done in the remaining 40 or so days until the election. He called for Democrats to create a permanent Orthodox coordinator to build relationships for the 2012 presidential election and beyond.
“Bring them back home to the party they felt comfortable in,” he said.
They may have their work cut out for them. The panel discussion drew an audience of fewer than 30 people. At least one-fifth of those in attendance were reporters or NJDC staff.
Every four years, Democrats go through a period of hand ringing. Will the Jewish vote turn out for Democrats – as usually is the case – or will that be the year that Republicans make inroads with the Jewish vote?
“There is not going to be a problem with the Democrats with the Jewish vote,” Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean told leading Jewish Democrats.
Dean, addressing the National Jewish Democratic Council annual Washington conference, called this “crisis of confidence” a specious issue.
Democrats and the Jewish community’s core relationship based on a set of shared values – strong support for Israel, a sense of community, commitment to others, separation of church and state, support for health care, justice and the belief in science as a legitimate discipline – remains strong, he said.
“Those values are passed on at the Passover table, they are passed on in Shul,” Dean said.
As for support for Israel: “We can go toe-to-toe with the Republicans on support for Israel. Actually, I think we’re smarter in terms of how we get there,” he said.
Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama is doing a better job to bridge gaps with the Jewish community and other groups, including Evangelical Christians by emphasizing areas of agreement. Among those Dean cited was addressing concerns about global climate change, poverty and genocide in Darfur.
The RJC recycles quotes from Hillary Rodham Clinton (March 2008), John Kerry (April 2004) and Chuck Schumer (November 2003).
But what’s sure to elicit an interesting responses at the NJDC conference is a quote by NJDC Executive Director Ira Forman.
“I have to take my hat off to [McCain] for putting principle in front of politics… I wish there were more John McCains,” Forman is quoted as saying.
Of course, RJC had to go way back to an Oct. 1, 1999 JTA story to find such a kind comment.
We couldn’t find the story RJC cites. Forman has characterized the GOP ad campaign as a bunch of smears.
RJC responded to a request for additional information noting that “It’s a JTA story.” But a spokesperson has not provided a copy of the story yet.
UPDATE: Forman says he doesn’t remember the quote, which he’s been informed came in the context of praising McCain for urging that Patrick Buchanan be kicked out of the Republican Party for his fringe views.
The important thing, according to Forman, is that “the four people that are quoted there, me, Hillary, Kerry and Schumer, we all agree on one thing – John McCain is not the best person for president. Barack Obama is the best.”
Forman did say that he still wishes there were more John McCains. Of course, it came in the context of his noting that “the [John McCain] who exists today bears no resemblance to the one from 1999.”
Forman also enjoyed the irony of the latest RJC ad highlighting his praise of McCain for criticizing Buchanan. Less than a week ago, RJC released an ad that highlighted Buchanan’s comments as it sought to draw a connection with Obama.
Here are the rest of the quotes:
After the invitation for Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, the Republican vice presidential candidate, to speak at next week’s “Stop Iran” rally in New York was rescinded, the blame game began.
The Republican Jewish Coalition joined with the McCain campaign to blame Democratic partisanship for Palin’s removal, which they say hands victory to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Democrats, including Ira Forman of the National Jewish Democratic Council countered that the inappropriate invitation to Palin had turned what was supposed to be a non-partisan event into a campaign rally organized by a leading Jewish organization.
“Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadenijad has been quite clear of his intentions to acquire nuclear weapons; his anti-Semitic rants and desire to annihilate Israel are well-known,” RJC executive director Matt Brooks said in a statement. “Today Senators Obama and Biden and their supporters have handed Ahmadenijad a big win. What should have been a strong effort by the Jewish community to stand up and show the world that we are united in our fight against this madman has instead been hijacked by those with a political agenda. This is a very sad day for the Jewish community.”
Brooks said he was also disappointed that neither Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama nor his running mate, Joseph Biden, chose to participate in the rally. But neither Obama or Biden were invited, which was one of the central complaints of their campaign.
Forman told reporters on a conference call Thursday afternoon that it was wrong for rally organizers to invite only one party to the non-partisan event.
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton backed out of the rally earlier in the week after learning of the Palin invitation. Clinton expected a comparable congressional Republican representative would share the stage with her, but didn’t expect to be paired up with the GOP vice presidential candidate at such an event, Forman told reporters on a conference call.
U.S. Senator Joseph Biden, the Democratic vice presidential candidate, is expected to headline the National Jewish Democratic Council’s upcoming Washington conference, which is focused on mobilizing the Jewish vote, NJDC officials said.
Democrats hope that Biden of Delaware will be able to counter some of the influence that Senator Joseph Lieberman has had among Jewish voters in crucial battleground states including Florida. Lieberman, the 2000 Democratic vice presidential candidate, has been an enormous asset for Republican John McCain, reassuring voters about his support for Israel among other issues as well as raise doubts about Democrat Barack Obama’s experience.
NJDC’s September 23-24 program at the Washington Hilton includes sessions on handicapping the 2008 elections, how new media changes the way voters can be reached, and common issues facing the Jewish and African American communities.
The time and date of Biden’s address has not been set. Other unconfirmed invited speakers include former Vice President Al Gore, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Obama.
Democratic delegates and party leaders have begun streaming into the Mile High City for a week of parties, fundraisers, concerts, panel discussions and, oh yes, the very much scripted convention itself that will culminate with Barack Obama becoming the Democratic nominee Thursday night.
Here’s a rundown of some of the events that might be of interest to voters concerned about Jewish issues: