Obama quells ‘kishkes question’
By Ron Kampeas
WASHINGTON (JTA) — The moment in the final presidential debate on Oct. 22 when President Barack Obama described his visit to Israel’s national Holocaust museum and to the rocket-battered town of Sderot seemed to be aimed right for the kishkes before the general election Tuesday, Nov. 6.
The “kishkes question” — the persistent query about how Obama really feels about Israel in his gut — drives some of the president’s Jewish supporters a little crazy.
Alan Solow, a longtime Obama fundraiser and the immediate past chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said at a training session at the Democratic convention that he “hated” the kishkes question.
It “reflects a double standard which our community should be ashamed of,” Solow told the gathering of Jewish Democrats. “There hasn’t been one other president who has been subject to the kishkes test.”
But it’s a question that has dogged the president nevertheless, fueled by tensions with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over settlements, the peace process and Iran’s nuclear program.
Obama’s Jewish campaign has tried to put these questions to rest by emphasizing his record on Israel, with a special focus on strengthened security ties. The Obama campaign has also worked to highlight the domestic issues on which Jewish voters overwhelmingly agree with the president’s positions: health care reform, church-state issues, gay marriage and abortion.
Republicans, meanwhile, have made Obama’s approach to Israel a relentless theme of their own Jewish campaign. Billboards on Florida highways read “Obama, Oy Vey!” and direct passersby to a website run by the Republican Jewish Coalition featuring former Obama supporters expressing disappointment with the president’s record on Israel and the economy.
Polls show large majorities of Jewish voters — ranging between 65 and 70 percent in polling before the debates — support the president’s re-election. A September survey from the American Jewish Committee found strong majorities of Jewish voters expressing approval of the president’s performance on every single issue about which they were asked. The survey also found that only very small numbers said Israel or Iran were among their top priorities.
But Republicans are not hoping to win a majority of the Jewish vote. They’re looking to capture a larger slice of this historically Democratic constituency, which gave between 74 percent and 78 percent of its vote to Obama in 2008. According to the AJC survey, the president was weakest with Jews on U.S.-Israel relations and Iran policy, with sizable minorities of nearly 39 percent expressing disapproval of his handling of each of these two issues, with almost as many saying they disapproved of Obama’s handling of the economy.
Critics of the president’s Middle East record have pointed to Obama’s difficult relationship with Netanyahu. Top Jewish aides to Obama say that differences between the president and Netanyahu were inevitable.
“The conversations between them, they are in the kind of frank detailed manner that close friends share,” said Jack Lew, Obama’s chief of staff, who is Jewish. “It should surprise no one that there have been some political disagreements. The prime minister, even on the Israeli political spectrum, is center right; the president, on the American spectrum, is center left. But you could not have a closer working relationship.”
Dennis Ross, who had served as Obama’s top Middle East adviser, said the president was able to set aside whatever philosophical concerns he had about Netanyahu and his Likud Party. “Once it became clear who he was going to be dealing with, you work on the basis of you deal with whichever leader was there,” said Ross, who is now a counselor at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Republicans have zeroed in on remarks Obama made at a July 2009 meeting with Jewish leaders. After one attendee encouraged Obama to avoid public disagreements with Israel and keep to a policy of “no daylight” between the two countries, the president reportedly responded that such an approach had not yielded progress toward peace in the past.
In their debates, Romney has picked up on this issue in his criticisms of Obama, accusing the president of saying “he was going to create daylight between ourselves and Israel.”
The Republican nominees’ supporters amplified the criticism. Romney “will stand with Israel — not behind her, but beside her — with no ‘daylight’ in between,” the Republican Jewish Coalition said in a statement after the final presidential debate.
Yet Obama’s performance in that debate — in which he repeatedly cited Israel’s concerns about developments in the region, from Syria to Iran, and took what was perhaps his toughest line to date on Iran’s nuclear program — drew accolades from his Jewish supporters.
“He made me very proud last night for many reasons, but especially for his unequivocal, rock solid declarations of support for Israel,” said Robert Wexler, the former Florida congressman who has become one of the campaign’s top Jewish surrogates.
At one point in the debate, Romney had criticized Obama for not having visited Israel as president. Obama pivoted, contrasting his own visit to Israel as a candidate in 2008 to Romney’s visit in July, which included a fundraiser with major GOP donors.
“And when I went to Israel as a candidate, I didn’t take donors, I didn’t attend fundraisers, I went to Yad Vashem, the — the Holocaust museum there, to remind myself the — the nature of evil and why our bond with Israel will be unbreakable,” Obama said.
“And then I went down to the border towns of Sderot, which had experienced missiles raining down from Hamas. And I saw families there who showed me where missiles had come down near their children’s bedrooms, and I was reminded of — of what that would mean if those were my kids, which is why, as president, we funded an Iron Dome program to stop those missiles. So that’s how I’ve used my travels when I travel to Israel and when I travel to the region.” (Romney, The Times of Israel reported, also has been to Yad Vashem and Sderot on past trips to Israel.)
The Obama camp apparently saw in the president’s answer an effective response to questions about the president’s kishkes. It was quickly excerpted for a video that was posted online by the Obama campaign.
Solow said that based on his campaigning, he doesn’t see Jewish voters generally buying into the “kishkes” anxiety expressed in the past by some Jewish community leaders.
“I’d like to think our community is more sophisticated than that, and if we’re not, we should be,” Solow said. The president “has a longstanding relationship with and interest in the Jewish community, and he takes pride in that.”
Romney resurrects moderate posture
By Ron Kampeas
WASHINGTON (JTA) — Mitt Romney’s record as a moderate Republican governor would seem to make him ideally suited to peel off Jewish votes from President Barack Obama. The problem is, he spent much of the past half-decade running from that past.
Now, however, as the campaign draws to a close, Romney is ditching his “severely conservative” primary persona, as he famously described himself, and trying to remind voters about the centrist Republican who once governed Massachusetts. Given his recent rise in the polls, the strategy appears to be paying off.
In addition to enhancing the Republican nominee’s appeal to undecided and swing voters, the shift also could help Romney with a subset of Jewish voters disillusioned with Obama over the economy and the Middle East but who may not subscribe to conservative positions on domestic and social issues.
Though Democrats continue to portray Romney as beholden to the right, his Jewish surrogates have embraced his move to the middle and argue that, if elected, Romney will govern more from the center.
“It’s no different for any politician of any stripe or ilk,” said Fred Zeidman, a leading Romney fundraiser, Houston businessman and former chairman of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council. “You look at anybody running, you look at President Obama, he tacks left when he’s campaigning.”
On social issues, Romney’s emphasis during the primaries was on the narrative that led him, as governor, to evolve from a supporter of abortion rights to an opponent. But since his nomination, he has looked to highlight his differences with more ardent abortion foes, saying in October that abortion legislation is not on his agenda.
On health policy, Romney’s pledge to repeal “Obamacare” now includes a promise to work to preserve parts of the health care reform that are popular, such as requiring insurers to cover people with pre-existing conditions.
On Middle East policy — an area seen by his supporters as one of his major selling points to Jewish voters — Romney has also softened some of his tough talk of late. In the candidates’ foreign policy debate Oct. 22, Romney accompanied his longstanding criticism of Obama’s policies on Iran with assurance he would exhaust all options before considering a direct military confrontation.
Romney’s expression of pessimism at a May fundraiser about prospects for Israeli-Palestinian peace — an appearance that was secretly recorded and included his remark about foregoing trying to win over the 47 percent of Americans dependent on government — has been followed by promises to pursue a two-state solution.
Speaking at the Virginia Military Institute, Romney vowed to “recommit America to the goal of a democratic, prosperous Palestinian state living side by side in peace and security with the Jewish state of Israel.”
Romney’s nods toward the middle have not stopped Democrats from trying to paint him and his running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, as bearers of an ultra-conservative agenda, with critics lashing the Republican ticket’s positions on Medicare, tax policy and social issues.
“‘Severely conservative’ Romney has pledged to be a ‘pro-life president,’ and when he’s tried to give some semblance of moderation, his staunchest anti-choice supporters jump in to knock down any notion that he is anything but solidly in their camp,” David Harris, the National Jewish Democratic Council’s president, wrote recently in Washington Jewish Week.
Some Jewish supporters, however, say Romney’s abortion stance on is not the paramount issue his critics say it is.
“They continue to miss opportunities by harping on the issue of abortion,” Matt Brooks, the Republican Jewish Coalition’s executive director, said. “This is something they have been trying to scare people with for decades, and yet access to abortion in this country continues despite having incredibly conservative presidents and a conservative court.”
The RJC has focused much of its effort to woo Jewish voters on Middle East policy, although it has also emphasized the struggling economy. On Israel, Romney has tried to distinguish himself from the president by arguing he would have a closer and more harmonious relationship with Israel and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who faces an election contest Jan. 22.
“I will make clear that America’s commitment to Israel’s security and survival as a Jewish state is absolute, and will demonstrate that commitment to the world by making Jerusalem the destination of my first foreign trip,” Romney wrote in reply to an American Jewish Committee questionnaire. “Unlike President Obama, I understand that distancing the U.S. from Israel doesn’t earn us credibility in the Arab world or bring peace closer.”
Many of Romney’s advisers on both foreign and domestic policy are Jewish. They include Dan Senor, a former spokesman for the Coalition Provisional Authority after the U.S. invasion of Iraq and co-author of “Start-up Nation: The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle;” Eliot Cohen, a former State Department counselor; Michael Chertoff, President George W. Bush’s second Homeland Security secretary; Dov Zakheim, a former Pentagon comptroller; and Tevi Troy, a former deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
By the time he made his second run for president, Romney had built good relationships with Jewish Republicans from his term as governor and his first presidential run. Romney’s record of moderation made him a natural fit with the party’s Jews, Zeidman said.
“A lot of people in Boston and on Wall Street knew him and respected him,” Zeidman said of the period in 2005-2006 when Romney started exploring his first presidential run. “But he had yet to be in a position where he addressed the Jewish community at large. Now we know what kind of problem solver he is, we know his integrity, his ability to get things done and that as Jews we never have to be concerned about his commitment to the security of the state of Israel.”
For his first job after graduating from Harvard Business School, Romney joined Boston Consulting Group, where he first met a young Netanyahu who was employed there at the time. Today, Romney speaks of his strong bond with him.
Romney often repeats his favorite Netanyahu story, in which the Israeli leader describes an Israeli soldier in basic training who is told to run a course with an overweight soldier on his shoulder. The punch line: “Government is the guy on your shoulders.”
EDITORIAL: Voting is our right and duty …
The general election on Tuesday, Nov. 6, has been highly charged. In races from U.S. president to county commissioner, negative comments, brutal ads and some out and out lies — from both sides — have been bombarding our eyes and ears for the past year.
The Texas Jewish Post is not endorsing any candidates in this election, but we are strongly encouraging everybody to get to the polls and vote.
Early voting ends Friday, with Election Day polls open from 7 a.m.-7 p.m. Tuesday. The TJP’s Nov. 8 edition will likely go to press Tuesday night before the presidential race is called, so the election’s effect on the Jewish community will be reported on Nov. 15.
The main thing, though is that people get out to vote. Whether you support President Barack Obama and the Democratic platform or former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and the Republican agenda, it’s important your voice be heard.
We all know what happened in Florida during the 2000 election, where a swing of 537 votes would have turned the election from George W. Bush to Al Gore. Though Romney is likely to win Texas, several congressional and state legislative seats could be decided by a handful of votes.
Voting also gets you a seat at the discussion. If you don’t vote, you really don’t have a reason to complain about policies and decisions of those elected by others. If you do vote and your candidates are not elected, go ahead and say, “I told you so” if they do not succeed. Same if your candidates are elected and do succeed.
But if you don’t vote, don’t complain.
The obligation to vote especially extends to Jewish voters. There are places in the world where Jews historically have not had the right to vote. Whether or not state voter ID laws are designed to disenfranchise minority and young citizens, those laws are tame compared to those in other countries. You have the right to vote in the United States, so exercise it in the name of all Jews who don’t in their country.
A New Jersey rabbi last weekend commented on Parshat Lech Lecha, which discusses Abraham’s covenant with God. He said as Abraham had that covenant, voting is our covenant with our U.S. citizenry. It is our right and duty as Americans — and American Jews — to fulfill this covenant.
See you at the polls.
ELECTION DAY TUESDAY
Polls will be open from 7 a.m.-7 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 6, for the general election. In Texas, elections will take place for president of the United States, U.S. Senate, U.S. House, Texas Senate, Texas House, judicial posts and various county commissioner, constable and justice of the peace seats. You can find your precinct number on your voter registration card. For a list of polling places, visit your county website: www.dallascounty.org; www.co.collin.tx.us; www.tarrantcounty.com; www.co.denton.tx.us; www.co.ellis.tx.us; www.johnsoncountytx.org; or www.rockwallcountytexas.com.