If you’re a political junkie, watching the Republican presidential debates is your idea of fun. Perhaps you even wish the format allowed for longer responses, especially from your favorite candidate(s).
If you also happen to be a Jewish Republican, there was no place better than Washington DC yesterday, when the Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC) hosted their 2016 Presidential Candidates Forum. Every Republican presidential candidate had 30 minutes to make his or her case. They all spoke, save Rand Paul, who was unexpectedly stuck in the Senate voting.
While yours truly is a long-time RJC member (and undecided voter), I attended the event for The Federalist. So, I watched remarks from the overflow room, with a crowd of reporters and an endless supply of doughnuts and coffee.
Digesting 13 full-length speeches is a marathon. There were some hilarious moments and some cringe-worthy ones. All in all, here’s my take on the day’s highlights:
Ted Cruz was up first. Cruz said many of the right things, but it felt like a check-list. He mentioned the Iran deal and his work with Elie Wiesel, Naftali Fraenkel, and defunding universities that don’t fight boycott, divest, and sanction demands, among other issues.
Cruz warned “We are facing a moment like Munich in 1938,” just before observing that this election season is “eerily similar” to the late 1970s, with Russia and Iran mocking President Carter, and now President Obama. He insisted that only a full-spectrum conservative could win next fall, and that we must motivate the Republican base—especially evangelicals—to vote. I suspect Cruz impressed those who already liked him but didn’t win any new converts.
Lindsey Graham went next and received a predictably warm welcome. Regardless of what he planned say, Graham’s remarks became a rebuttal of Cruz’s. Graham believes the GOP’s real electoral challenge is appealing to Hispanic voters and women by eliminating hard-edged rhetoric on immigration and abortion, respectively.
Graham correctly observed that he didn’t need to spend much time talking about Israel, because he’s already known for his support. Graham commented that Israel supporters on both sides of the aisle invested in his last Senate campaign “with a ferocity that made me feel like family. We are family. If elected, I may have the first all Jewish Cabinet.” That earned some chuckles. Graham’s odds of winning the nomination look long, but his shorter term goal of marginalizing Paul’s foreign policy views within the party—with help from world events—looks successful.
When Marco Rubio talks foreign policy, my heart typically goes pitter patter, and yesterday was no exception. Rubio talked about how devastating it is that American foreign policy lacks clarity, the need to speak up for what’s right, for our allies to trust us, and for our adversaries to respect us.
As someone who previously worked in the State Department, I was most impressed by Rubio’s answer to a question about foreign policy implementation. He conveyed a clear understanding of bureaucracies and how things work (or don’t) that too many presidential candidates don’t necessarily grasp. Understanding reality, including how to implement necessary changes, is crucial. Rubio is knowledgeable and passionate when discussing foreign policy, but whether Republicans want to elect a first-term senator—whether Rubio or Cruz—after the Obama experiment remains an open question.
As a native New Yorker, I still remember what a huge deal it was when George Pataki beat Mario Cuomo in 1994, but I don’t see that catapulting him to the GOP nomination. Still, his authentically Jewish closing—the traditional hopeful Hebrew saying Jews use after we finish reading one of the five books of the Torah—wins him the Best Honorary Jew Award.
John Kasich’s introduction was a mixed bag. He praised his mother, which I liked, but he also recalled her advising him to befriend Jews, because we would always be loyal friends. I didn’t quite understand the implication, but it made me somewhat uncomfortable. Beyond that, Kasich seemed most animated when detailing how he would cut the budget. Unfortunately for him, that’s not what motivates most of the security-minded Jews in the audience.
Donald Trump, who was introduced as “a mensch with chutzpah,” was hugely entertaining. During a day that was overstuffed with serious speeches, Trump offered a little levity and was undoubtedly the most Tweetable speaker. Trump’s early quip about no longer being able to reach his daughter Ivanka by phone on Saturdays was funny, even if not everyone understood it.
There has been a lot of media controversy surrounding Trump’s remarks. Sitting in the press room, I heard his “negotiator” comments as slightly odd, but not insulting. My sense, bolstered by RJC board member Ari Fleischer’s comment to the Washington Examiner, is that Trump was speaking directly to some RJC regulars, whom he knows through business.
As for the booing, much of the coverage makes it sound like it was widespread. However, at the time, Trump challenged, “Who’s the wise guy?” making it sound like it was maybe one or two people. Most RJC members will never vote for Trump because his persona and positions don’t appeal to us, but we’re not rude.
Ben Carson droned on, with his eyes glued to a prepared text, as he recited a basic history of Israel and her conflicts. His pronunciations of so many words, in Hebrew, Arabic (e.g., Hamas), and otherwise was so poor it was as if he had never followed international news, let alone sat through a candidate briefing.
He informed the crowd that both the world and the Middle East are complicated, but he inspired no confidence that he could handle any of it. He’s such an accomplished man, it was painful to watch. My suggestion: Appoint Carson the next surgeon general.
If the Republican Jewish Coalition gave awards for Most Ardent Zionist, Mike Huckabee would be a serious contender. The man speaks stirringly about Israel as part of his faith. You can feel the depth of his love for Israel, and it’s moving to hear.
Chris Christie was my surprise of the day. I felt he earned a second look by offering a compelling case that his combination of executive experience and law-enforcement background was the perfect preparation for commander-in-chief. He came across as tough, but not pugnacious. I’ll be interested to see how he does in New Hampshire.
Poor Jim Gilmore looked like a Southern gentleman completely out of his element. He gamely referenced the “kishkes test,” but stumbled over the pronunciation and admitted to looking up the term. Things reached peak awkwardness when Gilmore mused about having watched “Schindler’s List” the night before, leaving listeners to wonder whether the Holocaust is his primary association with American Jews, and also how someone running for president has time to watch a three-hour movie.
What is there to say about Jeb Bush? He seems like such a wonderful and decent man. I really wanted to like him—especially after seeing his Hebrew Jeb! lapel pins—but I just came away underwhelmed.
Rick Santorum offered a detailed and intense presentation about radical Islam. He looked like a biblical prophet warning about terrible things to come, without reassuring this listener that he could lead Americans through the civilizational challenges he described. By the end, I felt both scared and exhausted.
Last up was Carly Fiorina, who was enthusiastic and energized, egging on attendees to admit that we most wanted to watch a Hillary versus Carly debate. It was admittedly an intriguing thought. Every time I see Fiorina in debates, I like her. Yesterday, too, she presented well, offering both a compelling big-picture narrative, as well as offering details that convey a clear grasp of the subject matter she’s discussing.
She exudes thoughtfulness and toughness, but without her having governed a city (like Michael Bloomberg) or a state (like Mitt Romney), it’s tough to gauge whether she could successfully transition from the private sector to the public.
And on we go. Next up is the Republican debate in Las Vegas on December 15, where we’ll see how things continue to shake out. Candidates, we’ll be watching.