For decades, Americans have looked on with amazement and disgust as a
few hundred thousand farmers in Iowa made monkeys of anyone who was
crazy enough to run for president.
For a couple of months every four years, Des Moines replaces
Washington, D.C., as the political capital of the United States. Though
it competes for attention with New Hampshire, whose first-in-the-nation
primary follows soon after, the Hawkeye State's status as the place
where the first votes for presidential nominees are counted allows
Iowans to make the candidates dance for their pleasure.
While the Iowa caucus is not the sole reason why we still have farm
subsidies, as well as massive federal investments in such dubious
projects as ethanol, it certainly is a major factor in the perpetuating
this waste of federal dollars.
But months after the hopefuls and the journalists following them ceased
tramping through the snow-covered fields of Iowa, another state is
about to get the same experience. The unforeseen Democratic deadlock
between Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama means that rather than
folding up its tents until 2012, the nominating circus is coming to
THE IOWA TREATMENT
Via a quirk of the primary schedule, the Democratic calendar will be
empty from March 11 until the Pennsylvania primary scheduled for April
22. And that means that for the next six weeks, the Keystone State will
get the Iowa treatment.
This is a windfall of historic proportions for Pennsylvania's political
junkies and journalists. It is also an opportunity for the citizens of
a state that is far larger and more representative of the nation to
exert its influence on the two people who are left in the Democratic
Many Pennsylvanians will follow the Iowa model and try to coerce
otherwise eco-friendly Dems to pledge allegiance to a coal industry
that is unpopular elsewhere, but still provides lots of jobs here.
Support for industries in crisis such as steel will also be required as
both Obama and Clinton will be forced to pretend that factory, and mill
jobs that have been lost due to the economic realities of the 21st
century will return.
Though the specter of a recession will focus the voters and the
candidates on the economy, the next six weeks (which may seem like six
years before they are over) will offer chances for other important
constituencies to make their voices heard.
One of them is a Jewish community that is heavily Democratic and turns
out to vote in numbers that far outstrip its numbers when compared to
other more numerous sectors of the population.
Like Iowans who make the candidates do everything but shovel their
driveways during the endless weeks before the caucus, this is what may
well be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Jewish Pennsylvanians to
help set the national agenda.
Pennsylvania may not have as many Jews as New York, New Jersey, Florida
or California. But unlike the residents of those states whose primary
votes were cast either just before or during the Super Tuesday crunch
in early February, the nearly 300,000 Jewish Pennsylvanians can count
on the undivided attention of the candidates this spring.
What issues can win Jewish votes?
Non-Jewish politicians often wrongly assume that Jews focus on
parochial interests, but typically, Jews are not single-issue voters on
Israel. Other concerns, such as church-state separation and support for
a variety of liberal social-justice causes are far more likely to win
their affection. And given that surveys tell us that Jews oppose the
war in Iraq more heavily than virtually any other demographic group,
even if foreign policy is a factor, Israel may not influence the
But the circumstances surrounding this vote require Jewish Democrats to
be thinking about their responsibility to play a special role in this
What should they be demanding of the candidates?
We don't need to make Obama and Clinton merely mouth more platitudes
about support for an Israel that continues to suffer terrorist attacks
from a foe that is uninterested in peace. Both have already aligned
themselves with the pro-Israel cause.
Rather, local Dems need to use every rally, town-hall meeting and
fundraiser as a chance to have the candidates further define their
stands on points like negotiating with Hamas, U.S. aid to a Palestinian
Authority that foments hate against Jews and supports terror, as well
as the right of Israel to self-defense against those who attack it.
They need to be asked about whether they will continue to push a failed
peace process as the Clinton and Bush administrations have done? Can
they offer a more prudent alternative?
Even more importantly, Democrats here must use these weeks to press
Clinton and Obama on Iran and its drive for nuclear weapons. There is
simply no other issue on which so many lives will hang during the next
four years as this one.
We know that both favor diplomacy (as does Republican candidate Sen.
John McCain and the State of Israel) to persuade the Iranians to drop
their push for nukes. But if, as seems likely, Tehran gets the bomb
during the next administration, we must know if these leaders are
afraid to do whatever it takes, including pre-emptive strikes, to see
to it that the mullahs and their genocidal frontman Mahmoud Ahmadinejad
don't have the power to unleash mass murder on Israel or any other
But although the overwhelming majority of Democrats want a president
who will back Israeli self-defense and face down Iran, some worry that
by raising Israel as an election issue, they will be disrupting the
bipartisan consensus that has helped solidify the alliance. Many
Democrats think trying to hold the candidates accountable on Israel
issues is just a way for the Republicans to create a wedge issue.
WILL THEY SPEAK UP?
No doubt, that's exactly what the GOP wants. But given the rock-solid
partisan loyalty of most Jewish Democrats, their chances of doing so
are not great.
Instead of being concerned about the Republicans making hay, what
Jewish Dems should think about is their chance to have Obama and
Clinton prove that they cannot be outflanked by John McCain on either
Iran or Israel. Taking Israel or even Iran off the table, which some
insist is in the community's interest, won't help the Democrats hold
their share of the Jewish vote especially if a failure to raise these
issues gives either Clinton or Obama the idea that we don't care.
Accountability isn't a GOP trick, it's an essential part of democracy
with a small "d."
While the political circus is in town, voters need to cast caution to
the winds and make sure these vital issues don't get lost in the
shuffle. When it comes to issues that are literally a matter of life
and death, local Jewish Obama and Clinton fans alike need to remember
that the whole world is watching what they do and say.