Here in Florida, everyone loves the old Jewish joke about Abe who calls his wife nervously two hours after he was expected home.
"So, Sophie, what are you making for dinner?"
"At this hour… what am I making? Poison is what I'm making!"
"Good, then just make one portion. I'm held up at the office and I won't be able to join you." I thought of that when I went to see recent U.S. Senators Norm Coleman (R-Minn.) and Jim Talent (R-Mo.), along with Ambassador Ned Siegel, try to navigate an appearance on behalf of Mitt Romney at a major South Florida synagogue Sunday night.
Synagogues, like churches, are constrained by law from conducting campaign events for individual candidates. More powerful than that disincentive is the potential wrath from the swath of congregants who back the "other guy." And one thing you can count on in a large synagogue like the Young Israel of Hollywood-Fort Lauderdale, with almost 500 member families, there will never be unanimity of support for any political figure, American or Israeli.
The Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America solves this conundrum by hosting candidate forums in companion communities. For example, in the 2008 election, they would hold an evening for the Obama campaign at a synagogue in the West Side of Manhattan and an evening for the McCain people a day later in the East Side. Thus, each one has the feel of a partisan rally but together they add up to equal time. That kind of meal for one, where the crowd composition is unsure, can be like eating poison for a politician.
In this case, things could have been even worse because the model broke down. The Gingrich camp declined to participate, so the tripartite forum designed for Miami/Fort Lauderdale/Boca Raton was down to the Romney team here on Sunday and Rick Santorum getting his chance Monday morning at the 700-family Boca Raton Synagogue. When Rick's daughter took ill and Monday's session was canceled, Romney was the last man standing.
But the talent of Talent and the cool of Coleman helped to circumscribe -- you should excuse the expression -- the potential pitfalls. Both men, in addition to being bright and engaging, are self-deprecating to the point of deferential, and whenever an audience member voiced a reservation about Romney, they let them speak their piece. They managed to cultivate an atmosphere of fairness and openness that impressed their tough customers very positively.
Here are some of the highlights of the evening. Talent made a brilliant point that would never occur to an outsider. The predilection of politicians is to avoid tackling serious issues. Firstly, they like to be popular and do not look forward to butting heads with an entrenched hostile constituency. Secondly, they always want to be associated with success and removed from failure; why take on challenges where the likelihood of emerging as a victor is minimal?
"When was the last time you heard a candidate for Governor build his campaign around the pledge to revitalize urban education?"
The thing that impressed him about Governor Romney from their very first meeting, was his appetite for trying the fix the biggest problems facing the country. His background as a turnaround specialist in the corporate world suits him well in his quest to achieve a rededication of the national spirit and a reigniting of this country's economic engine.
Perhaps the most amazing single line to emerge from Talent's presentation gave a glimpse into a metaphysical calculus not accessed by the common breed of superficial politician. "Governor Romney believes that we have a moral obligation to Israel partly because it arose from the ashes of the Holocaust which after all constitutes one of the greatest failures of the West."
Senator Coleman shared the pain of his defeat in Minnesota at the hands of Al Franken in a recount corrupted by the Democrat machine. He sees God's Hand in this eventuality, because that gave the Dems their 60th Senate seat, enabling the 800 billion dollar stimulus which did not stimulate and the partisan Obamacare plan. When the people saw the extremism of an untethered left, they elected Scott Brown and then handed the House of Representatives to the Republican Party. (This gives a whole new meaning to Deus ex machina.)
To give ultimate meaning to his loss, he hinted, the salvation must be completed by sending Obama into the sunset in November. It is time for a President who believes that it is not America's place to take the Palestinians' coveted endpoint -- the 1967 borders -- and turn them into the starting point of negotiations, who has promised that his first visit abroad will be to Israel, who will not keep the Prime Minister of Israel cooling his heels while he eats dinner for a few hours.
The assemblage did not disappoint in their questioning during the Town Hall segment. Does Romney have the killer instinct Gingrich has shown? Why won't he promise to move the American Embassy to Jerusalem? If he is embracing Paul Ryan's Medicare overhaul, isn't he throwing away all the over-45 voters? Will he free Jonathan Pollard? Can he answer Obama when he charges that Romneycare is not too different from Obamacare? Why hasn't Romney risen above 40 percent in the polls? The answers were smart, thoughtful, reassuring, energizing, with Ambassador Siegel adding some insight from the diplomatic realm.
Even the rabble-rousers, the troublemakers, the kibitzers and the naysayers were grudgingly impressed. One lifelong Democrat verbalized this startling utterance: "It was a very enjoyable evening." By now he has probably thought better of it, but it remained a telling moment.
This reminds me of one joke in parting, a conversation between one woman and another at a Jewish wedding.
"So, are you a friend of the bride?"
"Certainly not! I'm the mother of the groom."
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