The AIPAC gala dinner drew over 6,000 people, with half of the Senate and more than half of the House on hand to hear Harry Reid, Mitch McConnell and Ehud Olmert (via satellite). But presidential politics dominated the discussion among attendees. While Sam Brownback and Joe Biden both held receptions after the dinner, most of the interest was in the duel between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.
I was able to see both Obama and Clinton speak in receptions of a few hundred people each (Hillary’s was a bit larger) and it was amusing to watch both of them try to integrate support for Israel with their broader campaign themes. Obama tried to frame things in terms of being the healer, the man who wants to fight bigotry and make everybody get along with one another. He described the Holocaust as a “universal” tragedy, just like American slavery or the crisis in Darfur were and are universal struggles. Then he said (paraphrasing): “The biggest enemy isn’t Hamas and isn’t Hezbollah, it’s cynicism.” That single line made me fear an Obama presidency more than anything else I’ve heard him say, or anything I’ve read about him. Put aside for a moment that the statement underplays the evil, fanatical nature of terrorism. The fact that Obama wants to inject the multicultural platitudes of American liberalism into how he views a conflict with deep religious, cultural, historical, and ideological roots really says something about how he’s likely to conduct U.S. foreign policy. The idea that somehow the audacity of hope will not only cure what ails America, but bring peace to the world, strikes me as pretty shallow and naïve. I guess you can call me a cynic.
So, as if I weren’t feeling bad enough about our nation’s prospects in the event of an adverse electoral outcome in 2008, I shuffled down the hall to see Hillary speak. Her reception was better funded–while Obama had a few regular signs hanging on the wall behind him, Clinton had a whole campaign podium set up, with a “Hillary for President” billboard and American and Israeli flags on the sides of the stage. The room went dark when she entered the room, like at a basketball game. Most of her speech seemed to be spent rattling off a bunch of supporters with Jewish last names. And in keeping with her tradition of piggy-backing off of her husband’s alleged accomplishments, Tom Lantos, the only Holocaust survivor ever to serve in Congress, nostalgically recalled traveling to Israel with Bill and Hillary. After giving the boilerplate AIPAC line about the importance of strong U.S. relations with Israel, she discussed the need to use diplomatic leverage against Iran while not taking the military option off of the table. Then, rather awkwardly, she transitioned into her domestic policy themes: universal healthcare, different energy future, fighting the war on global warming, and improving the education system.
As for the other candidates, I caught the tail end of Biden’s speech, at which point he said that if Israel didn’t exist, America would have had to invent it anyway, because we need a democratic ally in the Middle East. Thus, the U.S. needs Israel just as Israel needs the U.S. Brownback was wrapping up as I walked in, shaking hands, and posing for photos. Oh, and I met a guy doing Jewish outreach for Mitt Romney who was handing out stickers saying “Mitt in ’08” with Mitt’s name written in Hebrew.
UPDATE: Ben Smith has the full Obama quote I paraphrased above:
“The biggest enemy I think we have in this whole process (and why I’m so glad to see a lot of young people here, young in spirit if not young in age) — the reason I think it’s so important, is because one of the enemies we have to fight — it’s not just terrorists, it’s not just Hezbollah, it’s not just Hamas — it’s also cynicism,” Barack Obama told a reception after the AIPAC policy conference last night.