The Two Absent Audiences at the Republican Jewish Coalition’s Presidential Forum

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Photo: Tom Keck

All 14 surviving Republican presidential candidates showed up for the Republican Jewish Coalition’s candidate “forum” — another term for a non-debate cattle call — in Washington today. Aside from the usual and unanimous expressions of solidarity with the current Israeli government of Bibi Netanyahu, the event included some comically inept pandering — e.g., John Kasich’s tribute to the loyalty of Jewish people that makes them such great friends — and the usual performance art from Donald Trump. Lindsey Graham supplied some counterprogramming by attacking Trump for alienating Latinos and Cruz and Rubio for taking extremist positions on abortion. 

Perhaps the most interesting interaction, however, arose when Marco Rubio went after Ted Cruz for refusing to support action to topple the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad. This might seem like a no-brainer insofar as most conservative pro-Netanyahu Jews regard Assad as a puppet of the Iranian mullahs and as a longtime friend and supporter of Hezbollah terrorists. What could Cruz be thinking?

That perspective misses the fact that certain absent parties are for many of these presidential candidates the real audience at the RJC meeting. 

Most obviously, there are Sheldon and Miriam Adelson, the megabillionaire couple who together and separately could finance a big super-pac from rounding errors in their daily investment proceeds. After having a lot to do with all the candidates showing up at the RJC event, the Adelsons chose to go to South Africa instead. They’ll be seeing the candidates soon enough, on December 15, when they come to debate at Sheldon’s Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas. But I’m sure they were on the minds of Rubio and Cruz in particular: According to a report yesterday from Yahoo’s Michael Isikoff, Sheldon’s leaning toward an endorsement of the Floridian while Miriam’s enchanted with the Texan. How they comport themselves at events like the RJC meeting could theoretically serve as a tie-breaker. 

But more important even than the Adelsons is another absent audience: conservative Evangelicals, whose emotional bonds with the State of Israel, particularly under its current management, have made aggressive support for anything Netanyahu wants very nearly a litmus test for Republicans wanting to be president. Indeed, Senator Rand Paul spent much of the run-up to his 2016 presidential campaign trying to compensate for his father’s bad reputation in pro-Israeli circles, and it wasn’t because he craved the votes of the small minority of American Jews who vote in Republican primaries.  

And that’s where Ted Cruz’s relatively soft attitude toward Assad comes in: It is a common if not universal position among Christian-right activists to regard Assad and his Alawite government as protectors of Syrian Christians, who might well be exterminated if ISIS conquered the country and aren’t too positively inclined toward the “pro-Western” Sunni militias, either. This isn’t a new theme for Cruz: He’s opposed military action to remove Assad from the beginning.

At a time when conservative Evangelical activists may prove to be Cruz’s ace in the hole in a competition with Rubio and others in Iowa, the fireworks over what to do with Assad at the RJC meeting makes perfect sense. But again: You don’t know the players without a program, and at this particular meeting the big players were present only in spirit.