Analysis: Backdrops highlight different campaigns

The different locations for Romney and Panetta photo-ops say much about the audience the two men are targeting.

August 1, 2012 02:21
4 minute read.
Mitt Romney delivers speech in Jerusalem

Mitt Romney delivers speech in Jerusalem 370 (R). (photo credit: Jason Reed / Reuters)

Sometimes a backdrop tells much about the story of a play.

When presumptive US Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney visited here earlier this week, the photo opportunity he wanted – and that will serve him now throughout his campaign – was a picture of himself against the backdrop of Jerusalem’s Tower of David and the Old City Walls.

When US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta holds a press conference Wednesday with Defense Minister Ehud Barak, it is expected to be against the backdrop of an Iron Dome counter rocket defense battery in the South.

The different locations for the premier photo-ops say much about the audience the men are targeting.

Romney, contrary to conventional wisdom, did not come to Israel earlier this week courting the Jewish vote.

He knows that the Jews voted overwhelmingly for US President Barack Obama in the last elections, and will probably – though not as heavily – vote overwhelmingly for him this November.

No, he was largely courting the evangelical Christians – many of whom have questions about him because of his Mormon faith – and the not insubstantial segment of the American public for whom Israel is a core, gut, important issue. He was placing distance between himself – who he wants people to believe stands with America’s longtime allies – and Obama, who has been perceived as abandoning them.

For that audience, the recognizable Old City walls in the Holy City are the perfect backdrop.

As American political scientist Walter Russell Mead wrote in his blog this week on the American Interest website: “By stressing the strength of his emotional and political commitment to Israel, Governor Romney hopes to strengthen his claim to be running as the red-blooded, truly American candidate against what the GOP devoutly hopes voters will see as the cosmopolitan, Europe-loving, Israel-criticizing, Noam Chomsky reading, French-thinking socialist now living at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

While it sounds odd, Mead wrote, “Israel is as American as apple pie. By showing how much he loves Israel, Governor Romney is telling millions of voters that he is a solid and loyal American.”

For many voters, he said, the perception that Obama is cool toward Israel “strengthens their suspicion that he is somehow cool toward traditional American values and that he is skeptical of the US assuming some kind of transformational world role.”

Mead continued: “For Governor Romney’s campaign, then, visiting Israel and stressing his support for Israel (and the support of many Israelis for him) is a way of solidifying the governor’s support among Republican evangelicals, but also of reaching out to a broader community of voters for whom the ‘miraculous’ establishment of Israel serves as a powerful sign of God’s continuing work in history.”

In other words, it is not about the Jews. If the trip won over some Jewish voters, that is a bonus – but that was not the purpose.

It is also not about the Palestinians.

And this is why Romney is probably not losing much sleep over having been widely perceived by the Palestinians as having insulted them during his visit by not going to Ramallah, by saying Jerusalem is Israel’s capital and by touting the Israeli culture – in contrast to that of the Palestinian Authority – which gave birth to a dynamic economy.

The voters Romney was pursuing with this visit are not going to be overly concerned if Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat or United Arab List- Ta’al MK Ahmed Tibi felt slighted or insulted.

Panetta’s audience, however, is different.

The Obama campaign is not going after the evangelicals. No, the Obama campaign is going after the Jews.

The Obama campaign is well aware that a shift of a few percentage points of the Jewish vote in Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio and even Nevada – key swing states – could make the difference in a close election. And what Panetta will radiate when standing near an Iron Dome battery is, “We – the Obama Administration – are not full of empty words, we take action.

We provide Iron Dome batteries that help secure Israel and save lives.”

The message toward Jews coming from the campaign for months has been to forget about “atmospherics;” forget about difficulties in the relationship between Netanyahu and Obama; forget about perceived slights and diplomatic daylight at times between the two countries.

No, what matters, the administration is saying, is that under Obama – as Defense Minister Ehud Barak said in a CNN interview Monday – there has never been a closer security relationship between the two countries.

Nothing will slam that point home to American Jews more than the US secretary of defense, alongside the Israeli defense minister, at a US-funded Iron Dome counter missile defense battery.

The campaigns are reaching out to different audiences, and the different backdrops chosen in Israel for Romney and Panetta make that abundantly clear.

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