Analysis: The partisans are coming to Congress

Those looking for strong bipartisan support of Israel in the post-midterm elections Congress may be sorely disappointed.

Boehner 311 (photo credit: Associated Press)
Boehner 311
(photo credit: Associated Press)
WASHINGTON – US President Barak Obama reflected last Wednesday on the overwhelming defeat of the Democratic Party – or “shellacking,” as he termed it – the day before. “It feels bad,” he said.
But some Democrats have found a silver lining to their otherwise unwelcome results, particularly those Democrats on the farther left side of the spectrum. For them, though the party lost its majority in the House of Representatives and with it its committee chairmen, there was some small comfort in the result that most of those kicked out were moderates. Many were the so-called “blue dog Democrats” from traditionally Republican districts who rode the Democratic waves of 2006 and 2008 into office but were the most vulnerable when even Independents turned red this year.
“In vivid contrast,” as liberal blogger Deborah White wrote, “no Black Caucus members, and very few Progressive or Latino Caucus members, lost their House reelection bids. As a result, House Democrats in the 112th Congress will be more progressive and more supportive of the Democratic Party and Nancy Pelosi’s agenda than any House of Representatives in recent memory.”
That might be soothing to some Democrats, but it’s not necessarily reassuring to those who are looking for strong bipartisan support of Israel in Congress. According to polls, self-described liberals are less likely to be supportive than Democrats more broadly, and significantly less likely to be supportive than conservative Republicans.
In one Gallup survey, only 43 percent of liberal Democrats were likely to be more sympathetic to the Israelis over the Palestinians, compared to 50% of moderate Democrats and 72% of Republicans.
(In contrast, liberals were most likely to be more sympathetic toward the Palestinians – at 33% – compared with 32% of moderate Democrats and 17% of Republicans.) “The Democratic caucus will be much more liberal, much more progressive than the current Congress,” noted William Daroff, director of the Washington office of the Jewish Federations of North America.
But Daroff said that didn’t necessarily translate into a loss of support for Israel.
“The Democrats who are left in the House tend to be relatively longtime veterans who have been steadfast supporters of a strong US-Israel relationship,” he said.
Among those who swept in over the last two cycles – and were swept out on Tuesday – were some of the more strident members of the party as well.
And of course, many vocal supporters of Israel have hailed from progressive circles, including Russ Feingold, the Wisconsin senator who lost his seat in a close battle last week after serving three terms.
TEVI TROY, a former Jewish liaison in the George W. Bush White House, called that a significant loss for those like him who want to see strong bi-partisan support for Israel.
“When you lose voices like that, it’s hard to say that even the progressives support Israel.”
Particularly without Feingold, Troy is worried what a largely progressive caucus in Congress will mean for the Jewish state.
“It’s a problem, because as we know the bulk of the criticism of Israel comes more from the left these days than the right,” he said.
He pointed to the difficult political calculus for liberal candidates over whether they would want to be strongly supportive of Israel, given the mixed support among Democratic voters: “When a progressive member gets up there and speaks to his constituents and says something pro-Israel, there’s only a 50-50 shot that they’ll agree with him.”
Troy said this trend could jeopardize bipartisan support in the long run, particularly for groups, such as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, that try to be bipartisan but could find it harder to work with Democrats.
Even some progressives are voicing concern.
“If this becomes a political football... it’s really bad,” said one activist with a progressive Israel organization of the concern that the issue could lose bipartisan support. “It’s better to have fewer numbers but from both sides of the aisle than to have larger numbers that are all from the leftwing of the Democratic Party.”
He stressed that bipartisan support was necessary for the issue to have general appeal and for the administration to treat it with the urgency it needs, though he said that backing up the administration was a place where more progressive Democrats in Congress could be helpful.
“Who is going to be with the president to give him the support and backing that he needs, that’s required to go the extra mile for peace... if the Republicans are being obstructionist?” he asked. “You probably will see these members trying to give Obama the cover he needs.”
David Harris, of the National Jewish Democratic Council,, however, argued that it was the Republicans who were trying to use Israel for partisan ends.
“I do see a threat to the historical bipartisan support for Israel, but it comes from those who continue to use Israel as a partisan wedge issue.
Those people aren’t Democrats,” he said.
He added that regardless of where individual Democrats stand, “the Democratic leadership is strongly invested in supporting Israel, on Iran, on foreign aid, and the caucus is strongly supportive.”
In any case, Daroff pointed out that it’s the executive branch that makes foreign policy, not Congress.
“While it’s incredibly important that there are wide bipartisan majorities in favor of a strong US-Israel relationship in Congress, by far the most important [factor] in the US-Israel relationship is the White House,” he said. “There’s one secretary of state, not 535.”