The capture of Saddam Hussein and the rise of Howard Dean are making President Bush and the Republican Party a much easier sell in the Jewish community, Minnesota Senator Norm Coleman says.
“My effort is made easier by Howard Dean, by Dean’s not having a strong record on the war on terror, by his comments on Saddam, by his comments on ‘not taking sides.’ We do take sides,” Coleman told the Forward during a wide-ranging interview at New York’s Marriot Marquis Hotel last week. He was referring to Dean’s now-infamous September remark that America should not “take sides” in negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.
Meanwhile, Saddam’s capture, besides dealing a “significant” blow to Middle East extremism, points up the strength of Bush’s foreign policy for all Americans, especially Jews, Coleman said.
“I believe in the Arab world people understand strength, and that ties into this president,” Coleman said. “This president understands that in the war on terrorism we have to show strength, we have to build resolve. For Jews in particular, who understand terrorism [and] who have a deep connection with Israel, the future and survival of Israel, these actions, the resolve with which the president has executed the war on terrorism, is important.
“The difference between President Bush and Howard Dean is not just about foreign policy; it’s about leadership,” continued Coleman, who has been talking up the GOP in appearances around the country for the Republican Jewish Coalition and was in town for a December 16 Chanukah party sponsored by the coalition’s New York chapter.
“We have a president who says, ‘We’re at war with terrorism. We’re going to lead.’ We have Howard Dean and most of the other Democratic contenders except, perhaps, for Joe Lieberman, saying we need the international community to take the lead, that the international community should somehow control our actions vis-à-vis Iraq. God forbid that the international community dictates our relations and support for Israel.”
The Brooklyn-born Coleman is one of only two Jewish Republicans in the Senate. He won office in 2002 by beating former vice president Walter Mondale, a last-minute replacement candidate for his original opponent, Senator Paul Wellstone, who died in a plane crash during the campaign. Interestingly, Dean has campaigned using a slogan originated by the left-liberal Wellstone, casting aspersions on his opponents by claiming to be “from the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party.”
Coleman said that might not be a winning slogan. “Other than Paul, [the Democratic] candidates that carry the Wellstone banner have not won much in Minnesota,” he said, explaining that they have typically lost their Democratic primaries to more moderate candidates. “If he stays there, he loses, really loses,” Coleman said of Dean.
Despite what he feels are the weaknesses of the Democrats, however, Coleman is cautious about predicting a win for Bush in Minnesota. The president lost the state by only a little more than two percentage points in 2000. “Minnesota hasn’t supported a Republican [presidential] candidate since 1972, supporting Nixon over McGovern,” he said. “On the other hand, you’ve got a Republican senator, a Republican governor…. Minnesota is trending more conservative…. But history would say it’s going to be a difficult task. If Dean is the candidate, the president has a good shot.”
A spokesman for Dean, asked to comment on Coleman’s assertions about the candidate, responded by blasting the president. “Supporting Israel does not include sending your senior official to trash Israel for doing ‘too little for far too long to translate its repeatedly stated commitment to facilitate Palestinian reform into reality,’” said Dean’s senior adviser for Jewish affairs, Matthew Dorf. He was referring to an administration spokesman’s characterizations last week of the Sharon government.
“Howard Dean doesn’t need a lecture from anyone on leadership,” Dorf said. “He won’t get distracted from the war on terror, and he’ll rebuild America’s global alliances and partnerships that are critical to the global fight against terrorism.”
Coleman, who began his career in Minnesota politics as a Democrat but switched to the party of Lincoln in 1996, possesses a history that makes him a good point man for the president among Jews. Like some other former Democrats, such as New York’s former mayor Rudolph Giuliani, he left over clashes he had with the local Democratic machine during his tenure as mayor of St. Paul.
“I was a reformer, and I still am,” said the photogenic 54-year-old senator, who has a full, dark head of hair, an easy manner and a ready smile that shows a gap between his front teeth.
Coleman laughs when asked to explain why he is the third Jew in a row to hold his seat: Wellstone was Jewish, as was Wellstone’s predecessor, Republican Rudy Boschwitz.
“At the end of my [first] term it will be 30 years of a ‘Jewish seat,’” he noted, explaining that it is surely “not demographics,” since Jews make up less than 1% of Minnesota’s population. Early political training, he suggests, explains the unbroken chain of Minnesota Jewish senators: “Boschwitz, Wellstone and I all grew up in homes where we were involved in service and always willing to raise our hands to lead…. I was dropping leaflets for Adlai Stevenson when I was 7 years old; you just did that.”
Coleman maintains that he has tried to steer a pragmatic course in the Senate; he cites as an example the newly passed Medicare bill, which he supported but many Democrats did not. It is a “godsend for the least amongst us,” he said.
Coleman acknowledged some argue the bill “doesn’t do enough for the middle class.” But, he said, “there’s a pragmatic side of me…. I’d rather have 50% of something than 100% of nothing.”
He also defends his support of Bush’s judicial nominees, some of whose appointments have been filibustered recently by his Democratic colleagues, who object to what they say are the judges’ extremely conservative views.
“I’ll bring the same standard to a judge who was brought forth by George Bush to a judge brought forth by a Democratic president, as long as they’re qualified,” he said. “All of the judges I’ve voted on have been rated as well-qualified. Let’s be honest: They’re not talking about qualifications; they’re talking about philosophy.”
“The problem with the approach of my colleagues on the other side [is that] folks like Ruth Bader Ginsburg would never be a judge today, or Antonin Scalia,” he said. “In the last 30 years, when you had almost equal time between Democrats and Republicans, you received a balance…. I think the Constitution understood that.”