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Delegates Behaving Badly

John McCain’s pugnacious address to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in Washington this week may have given his presidential campaign a boost, but it ill served the pro-Israel lobbying organization that hosted him. As for the lobby, it didn’t do itself any favors with the hero’s reception it served up for the Arizona senator.

To be sure, inviting McCain to address the faithful was well within the time-honored Aipac tradition of parading senior politicians and government figures across its stage, all singing the praises of the Jewish state. Attracting the powerful is one of the most effective ways that Aipac demonstrates its own clout. And, let it not be forgotten, a strong pro-Israel lobby helps to ensure a strong Israel.

What was different this year was the use of Aipac’s stage for naked electioneering. McCain broke one of the lobby’s cardinal rules by attacking the policies of his Democratic opponent, Barack Obama, and declaring that an Obama victory would threaten Israel’s security.

McCain’s audience, the delegates to the Aipac conference, behaved even worse. They greeted McCain’s anti-Obama salvos with a prolonged standing ovation. And in so doing, they effectively said to the world that the pro-Israel lobby views a Democratic victory this fall as a threat.

As odd as it might sound, this sort of partisanship is virtually unprecedented in Aipac forums. Politicians addressing the lobby’s headline sessions have always managed to tout their own beliefs without attacking their opponents. They have focused on their own regard for Israel and commitment to its security needs, and left any invidious comparisons unsaid. Aipac has insisted on this — and it has monitored its own delegates’ behavior to ensure that its conferences do not become partisan rallies. It could not be otherwise, or Aipac would lose its ability to lobby through changing administrations and shifting congressional majorities.

It is true that Obama delivered a similarly partisan message two days later, in his own speech to the lobby. But Obama had no choice after McCain’s speech. Once the Republican opened fire, the Democrat had to respond in kind. Obama was making his first appearance as a guest at a national Aipac conference, and he had a tough job to do there. He was walking into a crowd known to regard him with suspicion, if not hostility. He had to make the case that he is not a threat. McCain and his cheering section had complicated the Democrat’s task by putting his legitimacy in question. In breaking the rules, they changed the rules.

This is not a plea for Obama. He’s a smart politician and can take care of himself. Indeed, he acquitted himself well in his turn on the Aipac stage and went a good way forward in reducing suspicions about him. It’s not the politicians who suffer from this polarization, but Israel and the Jewish community. Already, Israel and its advocates are dangerously identified in too many minds with the discredited Bush presidency and the failed ideologies that drove it. Whoever wins the White House this fall, Israel will suffer if its cause becomes a partisan political football.

It may well be that Aipac erred in inviting presidential candidates to be its headliners. Knowing the passions of its base constituency, the organization should have anticipated the outcome. Perhaps the symbolic value of having the candidates on its stage — the day after the last primary, as it happened — was thought to outweigh the dangers. Certainly the event should have been more carefully stage-managed.

Touting one’s political ideas without denigrating a rival’s might sound hypocritical, and perhaps it is. After all, it’s the job of politicians to take stands on knotty issues, presumably out of a belief that their opponents’ views are less helpful — which is to say, more harmful. In a democracy, however, contenders must be prepared to accept defeat. If the opposition’s ideas are painted as dangerous, if issues are framed in terms of black and white, of good and evil, then it’s tempting to think that victory is everything and conceding is immoral. From there, it’s a short step to stealing elections and arresting rivals. Democracy needs rules of discretion and politesse — what’s commonly called civility — in order to survive the clash of competing values.

If civility is essential to democracy, it’s absolutely critical to public advocacy. Advocates of a cause are in the business of winning broad support, which requires winning over the decision makers and the public. In an adversarial culture, advocates mustn’t let themselves become identified with one side, or they’ll fall hard when the other side takes its turn. You don’t win over folks by insulting them.


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