Three weeks ago, I wrote about the natural human tendency to avoid exposure to ideas or facts that will challenge one’s own world view. Not every refusal to expose oneself to threatening ideas signifies intellectual cowardice or sloth. In the case of kefirah, it is even required. But most disconcerting evidence does not fall into that category, and intellectual honesty requires that we test our ideas in the marketplace of ideas.
In that spirit, when I heard that my friend Dr. David Luchins, chairman the of the political science department at Touro College and a former senior advisor to the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, would be debating Marc Zell, the head of Republicans in Israel, on the upcoming presidential election, I decided to attend. Dr. Luchins is very smart and highly original. I figured if anyone could persuade me to be more enthusiastic about the prospect of President Obama being re-elected, it would be Dr. Luchins.
It is far from clear to me that Dr. Luchins himself intends to vote for Barack Obama. He began by saying that he never votes for an incumbent president, because second-term presidents have so much more freedom to stick it to Israel. Richard Nixon in 1972 was the only exception to his rule. If that rule applies even to those presidents who sought to maintain an impression of closeness to Israel in their first terms, how much more so to one who came into office determined to place “daylight” between the United States and Israel.
To avoid the implications of his own principle, Dr. Luchins offered another, which he claimed trumps the first: one-party control of all three branches is dangerous. Since Republicans already control the Supreme Court, the House, and are likely to gain control of the Senate, he argued, the United States would be better served by a Democratic president, who would be forced to negotiate with Congress.
First, the premise of this argument is itself questionable. Ever since Rep. Todd Akin, the Republican senatorial candidate in Missouri, managed to transform an 11 point lead in the polls to a nine-point deficit with one stupid comment, the chances of Republicans taking control of the Senate slipped to 50-50 at best.
And why should the principle of divided government take precedence over that of no second term presidents, especially one like President Obama who has already been overheard telling Russian Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev that he’ll finally be able to do what he wants when he no longer has to worry about re-election? Stiff competition between two parties is certainly a desideratum for American democracy, but that doesn’t mean that divided government is always better. If one favors Obamacare, for instance, it was clear that it could only be enacted with large Democratic majorities in Congress and a Democratic president. And in the other direction, it is clear that Obamacare can only be repealed by a Republican Congress and president.
Luchins next point was that Romney invited Dr. Condoleeza Rice to Utah to meet with big donors. (He could now add that she was given a “star turn” at the Republican convention.) I agree that Rice was as bad a secretary of state as Hilary Clinton, and that she tended to view the Israeli-Palestinian dispute through the lens of her childhood in segregated Birmingham, just as the President views it through the lens of fashionable campus leftism.
But she will not return as secretary of state and is not a major Romney foreign policy advisor. Republican voters are, according to every poll, far more favorably disposed to Israel than Democratic voters, less enchanted by the U.N. and efforts to subvert American sovereignty to “the international community” (the majority of whose members are decidedly anti-Israel), and supportive of a strong defense posture and therefore appreciative of what Israel contributes to American defense capabilities in the world’s most volatile region. Those are the constraints within which any Republican president will operate.
Luchins also argued that Romney would be thrall to the isolationist “Ron Paul”-wing of the Republican Party, if elected. Proof? In 2008, Barack Obama won Ohio despite winning fewer votes than the 2004 Democratic nominee John Kerry, who lost Ohio. Reason: the Republican candidate John McCain received 350,000 less votes than President George W. Bush in 2004. Conclusion: All those Republicans who sat at home are isolationists, whom Romney must win over to become president.
This is, to put it gently, pretty weak stuff. President George W. Bush was no more attractive to “isolationists” in 2004 than John McCain four years later – not after the invasion of Iraq and his bold outline of a doctrine of legitimate pre-emption at West Point. So much for the alleged 360,000 Ron Paul voters in Ohio (far more than Paul won in the Republican primary). The placement of such weak “guilt by association” arguments at the forefront suggested to me that my friend still has not fully convinced himself. After all, if we want to play the guilt by association game, far-left Israel bashers Jeremiah Wright, Bill Ayers, Rashid Khalidi, and Franklin Marshall Davis were all personal intimates the Barack Obama over the years.
Dr. Luchins offered only one positive argument for the Obama presidency to date: Preventing the Security Council from ever voting on Palestinian statehood, without the U.S. even having to cast a veto, constituted a diplomatic triumph. Perhaps so. But the only reason the Palestinians tried that stunt in the first place was that the President had already brought Palestinian-Israeli negotiations to a standstill. By insisting on an absolute cessation of all settlement expansion, including in West Jerusalem, Obama emboldened the Palestinians to demand Israeli agreement to that cessation as a pre-condition of negotiations.
Dr. Luchins did not say much about the American economy, except to predict disaster if the “fiscal cliff” of dramatic cuts in defense and discretionary spending goes into effect on Jan. 1. He is probably right that Republican spending cuts would reduce monies to a number of programs that disproportionately benefit the Orthodox world. But that is like blaming the Republicans for the laws of gravity or arithmetic. The economy left for future generations of Americans will be strangled by debt unless spending and entitlements are dramatically cut. And Orthodox Jews will have to recognize like every other group – farmers, teachers unions, corporations benefitting from specially tailored income tax treatment – that it cannot just be the “other guy” who gets cut, if government spending is to be brought under control.
Most telling in my mind – especially in a presentation to a Jewish audience in Israel – was Dr. Luchins omission of almost any mention of Iran, other than to point to the recent sanctions, largely forced upon the administration by Congress. He might have plausibly argued that as president Mitt Romney would also never order an attack on Iran. But that still ignores the three years wasted in futile hopes that diplomacy might still win over the contempt-spewing mullahs, including, the refusal to provide any encouragement to Iran’s internal Green Revolution, and the President’s utter failure to convince Supreme Leader Khameini that he is serious about preventing a nuclear Iran. Luchins did not ask which man – Obama or Romney – would be more likely to support Israel, in the event of an Israeli strike on Iran, and which more likely to punish Israel.
In sum, I’m delighted I went to the debate. At least now I can say that I’ve been exposed to the best arguments for a second Obama term, and remain unpersuaded.
This article first appeared in Mishpacha.