For close to nine hours, candidate after candidate burnished his or her — former Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina was there as well — national security and foreign affairs credentials before 700 Jewish Republicans gathered last week at the Ronald Reagan Building in downtown Washington.
The Dec. 3 forum, sponsored by the Republican Jewish Coalition, was the only event outside of the official GOP debates in which 13 of the remaining candidates were scheduled to attend. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) missed his slotted time due to a vote on Capitol Hill.
In launching the event, David Flaum, RJC national chairman, wasted no time spelling out the goal in the year ahead.
“We cannot elect someone like Hillary Clinton who will not protect Americans in harm’s way or answer the phone at 3 in the morning,” Flaum said to thunderous applause. Even the WiFi password for the overflowing press filing room stayed on message, with reporters instructed to access the Internet using HillaryIsWrongOnIran.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), said to be the favorite of Dr. Miriam Adelson, wife of casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, kicked off the marathon of speeches and keyed into the concerns of the staunchly pro-
Obama is the “most antagonistic president to the State of Israel in our nation’s history,” Cruz said before laying into Secretary of State John Kerry.
He pledged that under a Cruz administration, universities engaging in the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel would be stripped of federal funds and that he would “rip to shreds” the Iran nuclear agreement.
“I do trust the Iranians,” said Cruz. “When the Ayatollah Khamenei burns Israeli and American flags and says, ‘Death to America,’ I trust that he means it. … The next president needs to have the fortitude to say to the Ayatollah Khamenei in no uncertain terms: Either you stop your nuclear weapons program or we will stop you.”
That message resonated with Bill Fox, co-founder of the Baltimore chapter of the RJC.
“I will never forgive Barack Obama for putting my children and grandchildren in mortal danger,” said Fox. “The single most important issue for me is the safety and security of my children and ten grandchildren down the road.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) didn’t spend much time on the Middle East, choosing instead to focus on the demographics where Republicans have lost ground: young women and Hispanics.
Graham queried the room: Should there be an abortion exception for pregnancies that result from rape and incest? “If you’re going to tell a woman that she has to carry the child of a rapist, you’re going to lose an election,” he said.
As for the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States, Graham said that Republicans aren’t losing elections because “we’re not hard-ass enough on immigration — I believe we’re losing the Hispanic vote because they think we don’t like them.”
For his part, front-runner Donald Trump, whose rhetoric on the campaign trail has been seen as imperiling Republicans’ chances with minorities and women, invoked Jewish stereotypes in his speech.
“You just like me because my daughter is Jewish,” he joked. (Ivanka Trump converted to Judaism prior to her marriage to Jared Kushner in 2009.)
As has come to be expected on the campaign trail, Trump boasted of his negotiating skills and his ability to self-fund his campaign.
“You’re not going to support me because I don’t want your money,” said Trump.
He said he wasn’t sure if either Israel or the Palestinians “has the commitment” to make a peace deal, to the consternation of such groups as the Zionist Organization of America. He quickly added that Israel is not given credit for what they’ve given up.
Trump was booed when he refused to declare Jerusalem the undivided capital of the Jewish State.
He said he’d need to talk about it first with Netanyahu, who, Trump reminded the crowd — as he had in Manassas, Va., the night prior — had called on the businessman to make a commercial for his re-election bid.
The Democratic National Committee seized on some of Trump’s comments — “Is there anyone in this room who doesn’t negotiate deals? Probably more than any room I’ve ever spoken,” he said — labeling them anti-Semitic in an email with the subject line, “Oy vey: Republican Jewish Coalition speeches included some meshugah claims about Jews.”
“To say three times, ‘You’re not going to support me because I won’t take your money’ — it was disgusting,” Dr. Gary Applebaum, co-founder of the Baltimore chapter of the RJC, said of Trump’s speech.
Trump, Applebaum said, has served a purpose in bringing viewers early on in the campaign cycle, but he doesn’t anticipate Trump will make it past the early primaries, because “ultimately, it needs to be more of love of America than love of self,” and Trump has proven himself to be too self-serving.
The bloom will fall off of Trump, agreed Fox, who called a Trump versus Clinton scenario unlikely. “The populace will tire of his bombasity and arrogance.”
Dr. Ben Carson, who was second behind Trump in the polls, appeared to misread his audience when he spoke directly from written comments, barely pausing to look up.
His speech consisted largely of a history of the modern state of Israel, a topic of which most in the room already were conversant.
He did garner some applause when he said the conversation surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was flawed. Carson said “lasting peace” should center on what a future Israeli state should look like rather than what a future Palestinian state should look like.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), favored by Sheldon Adelson, echoed many of the sentiments espoused by Cruz and added condemnation of the European Union for labeling products made in “Judea and Samaria,” using the biblical term for the West Bank.
“We need a president who is not afraid to call this what it is: This is anti-Semitism,” he said.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, an establishment figure who, despite being the brother and son of two former presidents and spending the most of any of the candidates on the race, has struggled to gain traction, put on a well-received performance.
He sported a red pin emblazoned with “Jeb!” written in Hebrew.
Bush, whose older brother enjoyed close ties to the Jewish community during his presidency, was clearly in his element, making promises to repair the “ruptured relationship” with Israel and even going so far as to take swipes at Trump.
“Candidates should not speak with grandiosity without backing it up,” he said before digging in on foreign policy.
The United States, he said, has a duty to protect the oppressed. Yazidis, Christians and Jews in the Middle East need protecting. “But for us, who? Who but the United States will stand for the discriminated, for the oppressed?”
Bush took one final dig at Trump by saying, “The next president of the United States better have a servant’s heart.” He added, “If I should win this nomination, I will take it to Hillary Clinton and whup her.”
Gov. Chris Christie (R-N.J.) portrayed himself as Mr. National Security, recalling his time as a U.S. Attorney for the District of New Jersey. Security, he said, is “only achieved if we’re willing to rebuild our military.
“It’s only achieved if we’re willing to support our law enforcement community. Anyone who tells you any differently is absolutely playing with fire.”
Christie called out Paul, saying Paul was ignorant of how the program works and how the data is utilized. In past debates, Paul has emphasized that he wants to collect data on terrorists, not American citizens.
“How will you know?” said Christie. “Terrorists don’t wear sandwich boards that say, ‘I’m a terrorist and I want to hurt America.’”
At the end of a long day of speeches, Fiorina rallied the audience by declaring, “In your hearts, you can’t wait for me to debate Hillary Clinton.”
These are perilous times, she said, and “we are missing leadership from the White House; and indeed, Hillary Clinton has not exhibited leadership on any of these issues,” the issues being defeating the so-called Islamic State and radical Islam. She tied the Syrian refugee crisis and “the murder, the mayhem” in Paris, Beirut and San Bernardino, Calif., to the current administration.
“I believe we have come to a pivotal point, citizens, where we need to take our country back,” she said.
Fox and Applebaum both said that Fiorina, who trails in the polls, could be a lead contender for the vice-presidency.
On her first day in office, she said, she would make two calls — the first to Netanyahu and the second to the supreme leader of Iran.
She said she would tell the ayatollah, “New president, new deal.”