As leading Jewish Democrats--including Sen. Charles Schumer of New York, and the National Jewish Democratic Council (NJDC)--abandon their previous reservations and support President Barack Obama's nomination of former Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel as Secretary of Defense, the Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC) continues to fight.
Unlike other groups--notably the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), as well as gay and green activists that have downplayed their opposition to Hagel--the RJC has been unafraid to risk political capital by taking a clear position against Hagel. Breitbart News spoke to RJC Executive Director Matt Brooks yesterday.
Breitbart News: What is the RJC doing to oppose Hagel's confirmation?
Brooks: From the very first moment, I think we were the very first organization formally out in opposition when we released our fact sheet on December 4th. We have been working very diligently on a two-pronged approach. One is a public education appeal, making sure that we get out in a broad way the concerns that we've got about the nomination and the various positions and policy pronouncements he's make and the actions--or lack of action--that he took in the Senate and that cause us concern.
On a more granular level, we are fully engaged in reaching out to every single [Republican] Senate office, with a focus on those on the Senate Armed Services Committee, but also the entire GOP caucus, letting them know how important this vote is to us as an organization, making it very clear that our membership and and leadership are very troubled by the nomination, and encouraging them to vote no.
In addition, we are trying to orchestrate and coordinate with members of our leadership to reach out to Senators and key staffers that they know personally, that they've helped political and financially over the years, to help out as well. And, finally, we are working with other groups, coordinating the exchange of information, both in terms of our research into Hagel's writings and his comments and his voting record, and then also what we're hearing in terms of conversations from other Senate offices, so we're all on the same page.
Breitbart News: How likely do you think it is that you will succeed?
Brooks: If you measure success by strong, unified GOP opposition, we are fairly confident that we will see a strong showing among Republicans in opposition. The real question is the success that pro-Israel Democrats will have with this White House in tightening the screws on fence-sitting Democrats to fall in line behind the president. It's not yet clear what the administration and White House are going to do. And it's extremely important that there's not more pressure from groups like the NJDC, which for years has had strong opposition to Hagel and which has spoken out against Hagel--and which as soon as the president appoints him to an important position, just caves and comes out as political sycophants and just endorses his nomination. There could be much more pressure if the NJDC would put principle ahead of politics and would weigh in with concerns with Senate offices. I feel it's a missed opportunity on the part of the NJDC and others.
Breitbart News: Are there other Democratic groups to reach out to?
Brooks: So far, we haven't found any that have taken on that role. There have been individuals--guys like Alan Dershowitz--but organizationally it's been pretty sparse. The American Jewish Committee has been pretty strong.
Breitbart News: What's your perspective on AIPAC's strategy?
Brooks: Well, they say they don't get involved in nomination battles. That's why they're sitting on the sidelines at this juncture.
Breitbart News: And the Anti-Defamation League (ADL)?
Brooks: I think [National Director] Abe Foxman's comments regarding Hagel's comments on the "Jewish lobby"--namely, that those remarks border on antisemitism--have been very helpful in laying down a marker in trying to explain what's so troubling about Hagel, to make our case clear to those in the Senate.
Breitbart News: Are you receiving any more support from other groups?
Brooks: You know, I think that I do believe that part of this is going to be people standing and seeing how the political tea leaves are shaping up. It's a chicken-and-egg problem. If it looks like Hagel will lose, then people will come in more aggressively. Nobody wants to be on the losing side, to be seen as being on the losing side of a battle like this. If it looks like there's a reasonable chance of defeating Hagel then people will step in. Ironically, his chances don't look worse until people start stepping in. I hope more groups will stand up and stand in solidarity with Jewish community.
Breitbart News: Are there other coalitions you could form without taking a position on their issues, like gay rights groups?
Brooks: I know that other folks are working with gay and lesbian community regarding comments and actions regarding issues of concern, and I know that they plan on having and being part of a robust questioning in his confirmation. We feel there is nothing to lose by working together. Our focus is on the Iranian nuclear threat and on Israel. And the fact that hagel's comments in the past have been antagonistic and hostile to gays is a totally legitimate line of questioning for him in his appearance before the committee, and we need to find our allies wherever we can find them.
Breitbart News: Is is awkward to oppose a fellow Republican?
Brooks: Not to us. We have a long-standing history of not supporting Chuck Hagel. In fact, in his 2002 race we did not support him--we did not give money to him and his Political Action Committee, we did not raise money for him nationally, because we were troubled and concerned about his views in regards to the issues we care about. So the RJC has been consistent in opposition despite the fact that he's a member of our own party. That has not been controversial for us--I've not got a single phone call from a Republican who's upset that we are in opposition. Obviously, there are Democrats who are upset.
Breitbart News: What about the role of [New York Democratic Senator] Chuck Schumer?
Brooks: If we thought we would be effective with him, we certainly would try. I just don't know that the RJC has the ability to influence some line like him. I know for a fact that he's hearing from constituents and financial supporters, but not the RJC - we have a limited impact there.
Breitbart News: Is there a danger that the RJC's leadership on this issue will make it a partisan issue instead of a policy issue?
Brooks: Yeah, that's one of the reasons that one of the things we're doing is private conversations. We have not done a full-blown ad campaign, or highly public things, to avoid it becoming a partisan battle. Beneath the surface, there is actually strong bipartisan cooperation. The key is finding those Democrats who are willing to stand up and oppose a president of their own party.
Breitbart News: Why was it so easy for Republicans to oppose Bush, but so hard for Democrats to oppose Obama?
Brooks: (Laughs) Interesting quesiton. When it comes to the RJC, we are willing to put principle over politics, and Hagel is a prime example. He has been fundamentally wrong on the Iranian threat and how to deal with it; fundamentally wrong on the challenges Israel challenges, for that reason; he is fundamentally wrong in his comments towards the Jewish community in the United States; and this is one of those clear-cut examples. If not now, when? I think it's absolutely critical that you stand up and engage on this issue.
Full disclosure: the author is a Leadership member of the Republican Jewish Coalition.