Mostly Mum On Impeachment
Jewish leaders have been almost invisible as the House this week moved toward the second vote of impeachment in the nation’s history and as talk about a presidential resignation mounted. “We support orderly process in government, but we aren’t taking a position because the impeachment issue has become so partisan,” said Phil Baum, executive director of the American Jewish Congress.
But privately, Jewish leaders expressed concern about the conservative legislators and interest groups that were pursuing impeachment long before Monica Lewinsky became a household name.
Despite claims by incoming House Speaker Bob Livingston that the relentless focus on impeachment is a mistake — a point he made to a group of Jewish Republicans last week —and despite Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry Hyde’s promise to steer a bipartisan course, the impeachment process has been driven by the most conservative legislators in Washington, including Rep. Bob Barr (R-Ga.) and Majority whip Tom DeLay (R-Texas). The two powerful legislators blocked efforts to debate options such as censure that might spare the nation the agony of a divisive and costly Senate trial.
Barr, in particular, has been linked to extremist causes. When the House was considering anti-terrorism measures after the Oklahoma City bombing, the lawmaker helped lead the effort to cut provisions aimed at radical anti-government militia groups in this country.
Last week it was revealed that Barr was keynote speaker at meetings of a white supremacist group earlier this year, a speaking engagement he apparently saw nothing wrong with until he was called on it by the lawyer Alan Dershowitz.
That prompted Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, to write a stern letter demanding that the legislator “broadly and explicitly denounce this organization’s racist beliefs.”
“The right wing has dictated the process here,” said Rep. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), a leading member of the Jewish House delegation who will vote against impeachment despite his unhappiness with Clinton’s behavior. “The extreme right wing controlled the agenda within the Republican conference and denied the opportunity for the leadership to come forward with more moderate solutions.”
According to Cardin, Republican extremists who have despised Clinton since he arrived in Washington in 1993 have gained control of the process, defying more moderate leaders who want the president to pay for his mistakes, but don’t want his punishment to leave a trail of constitutional wreckage.
Other Jewish leaders point out that these groups’ credibility has been boosted because some of the charges made have proved to be accurate despite the fact that other charges range from the unsubstantiated to the ludicrous, including allegations of drug dealing by Clinton and persistent talk that he has had numerous opponents murdered.
More immediately, Jewish lobbyists worry that the bitter partisanship of the impeachment vote will undercut congressional leaders in both parties who say they want the 106th Congress to focus on what voters say are the top issues — taxes, education, Social Security and health care.
“The mood in the 106th Congress will be stridently partisan — worse even than in the 105th,” said the lobbyist for a major Jewish organization. “We have a lot of pressing issues, but it’s hard to see how we can get to them while the impeachment process is going forward. And after it’s finished, it’s hard to see much in the way of bipartisan cooperation; there are a lot of angry people up here.”
Jewish Reps Lead Clinton Defense
In case anybody missed it, last week’s House Judiciary Committee debate over the impeachment of President Bill Clinton included a number of Jewish legislators on the president’s defense team.
Six of the 16 Democrats on the Committee are Jewish — Rep. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.), Rep. Steve Rothman (D-N.J.), Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Calif.) and Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.).
Frank and Schumer were among the president’s most vocal defenders. Berman, widely regarded as one of the House’s smartest members, has played what one House staffer called “a steadying role.”
Wexler, who is just finishing his first term, may have gotten the biggest political boost from the televised proceedings with some impassioned rhetoric.
Low-Key Livingston Meets The Jews
Rep. Bob Livingston, the incoming House speaker, may play a very different Mideast role than his predecessor. That was the underlying message when the Louisiana legislator addressed leaders of the National Jewish Coalition last week.
Unlike outgoing speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), Livingston declined to throw the Jewish Republicans raw meat on critical Mideast questions. Participants expecting an anti-administration pep rally went away disappointed.
“The Palestinian people have needs, and you must be considerate of those needs,” he told the group — which has been highly critical of President Bill Clinton’s Mideast policies.
Without American support, he said, “they can never achieve the stability that is necessary to keep them from threatening Israel.”
Pressed by a reporter after a closed session with the Jewish Republicans, Livingston also indicated qualified support for the administration’s request for additional aid for both Israel and the Palestinians.
“I expect to support it,” he said. “We have some parochial problems to deal with here in the United States, like how to offset the large amounts being asked for. But I have every intention of supporting it, and I would expect it would pass.”
Livingston’s position may be hard to swallow for some GOP House members who have worked closely with anti-Oslo Jewish groups to slow Palestinian aid requests.
During his trip to Israel, Gaza and the West Bank this week, Clinton formally announced what administration and Israeli officials have been hinting at for weeks — that the supplemental aid request would include $1.2 billion for Israel to aid in the cost of the redeployments laid out in the Wye River agreement and $400 million for the Palestinians to jump-start economic development.
Congressional Republicans complained that they weren’t consulted before Clinton promised the money, but Livingston’s qualified support will make concerted opposition more difficult.
Although he expressed strong support for Israel, Livingston also signaled that foreign policy would not be at the top of his agenda.
“Gingrich had a deep interest in foreign policy, and in Israel and the Mideast in particular, and that led him to take on the administration on fundamental policy questions,” said a leading Jewish Republican. “Livingston supports Israel, but foreign policy is not where he plans to make his mark.”
That, plus Livingston’s low-key style, means the Republican leadership in the 106th Congress is unlikely to be as aggressive a counterforce to the Clinton administration’s Mideast policy.
On the domestic front, Livingston stressed three issues that he said will be at the top of his agenda — tax cuts for the middle class, Social Security and education.
Republican sources say Livingston wanted to use his appearance before the Jewish group to showcase his low-key style.
Jewish Republicans Undaunted
Speaking of Jewish Republicans, the National Jewish Coalition’s leadership met last week to hash out some of the lessons of the November congressional elections and plan strategies for winning more Jews to the GOP cause — something that didn’t happen as they had anticipated in November.
Still, participants said the group is undaunted.
Conservative pollster Frank Luntz, who earlier in the year wrote a report for the group advising GOP candidates how to approach skeptical Jewish voters, rejected charges that the party lost seats in Congress because it was too focused on divisive social issues like abortion.
“His comments were in line with what I’ve been hearing,” said Gary Polland, a Jewish Republican activist from Texas. “The problem was not that we were too conservative, or that we focused too much on social issues. It was that we had no message, except for the message that Clinton should be impeached. You have to offer something positive to win elections, and we didn’t do that.”
He agreed there was disappointment that some Republicans didn’t get as many Jewish votes as they expected — Sen. Alfonse D’Amato (R-N.Y.), who lost to challenger Schumer, led the pack — but said that the group is still hopeful.
“The mood was disappointed — but optimistic over the future,” he said. “There’s a real expectation we can do better.”
Troubling Omen For Clinton?
With all of official Washington reading tea leaves and gazing into crystal balls in an attempt to read President Bill Clinton’s shaky political future, people were talking about one eerie political parallel.
One other president traveled to the region to further peace while in the midst of an impeachment fight — Richard Nixon, who visited the Middle East in June, 1974.
Nixon got what he wanted from the trip — a lot of favorable news coverage in the wake of Henry Kissinger’s negotiation of a Syrian-Israeli disengagement agreement. But it didn’t do him much good. Four weeks later, with the House breathing down his neck, Nixon resigned.
In his book “Peace Process,” Mideast scholar William Quandt described Nixon’s trip as “an odd affair … he was accompanied by an enormous retinue of aides, security men and journalists. Every detail of the visit had been worked out by advance men. The local governments were nearly overwhelmed by the onslaught of American technicians, public relations experts, TV crews and assorted hangers-on.”
Sound familiar? The only think missing was CNN. But, Quandt reported, Nixon didn’t enjoy his moment in the sun. Instead, he spent his time listening to the infamous White House tapes that ultimately led to his downfall.