WASHINGTON (JTA) – It’s the foreign policy, stupid.One after another, Democratic presidential candidates addressing an April 23-25 National Jewish Democratic Council forum here emphasized how they would change foreign policy.”America can be the light again,” former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards said.”To suggest that diplomacy is a kind of weakness is frightening to me,” said Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut.”Job description: Someone to restore America’s place in the world,” Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware said.”We know that these aren’t the best of times for America’s reputation in the world,” said Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois.”Our reputation is in shreds,” Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) said. “People don’t trust us anymore.” “The obsession with Iraq has caused us as a country to fail to focus on the real threats to America,” New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson said, listing terrorism, nuclear proliferation and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.Candidate after candidate, including Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio, said the same thing: The Bush administration’s foreign policy needs changing.The tone reflected Democratic Jewish unhappiness with a war in Iraq that appears intractable, and with stasis in the Middle East.”We have been so consumed with this bogus war,” said Marc Stanley, the NJDC’s vice chairman, from Texas.It was a sharp turnaround from the Democratic message in 2004 – at least when that message was aimed at Jewish voters, who were believed at the time to be happy with President Bush’s strongly pro-Israel tilt. The Democratic pitch four years ago: We can be just as pro-Israel as Bush, but domestic policy counts as well.One of the ’04 candidates, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, sounded the old theme in his speech Tuesday to the NJDC forum. Dean now is chairman of the Democratic National Committee.”The idea you have to give up everything” to back a pro-Israel candidate “is wrong,” Dean said to applause.Dean referred specifically to former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), a hard-line conservative on social issues. Sitting in the audience was Lonnie Kaplan, a Democrat who raised funds last year for Santorum’s losing re-election bid because of the senator’s pro-Israel record.Such admonitions hardly seemed necessary, however – at least with 200 or so major Democratic donors from across the country gathered for the conference. This was a crowd of Jewish activists, profoundly unhappy with the war on Iraq, who no longer were willing to give Bush a pass on foreign policy.When it came to specifics, there were some nuanced differences over Israel’s role in peacemaking and on the fate of Iraq.Clinton departed from other candidates by saying she favored compromise with Bush over Iraq funding. The president is expected to veto congressional bills likely to pass this week that would meet his funding demands but also set timetables for withdrawal. “We don’t want Democrats being blamed for our troops not being well equipped,” Clinton said, adding that she did not expect real troop withdrawal to begin until Bush was out of office.There was more agreement, however, on the need to engage with Iran, while not counting out the military option to force that country to come clean on its nuclear program; the need for U.S. energy independence and distance from Saudi Arabia; and rejection of any attempt to force Israel to deal with Hamas, the terrorist group leading the Palestinian Authority government.Only Obama said he expected movement from Israel toward peace.”It is in the interests of Israel to establish peace in the Middle East,” he said. “It cannot be done at the price of compromising Israel’s security, and the United States government and an Obama presidency cannot ask Israel to take risks with respect to its security. But it can ask Israel to say that it is still possible for us to allow more than just this status quo of fear, terror, division. That can’t be our long-term aspiration.”Richardson said he would appoint a special envoy to kick-start the process, and told reporters after his speech that former U.S. Secretary of State James Baker would be a likely candidate for the job. Richardson said the appointment of a Republican underscored his commitment to bipartisanship, but Baker is probably among the pro-Israel community’s least-favored candidates for such a mission because of his tense relations with Israeli leaders during the presidency of Bush’s father.Marc Winkelman of Austin, Texas, expressed relief that the candidates focused on foreign policy. He had feared that an isolationist wing would draw the party inward.”This was a big concern,” Winkelman said. “A lot of people believe we have no right to stick our nose in other people’s business.”Indeed, Biden tapped into that concern, earning applause when he complained that Democrats had been “timid” until now on foreign policy.There were few sharp differences among the candidates on policy. Biden sounded perhaps the greatest differences, calling for the dissolution of Iraq – a possible consequence of a U.S. withdrawal that other candidates prefer not to discuss – and immediate military action to end genocide in the Darfur region of Sudan.”Any country that engages in genocide forfeits their sovereignty,” he said to applause.Biden said it was not a contradiction to call for military action in Sudan while calling for a draw-down of U.S. troops in Iraq. The problem, Biden said, was not a robust foreign policy but how it was pursued.”There’s a difference between straightforward and straightforwardly smart,” he said to applause.The implication – that Bush is an inexperienced bungler – was repeated in one form or another by all the candidates and their aides.Obama stressed his upbringing in places as diverse as Indonesia, the Midwest and Hawaii.The NJDC’s Stanley, who is backing Edwards, said the former senator has spent the years since 2004, when he lost his bid to become vice president, touring the world.Steve Grossman, a marketing magnate from Boston who is Clinton’s principal Jewish backer, cited her experience as first lady in addition to her six years in the Senate. Dodd mentioned his age – 62 – several times. Biden’s magic number, repeated again and again, was 26 – his years in the Senate.That also was a change: Members of Congress once downplayed their long records, which can be manipulated to show support for unpopular policies. After six years of the Texas governor turned president, the message was that it’s time for experience.”This is not a job for on-the-job training,” Dodd said.
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