David Frum had just finished making his case for the future of his beloved and beleaguered Republican Party, and was set to sign copies of his book “Comeback,” his prescription for saving conservatism in America.
Those attending the Republican Jewish Coalition event Monday night then began asking: Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, or U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.)? A few people also mentioned Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor who has unsettled many in the Republican Jewish establishment with his talk of being a Christian leader.
Then came the suggestion that left Frum wide eyed: “What about Obama?” a well-dressed older man asked.
“No,” Frum responded emphatically. “No, no, no, no, no.”
To explain how an RJC member came around to considering Barack Obama, the liberal Democratic U.S. senator from Illinois, one must mention the one-time GOP contender not mentioned in Frum’s book-signing line: Rudy Giuliani.
The implosion of the former New York mayor’s once promising bid for the presidency probably hit no constituency harder than Jewish Republicans. Among them he was by far the most popular candidate: In an American Jewish Committee poll taken in November, with seven contenders, Giuliani scored an astronomical 75 percent approval rating.
His departure seems to have left Republican Jews rudderless, particularly since so many of his advisers were prominent Jews. They included Frum and a slate of neoconservative foreign policy specialists, among them Martin Kramer, Norman Podhoretz, Michael Rubin and Daniel Pipes.
“These are difficult times for the Republican Party,” Frum began, to murmurs of agreement.
It was too early to count out the neoconservatives, according to one of their most prominent critics in the pro-Israel community, M.J. Rosenberg of the Israel Policy Forum.
“Giuliani was the miracle candidate for the neoconservatives ever since he threw out Yasser Arafat from the Lincoln Center,” Rosenberg said, referring to the former mayor’s famous 1996 order ejecting the late Palestinian leader from a concert. “But they’re not quite in the wilderness they belong in, which would be pariahs, these people who are partially responsible for the Iraq debacle.”
McCain and Romney continued to hew to some neoconservative positions, particularly in their militancy toward Iran, Rosenberg noted, but the movement’s appeal is receding.
That, along with a strategy of waiting for the later primaries, helped torpedo Giuliani, who based much of his campaign on the image he cultivated with his reputation as the mayor who brought America together after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
“The focus on the war on terrorism has receded from the public eye, and for his candidacy to work, he needed fear,” Rosenberg said.
Frum’s book — it’s full title is “Comeback: Conservatism That Can Win Again” — is a broad blueprint addressing the problems facing the GOP, including its inability to address a dysfunctional health-care system and its uncompromising positions on social issues including abortion and gay marriage.
He touched on those issues at the RJC event, but he knew what was likely preoccupying this particular set of minds.
“I would guess many of you, like me, are foreign policy voters,” Frum said.
That leaves Jewish Republicans with a conundrum after Giuliani: Romney, untested in any foreign policy role, vs. McCain, whose views were once close to the foreign policy “realists” that neoconservatives revile for accommodating Israel’s dictatorial Arab neighbors.
Giuliani was the only major candidate who split with the current Bush administration on its policy of promoting Israeli-Palestinian talks. In a foreign policy paper in Foreign Affairs journal in September, he said, “It is not in the interest of the United States, at a time when it is being threatened by Islamist terrorists, to assist the creation of another state that will support terrorism.”
That left a gap, said Jewish advisers to the former mayor.
“The only piece of the mayor’s campaign that I’m not sure where it goes was his different perspective from the Washington consensus on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” said a former Jewish adviser to Giuliani who asked not to be identified as he contemplates his future.
Giuliani’s departure was especially a blow now that even Bush appears to be pressing more aggressively for a two-state solution after seven years of insisting on an end to Palestinian terrorism as a prerequisite to progress in peace talks.
Frum referred to Bush’s recently expressed hope for a peace deal before he leaves office.
The ex-Giuliani adviser called it “embarrassing” to hear such expressions.
“Every time the president opens his mouth,” Frum said, “I wonder if he believes it.”
On the broader foreign policy issues, neoconservatives appear willing to forgive McCain’s past associations with the realist camp and instead note his unstinting support for the Iraq war and his tough talk on confronting Iran.
Max Boot, a neoconservative who advises McCain, dismissed concerns arising from McCain’s pledge earlier in the campaign to take advice from realists such as Brent Scowcroft and James Baker, who served respectively as national security adviser and secretary of state in the administration of the first President Bush.
The key to understanding McCain, Boot said, is that he is the likeliest candidate to heed his own counsel above others.
“Presidents really do make choices based on the issues, and they have certain predilections or certain tendencies in which — or certain prisms through which — they examine those issues,” Boot told JTA recently at a luncheon of the Council on Foreign Relations, where he is a fellow.
“But they’re always going to have different viewpoints represented within the administration, and it’s really a question of, you know, what does the president think that ultimately matters, not so much what advisers X, Y and Z think, because there’s always going to be differences of views there.”
Frum told JTA that McCain’s recent record was what mattered, attributing to the senator an “unwavering commitment to the war on terrorism.”
Still, Frum said, he remains undecided — he likes Romney’s administrative skills, but worried about how he would approach foreign policy.
“We have a much less clear idea of his core commitments,” he said.