Sarah Palin, Mazen Asbahi and the stifling of democracy

The attempt by some Democrats to paint Sarah Palin as a supporter of Pat Buchanan is probably the most baseless political attack in, well…. Weeks.

At least since the Obama campaign’s Arab-American outreach director quit because, well, he seems to have done exactly the right thing when he encountered a radical Islamist.

More on that in a minute.

Palin, the vice-presidential pick of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and now the governor of Alaska, sported a Pat Buchanan button in July 1999 when Buchanan visited Wasilla, the town she then led as mayor. (Buchanan, of course, has long been reviled for intimating that Jews control foreign policy, that American efforts to stop Hitler made little sense, etc. Not beloved by the Jews.)

That led the local AP reporter to flag her as a supporter of Buchanan’s presidential bid. That report was picked up in the last few days by the liberal blogosphere and she has now been transformed into a “strong” Buchanan supporter.

Except that, in real time, she corrected the impression in a letter to a local newspaper: “When presidential candidates visit our community, I am always happy to meet them. I’ll even put on their button when handed one as a polite gesture of respect,” she wrote in a letter to the Anchorage Daily News in 1999.

I don’t entirely blame the blogger who originated the story – AP stories are likelier to come up much higher in Nexis searches then letters to the ADN editor. But, geez, couldn’t U.S. Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.) have waited a little before calling McCain’s selection a “direct affront to the Jewish community”? It turns out she was an official – not just a supporter – of the Republican primaries campaign of Steve Forbes that year. (Buchanan had bolted the GOP and was running as a candidate of the Reform Party.)

That should have killed the story. But Buchanan then said he remembered her attending a fund-raiser for his 1996 GOP candidacy bid. (His sister Bay Buchanan now tells Politico it might have been for Jerry Ward, a local ally of Buchanan.) It seems credible – Buchanan, now an MSNBC analyst, corrected host Christ Matthews, who thought it had been 1992.

But so what? Let’s take what we know about Palin-Buchanan: She might have attended a fund-raiser in 1996. She didn’t give any money to Buchanan’s campaign, however, nor to Jerry Ward, and was not an official of the campaign. (Ben Smith of Politico has uncovered a list of officials of the Alaskan Buchanan campaign that year; Open Secrets tracks only two $300 donations in her name: one to the state Republican Party, and the other to a Mike Miller, a GOP state senator.)

So, in 1996, perhaps Palin and her husband were intrigued by Buchanan, whose hallmark then was how he melded social conservatism with protectionism. Todd and Sarah Palin are social conservatives who strongly believe in unions: natural targets for Buchanan.

They meet Buchanan, and evidently decide he’s not their man: no donation, no role in the campaign.

In a sane political world, this would define Good Judgment. Maybe Buchanan’s isolationist foreign policy turned them off. Maybe it was even something Buchanan said about Jews that kept their checkbook shut.

Instead, it’s used to indict her judgment. Yes, Jews have long known what Buchanan is; can we reasonably expect a small-town Alaska mayor to share our depth of knowledge to the extent that she wouldn’t even bother to check him out? By setting such impossible standards, we’re killing political curiosity, we’re creating a political environment so safe it’s doomed to stagnate. (Let me add here that the National Jewish Democratic Council has shown the good taste to ignore the Buchanan affiliation and has instead focused – legitimately – on her socially conservative policies.)

And by “we” I don’t just mean Jews, I mean the entire political culture. Take the case of Mazen Asbahi.

Earlier this month, the Chicago lawyer quit as the Arab and Muslim American outreach director for the presidential campaign of Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.). His sins: He served with Jamal Said, a radical Imam who has praised Hamas, in 2000 for a few weeks on the board of a foundation. Asbahi apparently quit when he learned that Said was on the board.

Again, in a sane world, this would be considered Good Judgment. Instead, once the Global Muslim Brotherhood Daily Report revealed the tidbit and it got picked up by the Wall Street Journal, Asbahi quit, saying he did not want to harm the campaign.

Asbahi’s other sin, cited by the Global Muslim thingy, was that he is active with the Islamic Society of North America. ISNA may or may not have roots decades ago in the radical Islamist Muslim Brotherhood. It was an unindicted coconspirator in a case against alleged fund-raisers for Hamas – the case failed, and the feds often use “unindicted coconspirator” as a pretext to facilitate legal searches (and, in any case, “unindicted” means just that.)

These days, ISNA explicitly repudiates Hamas and Hezbollah as terrorists. These days, it includes meetings with Holocaust survivors in its exchange program for teenagers from Arab countries, precisely because the students have been exposed to a distorted understanding of the Shoah. (Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, the director of the Orthodox Union, was visibly moved last week at the Democratic Party convention when ISNA president Ingrid Mattson described those meetings.)

So Asbahi is a man who will not associate with radicals, who is active in a Muslim group that is doing exactly what Jewish groups say they expect of Muslim groups – but the Obama campaign accepts his resignation and the Republican Jewish Coalition perpetuated the Asbahi distortions in its weekly e-mail.

Shame on the Democrats, shame on the RJC. They are helping to make it dangerous to Vote While Muslim. I don’t need to explain why this is Bad for the Jews (or any minority.)

These calumnies may create convenient, even sticky, associations in the battle for the Jewish vote: McCain with Buchanan, Obama with radical Muslims.

But they cost us deliberation, nuance and curiosity – underpinnings of a successful democracy.

UPDATE: Suzanne Kurtz of the RJC called to note that the RJC simply forwarded a Wall Street Journal article on Asbahi, whereas Wexler and the DNC initiated the Buchanan-Palin trope. Noted: starting a smear is not as bad as perpetuating one (Kurtz does not acknowledge that the Asbahi slurs were a smear). But it still smells.

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