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AIPAC and CPAC come to town

Mar 10,2014 - Last updated at Mar 10,2014

This past week, Washington hosted two of my least favourite annual events. It began with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) bringing its faithful to town to lobby for whatever the government of Israel might want at this particular moment.

At week’s end, the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) was in Washington, rallying their crowd to bash the president and defend their “true conservative” principles.

During the past year, several commentators pronounced, on occasion, both groups weakened and wounded, possibly fatally so.

Conservatives were seen to be cannibalising themselves, while AIPAC was reeling from having picked and lost two separate fights with President Barack Obama: Syria and Iran sanctions.

Based on the size and enthusiasm of their respective crowds and from the “red meat” thrown out by major speakers, neither group appeared to be in its death throes, but looks can be deceiving.

AIPAC is far from defeated. It still defines the playing field and rules of engagement for most Middle East issues. Its operatives are well placed in Washington and their influence is real.

Three years ago, it and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took on the administration over whether the 1967 borders should be the basis for a lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians, and they won. AIPAC’s allies in Congress turned out en masse to give the Israeli multiple standing ovations as he scolded the president and rejected his terms for peace.

This year was different. AIPAC hoped its lobbying might work to push the White House to attack Syria. It lost.

Then, after Obama launched negotiations with Iran in an effort to limit its nuclear programme, AIPAC again challenged the White House, calling for new sanctions against Iran. The president fought back, indicating that because such new legislation would have the effect of sabotaging negotiations, he would veto any such effort. Once again, AIPAC lost.

As a fallback, AIPAC put everything it could think of into what it called the US-Israel Strategic Partnership Act — a bill that would deepen the already too deep US ties with Israel in trade, technology, defence and intelligence sharing.

When it threw in adding Israel to the “visa waiver” programme, it was a step too far.

Arab Americans lobbied hard that it would be fundamentally wrong for the US to grant Israel this benefit when Israel regularly discriminates against Arab Americans who attempt to enter Israel or the occupied territories.

In the end, AIPAC lost. The bill passed, but without the automatic “visa waiver” provision.

If all that weren’t enough, the “coup de grace” came the day before Netanyahu was to arrive at the White House to meet with the president.

The Atlantic Magazine published a long interview with Obama, in which he alternately challenged, cautioned, scolded and warned Netanyahu about the need for Israel to make the right decisions to advance peace.

There was no mention of all these setbacks at the AIPAC meeting. Administration officials came pledging their “unshakable” devotion to Israel. Senators, Democrats and Republicans alike, took aim at the administration for not loving Israel enough.

Netanyahu, as always, was passionately spinning his web of deceit.

While listening to the speeches at the AIPAC meeting it might appear that nothing had changed, but it has. The group has suffered a few blows, and the most it had to endure in a short period. It may not show it, but it feels it. 

As the week closed out, CPAC gathered to lay out its agenda and hear from conservative leaders — and those Republicans who may have strayed from the “true faith” and now need to burnish their conservative credentials. As in past years, the speeches at CPAC were focused on rage over all things Obama.

There were funny lines, to be sure, but a lot of angry and mean-spirited attacks, as well. 

Freshmen Senators Rand Paul and Ted Cruz were the crowd-pleasing “flavours of the year”. Others like New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and Senator Marco Rubio were there. They were once held in high esteem but, after displaying some moderate tendencies, have fallen out of favour. Their appearance was designed to make atonements and receive the movement’s blessing.

A highlight of the event is the CPAC’s “straw poll”, as delegates vote for the person they most want to be the party’s standard bearer. It has become a major media event.

This year, Rand Paul won the straw poll by a significant margin. In second place was Ted Cruz. Between them, Paul and Cruz garnered almost one-half of the votes. Christie and Rubio finished in fourth and fifth place.

Aside from the energy and enthusiasm of the weekend, conservatives have a real problem. Here is what they agree on: they do not like Obama and they do not like government. They control Congress and can block most anything the president puts forward, but their movement is divided and their leaders do not like each other much.

In primary after primary, ultra-conservatives are challenging more mainstream GOPers, sometimes defeating them, sometimes weakening them, and other times forcing them to adopt policies that make them less electable.

Conservatives also have come to realise that they have a demographic problem.

The US electorate is dramatically changing. Black, Latino and Asian voters are increasing with each election cycle. These groups vote for Democrats, as do significant majorities of young voters and educated women.

Because conservative policies are so out of touch with the needs of these groups, the base of the conservative movement continues to shrink, further reducing the GOP’s chances in national contests.

Conservatives know they have these problems, but continue to blissfully ignore them.

When listening to the fiery rhetoric and watching the enthusiasm at both AIPAC and CPAC, it becomes apparent that both groups retain the capacity to create problems for opponents. They may be down, but they are not out.

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