Sarah Palin is visiting Israel, a move which normally helps GOP candidates. But as my latest CNN column points out, by ignoring the Republican Jewish Coalition she may be writing off an opportunity to broaden her support.
It’s tough for a Republican politician to lose friends by visiting Israel. Yet Sarah Palin is in danger of doing so.
The former GOP vice presidential candidate arrived in Israel Sunday for a two-day visit.
Ben Smith in Politico reports that the trip was booked through a Christian tour operator. But the real news is who did not book the trip: the Republican Jewish Coalition, the group that brought George W. Bush to Israel in 1998, Mitt Romney in 2007, Haley Barbour in 2011, and many other presidential hopefuls beside.
Very likely you have never heard of the Republican Jewish Coalition. But then again, you probably are not seeking the Republican presidential nomination. If you were seeking the nomination, the RJC is one of the groups whose support you would certainly want.
Joining an RJC Israel tour is a well-established ritual in gaining the support of the RJC’s board and the group’s 40,000 activist members.
The RJC’s board of directors includes four people who have served as national finance chairs for the Republican Party — the party’s “fundraiser-in-chief.” Eight board members have run major donor groups within the GOP and 18 members served as state finance chairs for George W. Bush’s re-election in 2004. It also includes some less distinguished figures — me, for example.
The RJC local chapters are active in almost every state. Jewish Republicans may seem a minority of a minority, but the local chapters contain disproportionate numbers of local Republican activists — the kind of people who make a difference in a state primary.
The RJC played an especially important role in 2008, the election in which Palin burst onto the national stage — a very unpromising year for the GOP. Barack Obama out-raised John McCain in an election in which many of the party’s usual donors stayed on the sidelines. Yet RJC members continued to fundraise for McCain-Palin, like the last guy to hold the pass, outnumbered and outgunned.
Most Republican presidential aspirants consider the RJC a group whose support is very much worth having. Which is why virtually every major and long-shot Republican candidate except Palin has addressed an RJC meeting: Romney often, Newt Gingrich often, Tim Pawlenty often. Texas Gov. Rick Perry is stopping by the group’s April Las Vegas meeting … just in case.
Obviously the RJC has no monopoly on Israel visitation rights. Mike Huckabee for example has organized his own trips. But Huckabee has been to Israel more than 15 times, he knows the country and its leadership intimately, and hardly requires any introduction from anybody.
But with somebody like Palin making a first visit — dealing with important geopolitical sensitivities — and trying to make a positive impression on American friends of Israel — the design of a trip carries special significance.
Over the months since November 2008, the RJC had repeatedly offered to organize an Israel tour for Palin. They have repeatedly invited Palin to speak at their meetings. As a member of the RJC board, I know that Palin’s team engaged in extended conversations about these invitations. Yet they were abruptly shelved. The RJC organization learned that its invitation would not be accepted the same way everybody else did: by reading the newspaper.
Why? We cannot know for certain. But we do know this: Some members of the RJC board — including me, and one or two others — have publicly said critical things about Palin.
The seeming result: Palin decided the RJC was dead to her.
Which is of course her prerogative.
But normally candidates are in the business of adding to the number of their friends — including converting former non-friends into new friends. Candidates seek to broaden their basis of support. They are more interested in future successes than in past irritations.
Successful candidates are strategic. They may hold grudges, but they do not reveal their grudges. And they do not act on their grudges against their own best interests.
When Palin first appeared alongside John McCain, she sparked an excitement that briefly promised to rescue the troubled McCain presidential candidacy.
Over two months of campaigning in September and October 2008, Palin’s poll numbers tumbled among women and independents. Yet even after the November 2008 loss, Palin remained hugely popular among Republicans.
She has spent the past 2½ years throwing that popularity away, piece by piece. Palin has worked hard to convince even the most ardent Republicans that she would be a doomed candidate and a disastrous president.
With the particular plan she chose for her trip to Israel, Palin alienated a few more potential friends — important ones.
As I mentioned, I’m an RJC board member myself. I’ve been a Palin critic, but until now most of my colleagues have disagreed with me. Yet, once again, Palin seems to focus her energy on proving her critics right.
Even as a non-fan, I have to say: It all seems so sadly unnecessary.