Readers of The New York Times, including several hundred thousand subscribers in New York, woke up Tuesday to a full-page ad on page A7, paid for by the Emergency Committee for Israel, that blared: "Who is Chuck Hagel, President Obama's anti-Israel nominee for Secretary of Defense?" Below quotes from several anti-Hagel critiques—including that of the Washington Post—the ad urges readers to call New York's senators, Kirsten Gillibrand and Chuck Schumer, to register opposition to Hagel.
It was a powerful ad, placed at exactly the moment when all eyes were on Schumer for signals of whether he, as an ardent supporter of Israel in the state with the largest Jewish population, would be willing to back Hagel after a private meeting with him despite the nominee's well-established skepticism over U.S. policy toward Israel. And before many Times readers had even had their second cup of coffee, Schumer made a hash of the ad by declaring his support for Hagel, who, he said, "could not have been more forthcoming in sincere"—a judgment that instantly made Hagel's confirmation far more likely.
It was not the first time that a major investment went for naught for the Emergency Committee for Israel, whose board includes neocon grandee William Kristol and the Christian conservative Gary Bauer. This past campaign year, the group spent almost $150,000 on ads promoting Mitt Romney. He lost. It spent $123,000 attacking Barack Obama. He won. Most notably, it spent a whopping $823,000 attacking Wisconsin Senate candidate Tammy Baldwin, in ads that called her “extreme” and said she had “called terrorists who attacked Israel innocent victims.” She won. It spent $58,000 attacking John Tierney, a Democratic congressman from Massachusetts. He won, despite allegations of family corruption and a strong GOP challenger. It spent $61,000 attacking California Democratic congresswoman Lois Capps. She won. The group's only consolation was that its final 2012 target, Charles Barron, lost in a Democratic congressional primary in New York City. Oh, and it helped defeat Democrat David Weprin in the 2011 special election to replace Anthony Weiner, but that seat has since disappeared in redistricting.
So, if you're keeping score at home, that's 0-1 on the presidential race, 0-1 in the Senate, and, let's say, 1.5 for 3.5 in House races. Those kind of numbers get you sent to the minors in baseball. At the very least, that track record would seem likely to cause agita with the group's funders, including hedge fund manager Daniel Loeb, who has given at least $100,000 to the organization and is famously unforgiving when entities he invests in fail to perform up to expectations. So what gives? Is there a reckoning coming for the group? Has the Washington establishment—the obvious target of TV ads such as this melodramatic one attacking Hagel, which was ran only in the D.C. media market—been excessively overawed by the group's influence?
Well, it depends. The group's stats look a little better if you take into account its performance in 2010, the first election year it was in action. Targets that year included Pennsylvania Senate candidate Joe Sestak and House Democrats Glenn Nye and Mary Jo Kilroy, all of whom lost. Tierney and New Jersey Rep. Rush Holt, also targeted, survived, as did Rep. Jim Himes of Connecticut.
But there is a broader argument in the group's defense, articulated by Buzzfeed's Ben Smith, among others, that its success should not be tallied simply in candidates or nominees vanquished, but in how it manages to shape the debate even in defeat. After all, as Smith notes, Hagel won Schumer's backing only after renouncing a great deal of the realist, independent-minded policy that Obama and others admire him for." Smith writes:
The bad news for Hagel's allies among "realist" foreign policy thinkers and on the foreign policy left is that the nominee appears to have gotten Schumer's support by repudiating virtually everything they liked about him. Schumer cites "several key assurances." I count about 12 points, most of them related to Israel and Iran, on which Hagel has reversed past positions or his perceived stances, points that now come across in Schumer's voice, but which he will have to presumably reiterate in his own words in televised hearings. This was always a likely endpoint of the battle over Hagel, which has been a proxy war over Israel and over a broader foreign policy philosophy, but it has come with remarkable speed and comprehensiveness. "Senator Hagel made a crystal-clear promise that he would do 'whatever it takes' to stop Tehran from obtaining nuclear weapons," Schumer asserts in his release. Hagel also guaranteed Israel both specific hardware and a broad license to "defend herself" even "when terrorist groups hide rocket launchers among civilian populations and stage attacks from there."
I got a similar reading from one leading member of the pro-Israel groups fighting Hagel: "It’s a remarkable moment, that even with a freshly re-elected Barack Obama as president, and the Democrats controlling the Senate, Chuck Hagel has repudiated pretty much everything that got his supporters excited about him in the first place. The fact that he just abandoned, however cynically, 15 years of his own foreign policy should cause Hagel's backers to question whether their views are actually prevailing."
Final judgment on that score will come if and when Hagel is installed at the Pentagon. For now, all we know is that Tammy Baldwin's a United States Senator and Chuck Hagel is a big step closer to being secretary of defense, despite heavy spending against them by a group that saw them as part of the "emergency" facing the nation of Israel.
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