Friday, December 17, 2021

AIPAC Starts PACking

The big money story in politics this week, literally, is that the famed pro-Israel lobby group AIPAC is starting a PAC. If that doesn't seem like much of a story, AIPAC has, for its entire existence, not actually been formally involved in donating to political candidates. It's one of the reasons why the notion that it "bought" Congress is so offensive. While AIPAC certainly was valuable in introducing members of Congress to prospective donors, the new AIPAC PAC (yes, that's the name) will be the first time the organization itself donates directly.

Yet this is a fraught time for AIPAC to join the donation game. AIPAC's political engagement strategy for as long as I've remembered has been characterized by one major rule: talk to everyone. It wants a pleasant relationship with as many members of Congress as possible. To that end, it has not -- contra some assumptions -- been all that aggressive in enforcing a hard party line on Israel. This has frustrated Republicans who think AIPAC should serve as a right-wing attack dog. But it also has provided cover for AIPAC in not speaking out on plenty of right-wing heresies too.

All of this works primarily because, what the exception of its big conference bash, most of what AIPAC does is quiet and private -- the slow, boring, but fruitful work of building relationships whenever and wherever it can. And I can't help but think that right now is a very difficult model to adjust to making donations, where AIPAC will be quite publicly making some tough choices and will unavoidably have to get loud on them.

The JTA article on the AIPAC PAC suggests that it is actually meant to be a vehicle for AIPAC to show more support for Democrats it likes, to counter allegations that it has gotten too snuggly with the GOP. I support the ambition, but I think this is a terrible way to get there. The more obvious way for AIPAC to restore diminished luster amongst Democrats would be to actually, you know, show its teeth in supporting the elements of Israel policy that Democrats actually like, such as a two-state solution. If money is their strategy for regaining Democratic warm-feeling, that suggests they're looking for a route that doesn't involve them actually shifting policy in any way, and that's a strategy with a very limited shelf life.

And even if we take the money front in isolation, I think it's a tactic doomed to fail. Let's assume that AIPAC will be less heavy-handed and self-defeating in its political interventions than DMFI, because, well, who couldn't be? (Answer: possibly AIPAC) Even still, AIPAC was already doing a perfectly serviceable job of introducing new Democratic politicians to potential donors; it was fine in the role of intermediary. Going in directly and, well, one needn't overstate the toxicity of the AIPAC brand amongst Democrats to say that it certainly is a ripe target for attack in some wings of the Democratic coalition. We already see plenty of calls for Democrats to skip AIPAC's conference due to its right-wing priorities. A world in which AIPAC donates directly is a world where we're going to hear a lot more calls to "reject AIPAC money" (just like rejecting "fossil fuel money" or "gun lobby money"), and that's a fight that AIPAC loses just by having. Notice how it again largely traverses this debate in the status quo by serving as a connection point: saying "reject AIPAC money" is a lot easier and pithier and tractable than "reject Sue Lowenstein's money" where Sue is the local Jewish donor that nobody has ever heard of but whom AIPAC set up with the fresh-faced state senator running for a new House seat.

At the same time, wading directly into the domestic political fray poses problems for AIPAC on the GOP side of things too. Shortly after AIPAC's announcement, J Street issued a call to all Jewish and pro-Israel organizations to commit to not donating to any politician who refused to endorse the validity of the 2020 election results. Seems like a no-brainer and the obvious right decision -- and it is -- but that also covers nearly 150 Republican members of Congress, because, and I can't emphasize this enough, rejecting the basic operation of American democracy is the mainstream Republican position. Yet it'd be pretty tough for AIPAC to maintain its vaunted "bipartisan" credibility while disavowing the bulk of the GOP. Whereas before it could easily traverse this issue because it doesn't donate to candidates, now its ducking has to be far more out in the open. AIPAC thus far hasn't commented (no kidding), but we'll all see the list of candidates it selects to donate to sooner rather than later. The ducking can only last so long (and while I'm at it, kudos to J Street for a pretty savvy political squeeze play).

Obviously, we'll see how all this shakes out soon enough. But I'm skeptical this is going to turn out well for AIPAC. I'm on the record as saying AIPAC desperately needed to mend fences with the Democratic Party if it wants to stay relevant as a bipartisan actor. If this is their gambit for doing so, it leaves a lot to be desired. More direct money is no substitute for a robust, realistic policy vision that Democrats who care about both Israeli and Palestinian security, safety, and equality can get behind without embarrassment.

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