Wednesday, August 03, 2022

Assessing AIPAC's Victories

Last night, Rep. Haley Stevens soundly defeated fellow incumbent Rep. Andy Levin in a D-on-D Michigan primary matchup. The race drew significant attention in the Jewish community because of the gobs of money AIPAC spent seeking to oust Levin and support Stevens. Levin earned AIPAC's ire because he is a vigorous proponent of America taking more robust steps to protect a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine -- including steps which entail places checks on Israeli government policies which place that solution in jeopardy. While I endorsed Levin, I want to be clear that I harbor no ill-will towards Haley Stevens, whom I also like and have zero qualms supporting in the 2022 general.

In any event, as the primary season nears its conclusion, it is fair to say that AIPAC's initial foray into direct candidate advocacy has been relatively successful. So far, it has notched ten victories against two defeats in the Democratic primaries it has substantially invested in. To be fair, that figure is a bit misleading, as in many of the races AIPAC either was backing a candidate who already came in as a favorite, or were in relatively low-salience open-seat races where AIPAC's firehose of cash swamped the field. For example, Stevens entered the race against Levin as the substantial favorite -- more of her old turf than Levin's was placed in the new district they both ran in, and she is generally regarded as a better and more natural campaigner than Levin. Indeed, my hot take was that Stevens probably would've bested Levin even without AIPAC's giant cash infusion. But certainly, AIPAC probably is relatively happy with its performance thus far.

What AIPAC bought with its investment into the Stevens campaign was the ability to write a narrative. It's hoping the political message taken from Stevens' victory includes lessons like "pro-Israel is good politics" or "supporting conditioning aid on Israel is a sucker's bet in Democratic politics." Needless to say, AIPAC's critics are hard at work resisting these narratives and trying to spin out others of their own ("AIPAC is a vector for letting GOP billionaires take over Democratic politics"). Meanwhile, as in nearly all races of this sort, the national attention on the race (centered on Israel/Palestine) almost certainly had relatively little impact on the local considerations that drive votes one way or another. At the end of the day, Stevens won her old turf, Levin won his old turf, but the new portions of the districts, formerly represented by Rep. Brenda Lawrence, went to Stevens -- who had Lawrence's endorsement. The actual lessons may not be much more complicated than that.

I want to do my best to separate wheat from chaff here. There are lessons to be drawn from AIPAC's victories this primary season. Though not every ecstatic claim of AIPAC supporters can be borne out, they have proven some lessons true.

At the most basic level, AIPAC's argument is that its primary victories show that Democratic voters support its version of "pro-Israel" politics. Yet this, I will suggest, remains unproven. As much as it has spent on these races, AIPAC has been notorious for virtually never speaking about Israel or Israel-policy in its advertisements or promotions of its preferred candidates. This suggests that it doesn't think that issue is necessarily a winner for them.

However, it does seem true that running against AIPAC's policies is not a winning strategy in most Democratic primaries. This is, perhaps, another "Twitter is not real-life" lesson -- the excitement and enthusiasm one sees online for a candidate who "stands up to the Israel Lobby" is not reflected in on-the-ground political performance. While it's unclear that voters affirmatively value AIPAC-style "pro-Israel" politics, it's quite evident that they don't find even Levin-style two-stateism to be a major political motivator. Similarly, it seems pretty clear that -- as of right now at least -- AIPAC has not faced any substantial backlash from Democratic voters for backing insurrectionist Republicans. A Democratic candidate who is viewed as "the pro-life candidate" is toxic in a 2022 Democratic primary. A Democratic candidate who is viewed as "the AIPAC candidate" isn't. This might change over time -- I suspect there is quite a bit of festering ill-will towards AIPAC amongst many Democratic Party actors that is waiting for an opportunity to burst forth -- but right now, AIPAC's position is secure.

It's also worth noting, in the context of right-wing Jews crowing about Levin's defeat to Stevens, that AIPAC's success does seem to decisively falsify the alarmist and opportunist narrative that the Democratic Party is being "taken over" by anti-Israel forces, that such positions are the new normal or mainstream in Democratic political life, and so on. To be clear, I find it repulsive to argue that Andy Levin in any way represents an "anti-Israel" position. But the point is one cannot simultaneously promote all of AIPAC's successes in Democratic primaries while also saying that the true soul of the Democratic Party is irreducibly hostile to Israel.

I also do think it's fair to say that AIPAC has reestablished some of its perhaps decayed deterrent effect. Democrats know that if they get on AIPAC's bad side, it can and will dump vast sums of money into ousting them from office. And by the same token, if they play ball with AIPAC they can access those same sums for themselves. That's a powerful inducement.

That said, the question of how AIPAC's interventions will affect political decision-making by prospective Democratic politicians on Israel is more complicated than might appear at first blush. I do think that, on average, a lesson that will be learned by many mainstream Democrats is "don't get on AIPAC's bad side", and to that end will result in more Democrats taking up AIPAC-friendly positions. Those positions include nominal support for a two-state solution -- AIPAC does that too -- so long as that support doesn't take the form of ever asking for any pressure on Israel or demands that America use its leverage to pushback against Israeli decisions that are destructive to the possibility of eventually establishing a Palestinian state. However, I also think that AIPAC has also paradoxically opened space for at least some Democrats to be more radical on the issue -- for example, in endorsing one-statism* -- because they'll internalize the lesson that more "moderate" approaches like Levin's robust two-stateism don't offer any political advantage.

Let's simplify potential Democratic Israel positions into three categories: (1) AIPAC-style status quo (represented by someone like Stevens), (2) The Andy Levin or J Street style two-stateism , or (3) Rashida Tlaib style one-stateism. Of course, some politicians have very strong feelings on this question and will choose based on those deeply-felt sentiments. However, my core model assumes that most politicians don't have hard-and-fast policy preferences on most issues. Rather, on most issues beyond the rarefied few they care deeply about, they will choose the political path-of-least-resistance amongst the set of choices which meet their basic criteria of moral tolerability, even if a different choice might be closer to their ideal ideological preference. So if we imagine a politician who really doesn't care one way or another about Israel/Palestine -- they are at least not repelled by any of the three forms of Israel positions above -- they won't adopt the position they "believe in" the most, they'll pick the position that is politically easiest and least likely to generate controversy or backlash. AIPAC's victories have strongly suggested that, in many contexts, that would be position #1 -- even in Democratic primaries. And to that extent, AIPAC probably will succeed in moving the Democratic needle towards its preferences.

However, we can also imagine a different sort of potential progressive candidate, one who does not find AIPAC-style status quo advocacy to be morally tolerable. For this candidate, the two viable choices for their Israel/Palestine positions are categories #2 and #3. Historically, many would have picked door #2, again, because it's the path of political least resistance. Indeed, if such a candidate a few years ago had asked me for advice -- had said that they had serious concerns about Israel's behavior and they simply couldn't endorse a position of total and unconditional support -- I'd have told them that, so long as they supported two states and opposed BDS, they'd probably be okay. They wouldn't necessarily be endeared to AIPAC or other like actors, but they wouldn't be seen as beyond the pale either. But endorse BDS, or oppose Israel's existence outright, and the full sound and fury would fall onto them.

But now AIPAC may have changed the calculus. By going scorched earth on Levin, it sends the message that it views categories #2 and #3 as equally destructive. Suddenly, door #2 is not a political "path of least resistance" compared to door #3. And if they're both going to bring AIPAC's full fury down upon the candidate, well, at that point you might as well choose based on your ideological preference. Some of these candidates, will sincerely prefer robust two-stateism over one-stateism (that characterizes me, for instance), so their behavior shouldn't change. But some will no doubt prefer one-stateism, and lacking any political rationale for tacking towards the center, they won't do it anymore.

I worry that this might be the lesson people draw from the Donna Edwards/Glenn Ivey race -- another where AIPAC dumped massive sums of money into the contest. Again, all politics is local and Ivey's victory likely reflects factors that overwhelmingly have nothing to do with AIPAC or Israel. But if one looks at Edwards' trajectory entering this race, and in particular how she tried to heal old suspicions held by Maryland's Jewish voters, it seems hard to argue that she is now (if she ever was) some sort of anti-Israel firebreather. She was never going to be AIPAC's poster girl, but she made a concerted effort to pinch towards the center and assuage Jewish concerns about her record. The result was less than nothing -- AIPAC spends eight figures on sinking her career. To be clear: I have no reason to think that Edwards' moves were anything other than sincere, or that she secretly harbors one-state sympathies. Nonetheless, there absolutely will be other politicians in Edwards' position who may decide "why bother?" There's no sense going through all this effort to listen and grow and build bridges and try and find common ground if they're going to go scorched earth regardless.

In short: there is likely a set of candidates who (a) find both one-stateism and robust two-stateism tolerable, (b) marginally prefer one-stateism over robust two-stateism, (c) would nonetheless back robust two-stateism if that was the path of political least resistance. If robust two-stateism no longer offers any political advantage, they're likely to begin promoting one-stateism. To be clear, these candidates are still likely to lose. AIPAC's hammer puts them at a decided disadvantage. But their logic will be "I'm likely to lose either way, so I might as well swing for the fences." Indeed, there's not just a moral but an instrumental logic here. Consider two strategies: One will have you lose by 10 points in 10/10 races. The second will have you lose by 30 points in 9/10 races, and win by 2 points in the tenth. The rational political actor should choose the second strategy, even if it is objectively less popular (a point I've made regarding the future of BDS in Democratic Party politics)!

Paradoxically, AIPAC may encourage some number of Democratic candidates in the more liberal tranche of the party to start supporting a one-state solution who otherwise would not have done so. And the odds are some of them will end up prevailing in their races (if only because of idiosyncratic local factors). There's a real chance that an upshot of AIPAC's intervention will be to strengthen the political power of the one-state caucus -- not because of some political backlash, but based on how it has altered the political calculus amongst more progressive-minded actors. In many ways, it is J Street that is more of a loser than AIPAC is a winner, and I expect J Street's influence to bleed out not just towards AIPAC, but also towards more radical and uncompromising anti-Israel actors and the far-left. For someone with my politics, that is perhaps the most depressing lesson of all.

So to sum up, here are the lessons I think can be validly drawn from AIPAC's performance this election cycle:

(1) While it isn't demonstrated that Democratic voters support AIPAC's brand of "pro-Israel" policies, it does seem clear that they aren't especially moved or motivated by major alternatives. The political energy behind any alternative to what AIPAC pushes -- whether it's Levin's robust two-state Zionism or explicit non- or anti-Zionist positions -- is vastly exaggerated and isn't translating to on-the-ground political power.

(2) AIPAC, and its affiliates, are not toxic brands in Democratic primaries.

(3) The Democratic Party, including its base, are not "anti-Israel" or sympathetic to "anti-Israel" positions in any meaningful respect.

(4) AIPAC has restored some "deterrent effect" against Democrats who might consider crossing them, at least in circumstances where the Democrat has other political vulnerabilities that can be leveraged (such as after redistricting). Likewise, AIPAC has credibly indicated it can and will substantially invest to support Democrats whom it feels favorable towards.

(5) The average Democratic politician who is not substantially invested in Israel/Palestine as an issue will likely move their position marginally closer to AIPAC's as "political path of least resistance".

(6) Left-wing Democrats who are sympathetic to one-stateism or other more radical anti-Israel positions, but who had been hewing to more J Street style stances because they thought they'd be more politically palatable, may reassess the utility of relative moderation and become more open in their anti-Israel declarations.

* Not the apartheid one-statism where Israel controls the entire territory and Palestinians are perpetual second-class citizens -- AIPAC is clearly fine with that.