In today's hyper-partisan environment, it's like you can't hold a conference in the nation's capitol without things getting all...political.
A few supporters of the studiously bipartisan American Israel Public Affairs Committee gasped in shock this morning when they heard Sen. John McCain attack his likely general election challenger Sen. Barack Obama in a speech at the group's annual policy conference. "That was the first time I've heard anyone call out another candidate by name [here]," said Aliana Greenberg, a campus AIPAC delegate and repeat conference attendee from the University of Pennsylvania. Another campus delegate told The Huffington Post he heard rumblings that AIPAC staffers are now nervous about what Obama's reception will be like among those in the crowd who cheered McCain's sharp speech today.
Corey Metzmen, also representing Penn as a delegate to the conference, said he is leaning towards Obama, and was of the opinion that "it might have been better if he [McCain] had been more consistent with previous speeches [here]" and not mentioned his opponent directly.
But partisan concerns seemed to be seeping into several aspects of the pro-Israel group's conference -- so much so that a note of bipartisan calm chimed in from what some might consider an unlikely corner. In an afternoon breakout session featuring Weekly Standard editor (and New York Times op-ed page neocon) Bill Kristol, panelists were repeatedly asked to divine the candidates' views on the Middle East by looking at their respective advisers.
Both Kristol and his Democratic counterpart Ambassador Marc Greenberg were at pains to remind their audience that they weren't official representatives for the candidates. Kristol eventually even found himself in the position of defending Obama's national security bona fides relative to past Democratic candidates. Comparing the policy gulf that separates Obama and McCain to national security differences between the two major parties in past cycles, Kristol told the crowd:
"There are actually no disputes of that nature...with the exception of Iraq this time. Obama's not for cutting the defense budget; Obama's not for pulling troops back from our forward positions around the world, with the exception of Iraq. Obama and McCain don't actually differ, at least on paper, even on Iran, where they're arguing about whether they would talk to [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad or not -- and I think that's an important dispute. Still, at the end of the day, Obama doesn't say he would rule out the use of force. McCain certainly is committed as he said this morning to trying to increase economic pressure on Iran, which Obama has also talked about."
Of course there have been differences between the two candidates. Kristol brushed aside perhaps the greatest one: whether or not lowering the bar for diplomatic engagement might prove a tactical benefit for U.S. foreign policy. But beyond that, Obama opposed the recent Kyl-Lieberman amendment, which would have designated the Iranian Revolutionary Guard a terrorist organization. While Obama says he shares that opinion of the group with McCain and others, he instead prefers a less deliberately bellicose approach to international relations.
But given the fact that some Obama opponents seem to believe his views are frighteningly distant from the mainstream, it was interesting to hear someone of Kristol's stature on the right make the case that the Illinois Democrat's differences from McCain are ones of degree and not kind.
Which is why Obama probably won't need to respond in explicit fashion to McCain's speech when he takes to AIPAC's stage on Wednesday. The group's campus delegates who spoke to The Huffington Post all agreed that the worst thing Obama could do would be to pander. "The fact of the matter is he's said everything right," one delegate admitted, suggesting all that remains is for the audience to believe what they hear.