Bill Kristol walked up to the debate podium prepared to lose the case for electing Mitt Romney, even before his opponent had uttered a single world.
Jewish voters are a historically Democratic voting bloc, and this election isn’t likely to buck that trend: They currently support Obama over Romney by 61-28 percent, with 11 percent undecided, as the AJC’s moderator told the packed ballroom on Friday morning at the debate between Kristol and Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.). But that’s not the only reason that Kristol might feel like he was on losing ground.
When it comes to foreign policy in the Middle East, there isn’t a yawning gap between the two parties, though Frank and Kristol both tried to make the case for their party’s defense of Israel. It’s domestic policy that truly separates them, and that’s the prevailing issue both for Jewish voters — 80 percent of whom list the economy as their primary concern — and those nationwide. And Kristol offered little to convince a heavily Democratic audience that Republicans would serve them best on the home front, harkening back to a more moderate version of the GOP that its right wing has since overshadowed.
Asked how the GOP could bring over more Jewish voters, Kristol tried to play up the Bush-era Republicans who supported immigration reform. “Has Obama advanced a responsible immigration agenda? Has he put his political capital on the line as President Bush and Senator McCain did in 2006, 2007?” he asked the audience. “That went down to an assault in both parties. but it’s labor that’s now the barrier to responsible immigration reform, more so than elements of the Republican Party.”
A cursory glance at Romney’s own position on immigration belies Kristol’s argument: He’s blasted “amnesty” in any form, attacking his GOP primary opponents for supporting a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants and allying himself with the authors of Arizona’s draconian immigration law. It’s true that labor unions have fought some of the guest-worker programs that big business wants to include in an immigration overhaul. But labor hasn’t gone so far as to block a comprehensive overhaul as a result, or to support the broad-scale crackdown on illegal immigration that the GOP is now demanding.
Frank, for his part, found Kristol’s take to be purely comical. “To be accused by Bill — speaking on behalf of Republicans — of an insufficient commitment to a rational immigration policy is like being called silly by the Three Stooges,” he retorted. “And I meant that with no disrespect” — he paused for effect — “to the Three Stooges.” (His father’s cousin is married to one of the members of the trio, Frank explained.)
The Massachusetts Democrat proceeded to blast Republicans for letting the extreme elements of the party take over its entire domestic agenda, attacking Paul Ryan’s budget for its spending cuts to Medicaid, Medicare, and other social programs while refusing to touch defense spending or consider any tax increases.
Kristol’s response? He shrugged his shoulders, then offered a passing defense of the Ryan budget. “It doesn’t cut Medicare or Medicaid — it reduces the rate of growth,” Kristol said. In other words, the sheer dollar amount spent on the programs wouldn’t go down. Frank quickly tore apart Kristol’s rationalization, pointing out that Ryan’s proposed cut would reduce per capita spending as more Americans will be qualified for both Medicare and Medicaid in the years ahead. And Kristol let the point go at that.
Kristol knew from the onset that he wasn’t going to convince a room full of Jewish voters to swing en masse for the Republican Party this year. But his attempt to defend the GOP revealed just how much the party’s center-right had been marginalized — and how much it’s boxed in Bush-era conservatives who continue to defend the party.
After the debate ended, I caught Kristol on his way out of the hotel. I asked him about the resignation of openly gay spokesman Richard Grenell from the Romney campaign, amid pressure from anti-gay factions of the GOP, which Frank had briefly mentioned during the event. Kristol pointed out that the Romney campaign had wanted him to say on, adding that no staffers he had personally spoken to “was moved by that pressure.”
“But what happened?” I asked Kristol, having read reports that the Romney campaign had muzzled Grenell amid anti-gay pushback from the religious right. “I have no inside knowledge, so you should do your own reporting on that,” he told me. Did he have any concerns that this faction in the GOP is still so vocal? “No,” Kristol replied, then got on the escalator out of the building before I could ask him anything further.