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A Guide for the Politically Perplexed

Binyamin Rose, Washington, D.C.

Has Donald Trump’s unexpected ascendancy rewritten the political playbook? Democrat Steve Rabinowitz and Republican Tevi Troy share a lively discussion in Washington

Wednesday, April 05, 2017

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BIPARTISAN DAVENING “So far, there’s only one guy in my minyan who now stays seated during the prayer for the government,” Steve says. “I thought it might be a trend, but so far, there’s only one. I considered being the next guy, but then, boom, before I knew it, it was my kid’s bar mitzvah, and I thought it would be tacky for me to sit during the prayer for our country during my own kid’s bar mitzvah. So I’m still working through that issue” (Photos: Eli Greengart, AFP/ImageBank)

D onald Trump’s unexpected ascendancy to the White House has rewritten the political playbook and put old assumptions up for debate. For the Jewish voter, too, these are unsteady times. Longtime Democrats found themselves voting for a populist Republican, while moderate Republicans may have pulled the liberal lever.

To claw our way through the political muddy waters, we invited two seasoned political pros, a Democrat and a Republican, Steve Rabinowitz and Tevi Troy, for a lively discussion in Washington. We asked them about the wild, unlikely election of 2016, what comes next for the two major political parties, and where the Jewish voter and Israel might find themselves four years from now.

Tevi Troy is the president of the American Health Policy Institute, and a former deputy secretary of the US Department of Health and Human Services, but he is perhaps remembered best among Jewish voters as the White House Jewish liaison for President George W. Bush. In 2012, he was a special policy advisor to the Mitt Romney presidential campaign and served as director of domestic policy for the Romney transition team. He is also the author of the best-selling book, What Jefferson Read, Ike Watched, and Obama Tweeted: 200 Years of Popular Culture in the White House. He is a frequent television and radio analyst, and has appeared on Bloomberg, CNBC, CNN, Fox News, Fox Business, and The News Hour, among other outlets.

Steve Rabinowitz is president and cofounder of Bluelight Strategies. A seasoned media consultant, publicist, and political event planner, Steve has worked on the national staffs of nine US presidential campaigns, and served former president Bill Clinton as White House director of design and production. In that role, he created and produced all the president’s public events in Washington and oversaw domestic and foreign press coverage of presidential events around the world, including media logistics for the Arava peace treaty signing between Israel and Jordan. In addition, Steve has frequently lectured and trained for such organizations as the Democratic National Committee, as well as other progressive groups and corporate America, often speaking on media and American political campaigns and on the staging of effective media events.

NOW THAT THE DUST HAS SETTLED… Tevi, you wrote an article a few weeks ago titled “How Trump Split Conservatives Three Ways,” in which you argued that we are seeing a new divide in American political philosophy take shape. But I’m going to pose my question to both of you. Is Donald Trump an anomaly? Or have we entered an era in which the cult of personality will play the most prominent role in campaigns, and therefore, we should expect more celebrity candidates in the future?

I don’t think this whole political celebrity thing is going to be a common thing going forward. I think Trump has some unique characteristics. Now I don’t think Trump is Reaganesque in terms of character or policy, but he’s like Reagan in that he built a lot of familiarity with the American people via his multiple media appearances over the years. If you go back and look at family movies from 25 years ago, you’ll see Trump making a cameo appearance. And there’s a whole list of Trump clips at the Washington Post website that shows all the different times he’s appeared on TV.

“Now, while we’re talking about how the Republican Party is the more pro-Israel party, and I believe it is, it wasn’t always the case,” admits Tevi. “In the ’50s, Eisenhower wasn’t so pro-Israel. There are some changes that happened in the ’70s and in the ’80s, when Israel became more of a popular issue among Republican voters”

So he had built familiarity with the American public, but he also had established success in another field. Reagan was an actor who was familiar with the American public, but he also ran the Screen Actors Guild, and then was governor of California. So I don’t think some famous movie star should say, “I can run just because I’m famous.” I think you have to have fame, familiarity, plus this success in another field.

Steve: We’ve had — besides Reagan, who is obviously the most famous — Jesse Ventura, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and actors who’ve been congressmen and senators. But I’m not sure it’s a trend. In the past, we’ve had famous athletes who were very, very successful politicians, for instance Bill Bradley and Mo Udall, who were both basketball players.

But I also don’t think it’s a trend. And in almost none of their cases were any of them Trump-like. Maybe Jesse Ventura, the slightest bit, maybe. I think — and I’m guessing Tevi thinks this — that Trump’s thing was much, much more in a populist vein than a celebrity vein. And that that’s what we’re seeing now, and what we’re going to see a lot more of in the future. We’re going to see a lot more populism — fake populism.

Steve, do you think Trump is fake populism? He got 63 million votes!


Steve: Well, if it works, it works.

Tevi: I think all populism may be fake populism.

Steve: Kind of an oxymoron.

Tevi: Right, it’s some kind of elitist, or other, person who tries to appeal to voters by saying, “I’m just like you.” Bernie Sanders is another form of populism on the left. The guy has been a senator for decades, but he’s still a populist.

Besides being populist, some people have tagged both Trump and Sanders as demagogues. Trump isn’t a true Republican, and Sanders isn’t a true Democrat either. Do each of them represent the start of a new third party, namely, the Demagogue Party?

Tevi: I don’t think so. I think Trump has demagogue-like tendencies and was able to capture the Republican Party, but I don’t think that makes it the Demagogue Party. I think successful candidates are able to capture their party, and you see this more in the US system than in, let’s say, a parliamentary system, because in the US, you have a party structure and party ideology, and to some extent the party ideology is up for grabs every four years when you have someone trying to capture the mantle. And that’s why there’s so much resistance to Trump from the conservatives who had defined the party for so many years. They felt uncomfortable with this guy taking on the mantle of the Republican Party when there was a feeling that he was deviating from traditional conservative positions.

Steve, in a sense, the Democrats experienced the same phenomenon this year with Bernie Sanders, who serves as an independent. He’s certainly not the old middle-of-the-road Democrat like Hubert Humphrey or Scoop Jackson, and he came pretty close to winning.

Tevi: Where have those guys gone, Steve? I miss them.

Steve: Yeah, I know. I grew up in a [Adlai] Stevenson-Humphrey household. I think those types of Democrats became independents. The same thing happened to Rockefeller and Javits Republicans, who also disappeared. But we continue to have a system where primaries are, for the most part, dominated mostly by a party’s left or right, while general elections are dominated by the center. And while that doesn’t make for great nominating processes, it’s a little bit of a conundrum that I think will remain with us going forward.

Look, Bernie Sanders ran a totally legit campaign. Very energized. Good for him. The fact that he’s never been a Democrat but chose to run as a Democrat — he gets to do that.

For the Republicans, I think the lesson learned is that they didn’t see Trump coming until it was too late. The vast majority of the party regrets it, certainly the party leadership tremendously regrets it. I’ll let Tevi speak for that more than myself. But look, my candidate [Hillary Clinton] was a flawed candidate too. As much as I love her personally, and would trade presidents in a second, neither was a perfect candidate. There will be a lot to be learned from it, but I don’t think the party structure will change at all, for a million reasons — for sure not for the reason we are discussing. It’ll be business as usual.

Tevi: I agree that going forward it probably is business as usual, but it does raise a question. The thought among Republicans before the election was that Hillary Clinton was a flawed candidate and any generic Republican could defeat her. People like John Kasich or Marco Rubio, et cetera. After the election, when you see where Trump got his votes, I almost started to think that maybe only Trump could have defeated her, given the way he was able to win the white working class vote in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin. Steve, what do you think of that? Do you think Trump was the only one who could have beaten her?

Steve: Clearly, he had a unique campaign. He got votes that it’s hard to imagine any other Republican could have gotten. It was a crazy time where clearly voters wanted something different. But only Trump was saying it. Hillary wasn’t saying it. None of the other Republicans really were saying it. Maybe Bernie Sanders was kind of saying it. Maybe Rand Paul was saying it. But nobody who had any chance of being nominated was saying it.

Tevi: I’m good friends with John Dilulio, who is a political science professor and an Italian Catholic Democrat from the Philadelphia area. He told me that generally he gets ribbing from his relatives because he’s a Democrat. They say, “Oh, you vote Democrat.” But this time there was actual anger, like, “Why are you voting for the Democrat? Trump is our guy.” And he said he had six relatives who came up to him who said that they are registering to vote and voting for Trump this time when they’ve never voted before. So Trump clearly was able to find these certain voters who just weren’t showing up in elections before, and weren’t counted as part of our statistical models. (Excerpted from Mishpacha, Issue 655)

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