J Street and the 2016 Election


The 2016 election presents a unique opportunity for the pro-Israel, pro-peace movement to show that diplomacy is not only sound policy, but also good politics. See our memo about JStreetPAC’s plans to go on the offense this election cycle below.

The Context:

National security and foreign policy are poised to play a more central role in this November’s election than in any election since 2004. Voters are anxious for candidates to convey their vision for safeguarding the United States and its interests abroad in an increasingly unpredictable global context.

Against this backdrop, far right candidates have seized on voters’ anxieties to advocate for increased military engagement in the Middle East. This familiar saber rattling has become entwined with an outright Islamophobia among a subset of presidential candidates to take our political discourse to a dangerous new low. Top tier candidates are threatening to ban Muslims from the United States, and carpet bomb Middle Eastern countries to find out if “sand can glow in the dark,” while in the next breath assailing the Iran nuclear deal and promising to tear it up on their first day in office.

The good news is that these ugly appeals to voters’ sense of insecurity miss the mark. Majorities of American voters, while concerned about our nation’s safety, remain wary of war and hungry for principled and effective alternatives. In fact, the hard-nosed brand of diplomatic engagement that produced the Iran nuclear deal represents the perfect political foil to the militaristic rhetoric emanating from the far right.

In this political environment, advocates of a diplomacy-first foreign policy must go on the offense. We must proactively highlight the Iran nuclear deal as an example of how principled engagement can serve to safeguard our national security. Doing so will not only prove politically advantageous in 2016, but will also broadcast for election cycles to come that exhausting diplomatic avenues before engaging militarily is not just sound policy, but also savvy politics.

J Street is perfectly positioned to play a defining role in this conversation.

The Opportunity:

The fight in Washington over the Iran nuclear deal was the most significant foreign policy debate since the decision to go to war in Iraq. The deal tests the premise that seemingly intractable conflicts with other nations can be settled through tough diplomacy and non-military means.

At the center of the opposition to President Obama’s approach to Iran stand several forces: the Netanyahu-led government of Israel, neo-conservative think tanks and media, and the most hawkish and powerful lobbies of the established American Jewish community.

For decades, it has been an unwritten rule of American politics that it is not wise to take on these forces because they are bound to win and are adept at inflicting political costs. Disproving this notion would have lasting ramifications – far beyond the current deal at hand.

J Street succeeded in demonstrating that these groups are not inherently bound to win in the policy arena when we played a defining role in ensuring the Iran deal survived congressional review, despite being outspent twenty-to-one. Now, by going on the offense against deal detractors and having the backs of deal proponents in November, we can prove that effective diplomacy is politically advantageous as well. Doing so will ensure that the next time policymakers are asked to take similar action – whether it’s implementing this deal or backing leadership towards two states – they will be more likely to act.

And, the fact that national security is top of mind for voters and far right candidates continue to employ the same chest beating rhetoric on the campaign trail that they used in their effort to obstruct the Iran deal, provides the ideal political environment to make this pro-diplomacy case.

As such, J Street plans to scale up our election year activities in 2016 to seize this unparalleled opportunity to change the political conversation on Middle East diplomacy for years to come. In fact, we’ve been growing to meet a challenge exactly like this since our founding in 2008. JStreetPAC has now been the largest pro-Israel political action committee (PAC) in the country for three consecutive election cycles. In 2014, JStreetPAC contributed more money to Democratic candidates than the other 30+ pro-Israel PACs combined. We raised $2.4 million for 95 endorsees, and 92% of our endorsed incumbents won reelection.

In short, over the last four election cycles JStreetPAC has succeeded in demonstrating the depth and breadth of political support that exists for pro-Israel, pro-peace candidates. In 2016 we will go one step further. We will seize on the political salience of national security — and the substantive contrast between the hard-nosed diplomacy that produced the Iran deal and the war mongering rhetoric polluting the 2016 campaign trail — to go on the offense and demonstrate the political costs associated with veering too far to the right on foreign policy.

The Plan:

This will be the cycle that we rewrite the political playbook and prove, once and for all, that a diplomacy-first approach to foreign policy is good politics and prioritizing military intervention is bad politics. Here’s how we’re going to do it:

  • We will continue to grow our political operation. JStreetPAC will raise significantly more money for candidates than we have in prior cycles. We are projecting a sum of $3 million for our endorsees this cycle, which would represent 25% growth over our 2014 fundraising total. We also plan to endorse 110+ candidates for federal office in 2016, more than any prior cycle, evidence of the degree to which candidates now feel incentivized to align with our movement.
  • We will make the Iran deal a defining campaign issue. With national security set to be a top voting issue, we will ensure that voters are aware of which candidates prioritized tough diplomacy to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon and which candidates obstructed such diplomacy:
    • We will go on the offense in key races. A number of high-profile detractors of the Iran deal have established hawkish track records that are inconsistent with the mainstream sentiments of their constituents, particularly in an election year where foreign policy will play an outsized role. In such cases, we will pursue an aggressive offensive strategy to promote such candidates’ pro-diplomacy opponents.
    • The Illinois and Wisconsin Senate races will, therefore, be our top priorities this cycle. Sens. Mark Kirk (IL) and Ron Johnson (WI) both signed Sen. Tom Cotton’s (AR) letter to the ayatollahs undermining President Obama’s leadership in preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. They have also, at various points, employed similarly offensive saber rattling rhetoric to that currently emanating from far right presidential candidates. Meanwhile, former Sen. Russ Feingold (WI), Johnson’s opponent, and Rep. Tammy Duckworth (IL), Kirk’s likely opponent, are both stalwart diplomacy-first leaders. Duckworth is a military veteran who was wounded in combat and Feingold, himself a Reform Jew, established a track record in the Senate of advocating for diplomatic means of advancing the interests of the U.S. and Israel. Both have a profound understanding of what is at stake with regards to the U.S. role in the Middle East this election cycle. Their personal stories and command of these issues contrast dramatically with the records and worldviews of Kirk and Johnson.
    • By prioritizing the Senate races in Illinois and Wisconsin, we will prove that supporting a diplomacy-first foreign policy is politically beneficial and undermining diplomacy is politically costly.
    • We will defend key champions. Some supporters of the Iran deal have already come under attack on the airwaves for their principled leadership. As foreign policy continues to scale voters’ list of priorities, we are prepared for such attacks to intensify. In the course of going on the offense against detractors of diplomacy, we will also ensure that those candidates who come under attack for standing with the majority of Americans in favor of prioritizing principled diplomatic engagement over war are supported politically.

The Bottom Line:

In sum, 2016 is poised to be the first “foreign policy election” since J Street’s founding. The political capital that our movement has accrued since 2008, combined with the contrast in worldviews of those candidates advocating for the brand of hard-nosed diplomacy that produced the Iran deal and those choosing instead to fear monger and saber rattle, positions J Street perfectly to seize on the salience of national security in 2016 to send the message – once and for all – that prioritizing diplomacy is not just sound policy, but also savvy politics.

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