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To be a Jewish Democrat: IJN exclusive roundtable

Michael HuttnerA fair warning to all Republicans, conservatives, libertarians and other detractors of the Democratic Party: This is an article exclusively of and about Democrats.

The reason for such gross imbalance, however unusual it may seem, should be obvious. As virtually everyone in Colorado already knows, next week the Democratic National Convention will be storming to town, intent on formally nominating its “presumptive” presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama, not to mention kicking off the critical autumn phase of the campaign.

And whether Denver and Colorado ultimately turn out to be dominated by blue, red or purple voters, for four days in late August, Denver is going to be an exclusively, and perhaps spectacularly, Democratic place.

In recognition of that inescapable fact, the Intermountain Jewish News decided to host a discussion of local Jewish Democrats.

Three high-profile Dems were asked to discuss any number of topics related to the DNC, Obama and the state of the Democratic Party as it seeks to regain the White House, some of it, at least, approached from Jewish perspectives.

Joining us on July 31 for a roundtable discussion were Senator Ken Gordon of the Colorado Senate; House Speaker Andrew Romanoff of the Colorado House of Representatives; and Michael Huttner, founder and executive director of the political action group ProgressNow.

Both Gordon and Romanoff, due to term limits, are in their twilight months as active members of the State Legislature.

Gordon has recently been chosen to lead the Colorado Election Reform Commission, a panel set up to study Colorado voting systems. The Capitol Hill rumor mill is consistently putting up his name as a possible future secretary of state.

Romanoff is spearheading the Savings Account for Education initiative, or SAFE, which would allow the state to bypass TABOR restrictions and keep tax revenue it raises without increasing taxes.

When asked for more details about his future, Romanoff would disclose nothing more than his plans for a trip to Disneyland.

Huttner, a former attorney, plans to remain the primary force behind ProgressNow, which he founded in 2002.

The liberal clearing house and activist network plans to stay very busy during the DNC, including serving as a host for the huge contingent of bloggers and online journalists expected in Denver.

For those who prefer a more Republican flavor in their cup of tea, the hard fact is that all the GOP action will be taking place in that other city in that other state, far away to the east.

As for Democrats and Denver, well, it’s their party.

Is there a strong feeling of impending victory, or of inevitability, among Democrats this year, and do you think that such over-confidence is dangerous at this stage of a campaign?

GORDON — “I don’t think Democrats are complacent. People in the party are working hard and they know that even though it’s a good Democratic year, all that means is that if they work really hard we can win some elections.”

ROMANOFF — “I agree with Ken on this point. People have memories of the last couple of cycles — 2000 and 2004 — points in the summer when the Democratic candidate was up. I think our team is much more energized than they were before. I feel like we’re more energized than the other team.

“I think all the external forces will be on our side so the wind’s at our back, but the outcome is not, to me, a given.”

GORDON — “Andrew makes a good point. I thought we were going to win in 2004.”

ROMANOFF — “I think we did win in 2004!”

HUTTNER — “I think we’ve learned our lesson in 2000, and certainly in 2004, that we could lose this. I think that with Obama being new and not everybody fully knowing what he’s about — and with the race question coming up — we really don’t know what’s going to happen. One is the race issue, one is McCain’s age and the other is McCain’s ties to a failed administration.

“I think all those could go any which way. I think people are probably more fired up than I’ve ever seen them in my lifetime, but I don’t think we can take anything for granted. I think the Democrats know that what happens in November is not a done deal.”

GORDON — “What people need to understand is that even though they might think of McCain as a maverick or somebody who’s not really tied in with Republican policies, there’s no cadre of Republican thought people or potential cabinet members that are like that. So McCain will take his people from the people who have been in previous Republican administrations and they will be setting most of the agenda and doing most of the work, even though on a few issues McCain might think a little differently. One person doesn’t run the country.”

Recently, McCain released an ad comparing Britney Spears and Paris Hilton to Barack Obama, which might indicate a below-the-belt campaign.

GORDON — “I think the American people are tired of that. They want someone who doesn’t think that the way to win is to divide us and make everybody angry and conflicted.”

HUTTNER — “I agree that the American people are sick of it, and partisan politics is at an all-time low when you see any kind of public survey. But having said that, I don’t underestimate it. As much as everybody says they hate negative ads, they do work. Just because people say they’re sick of it doesn’t translate that negative campaigning never works. There are plenty of negative campaigns going on. In 2004, the Swift boat ads were very effective, even though very negative.”

GORDON — “Yeah, and the Adams-Jefferson race was pretty negative too.” (laughter)

ROMANOFF — “I think it’s silly. The worst thing they can think of is that Barack is too famous?”

HUTTNER — “The qualitative difference this year, and I think for the better for us, is that Obama’s campaign has sent a pretty strong message to shut down all 527 activity. McCain has not. McCain may not do this but he hasn’t sent out the kind of message that Obama’s campaign has sent out, which is we don’t want any 527 activity. So you’re going to see institutional groups — probably oil and gas, tobacco, the vested financial interests that don’t want to see any change — setting up these 527s to go after Obama.”

ROMANOFF — “There was a good response, I think, of the Obama campaign to this ad that you’re talking about. The American people want a serious campaign about important issues and they thought John McCain did, too. I don’t think they appreciate that McCain would stoop to that level and question Obama’s patriotism.”

There’s a strong sense of progressive destiny in this campaign, a lot of déjà vu about John and Bobby Kennedy, flashbacks on the 60s. Are you feeling those emotions yourselves, and are you completely comfortable with them?

GORDON — “There’s nothing negative about this. What it means is that a lot of people hear Obama speak and hear his thoughts and say, ‘I want to support somebody who has those ideas and can articulate them well.’ What the McCain campaign is doing is taking something that’s obviously a negative to them — which is that somebody is attracting a lot of support — and using it against Obama.”

ROMANOFF — “They’re taking their opponent’s strength and trying to turn it into a weakness. Karl Rove didn’t invent that strategy. It’s been around for several hundred years. I think if all Obama had were a charismatic personality or good oratorical skills and nothing else, then you wouldn’t have seen him sweeping the country in the primaries. But as it turns out, there is substance and intelligence and a platform that resonates with people on issues they care about. There’s actually a substructure of policy there.”

HUTTNER — “Both in our country and now overseas, the qualitative difference is that often times [Obama] can’t even find venues that can get all the people in. Here in Denver is a perfect example. He’s probably the first candidate to use that kind of stadium since JFK.

“On the other hand, when McCain came here just about a month ago to Denver, they had a meeting at the DU Business School but they couldn’t even fill up the main auditorium so they switched it to a smaller room.

“When they come to Denver, McCain gets 100 or maybe 200 people and Obama gets into the tens of thousands. And that’s not just in Colorado.

“The Republicans are all over the place on McCain. The religious right is now trying to get him to make certain compromises. The oil and gas money is really trying to work with McCain. He’s actually selling out to a lot of interests that he initially was known to be more independent on.”

How is the Democratic Party of 2008 different — and better — than it was in 2004, and what do you think is the most important ingredient for a Democratic victory in November?

Ken GordonGORDON — “An important part of it is Obama’s message that we’re all in this together, because campaigns in the past got very divisive. Republican campaigns, and probably some of the Democratic campaigns too, had become very [centered on] let’s see how we get to 50% plus one and then take positions that 50% plus one support and we don’t care about the 49%. You can win an election like that; you just can’t govern after you win the election and you’re making a weaker society. We’re stronger when we work together.

“I think that’s probably the key to Obama’s difference. I hope that other Democrats understand that and are not that negative in this campaign. I’ve always said that although we’ve got the majority now in Colorado, about half the people in the state still voted for the other party and we represent them, too. I hope that if as a party we can remember that, we’ll have a durable majority rather than a short-lived one.”

ROMANOFF — “One difference is this excitement that has captivated lots of corners of the state and the country, putting Obama in a position where he can now compete in states where we could never contend before. Part of it is Governor Dean’s 50-state strategy. I don’t think it’s just a ruse, but genuine efforts in parts of the state and country that you wouldn’t expect. And it’s a product both of a very skilled campaign operation and also some organic movement.

“I went to a house party in Denver about a month ago, one of thousands across the country. It was publicized partly by Internet and partly by word of mouth. All these neighbors crowded into somebody’s backyard, and backyards like it across the nation. And then about 100 people showed up at this Obama ‘idea raiser,’ instead of a fundraiser, in Windsor, to talk about new energy policy. Genuinely grassroots.”

HUTTNER — “One is the 50-state strategy, which is a credit to Dean and others who really started that about four years ago. They’re organizing and having an office that really tries to get the grassroots together in every single state. It’s not just Ohio and Florida.

“The other strategy is the use of technology where I think progressives do have a lead on the right, for a number of reasons. In short, you’re able — inexpensively, quickly and effectively — to communicate with people.

“The change you’re seeing between four years ago and now is that it used to be sort of a one-to-many model. We had a few people who would blast out an email. Obama’s campaign and other efforts on the Internet are allowing people to self-organize. They’re actually contacting their friends and neighbors and generating their own meetings. And, as Andrew said, it’s happening organically, without someone at the top telling them what to do. That’s a huge change. You didn’t see that at all, or very little, with Kerry in 2004.”

What worries you the most about the upcoming Democratic Convention in Denver?

HUTTNER — “In terms of the protest groups that are going to be here, I have two thoughts about it.

“One, I find it odd. A lot more focus is going to be on having them here when I think a lot of them should be going up to Minneapolis. There’s more in common with the agenda of the people who are going to be convening here than the folks there. It seems to me that more of them are focused on Denver, for some odd reason.

“The second thought is that I am concerned that you can’t just stick these people in one place, in one park, and then afterward expect them to hang out there or go away. I am curious to see what happens.”

GORDON — “I hope that the Denver police and the city don’t overly clamp down on people’s right to express themselves. If they clamp down it could cause more trouble than would otherwise take place.

“I believe that we should have a fairly robust ability to express our views. It’s one of the things that makes America great and I think we’re a confident country. We don’t mind hearing people who dissent.”

HUTTNER — “One thing that’s really positive is that you could argue that this has been maybe the most interesting election, certainly in our lifetimes but maybe in 100 years or more. It hasn’t been this interesting since they had it 100 years ago in Denver. This could be a number of milestones. This is one of the most interesting and exciting and important election years ever, and it just so happens that it’s going to be in Denver this time.”


Despite “Recreate ’68,” this is not 1968, is it?

GORDON — “There was a lot more anger in the country in 1968 than there is now. There was a Democratic president in office in 1968 who escalated the war in Vietnam so there was a huge amount of anger against the Johnson Administration.

“And also, I think it might not have been decided who was going to be the nominee between Humphrey and McCarthy.

“So I don’t think it’s going to be anything like 1968. Mike’s right. The people who will be there just to express anger should be going elsewhere.”

Are you at all worried that Hillary Clinton’s supporters might still try something during the convention?

HUTTNER — “I used to work in the Clinton Administration and I know that a lot of the people who worked in the administration are very loyal, but I think this whole narrative is transitioning down. Now people are really focused on Obama and McCain. And the news has given up on that whole battle.”

GORDON — “I think all of the incentives are for Hillary and Obama to get along. Obama wants the people who supported her to support him and she wants to be a player in the Democratic Party in the future. I don’t see any likelihood of a serious fight.”

Are you confident that Obama’s projected strategy on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is sufficiently clear to counter John McCain’s straightforward position?

Andrew RomanoffGORDON — “I completely disagree that the surge is working. It’s like, we used to be in a catastrophic disaster of the worst kind and now we’re just in a catastrophic disaster. I mean, nothing good is happening in Iraq today.

“They say there are fewer American casualties. That’s success? I don’t like that kind of success. And what’s it all for? We’re eventually going to leave and the people there are going to manage their own affairs, which is what they want to do.

“The world is complex and if you make it simple you do that at the expense of truth. The American people do need to become tolerant of complexity if they want to make the right decisions on how to govern themselves.

“The American people get what they’re willing learn enough about to make the right decision. If they’re not willing to do that, we’ll get another Bush Administration.”

ROMANOFF — “I think the American people are conflicted, too. They want to protect our troops. They want to win the war on terror. They want to hunt down Osama Bin Laden. They want to stop Iran from creating a nuclear arsenal.

“I think what Senator Obama has said, fairly consistently, is that we’re going to begin to redeploy the troops, withdraw them, as conditions dictate. His goal is to be able to do that within 16 months of taking office.”

HUTTNER — “There is a concern that, unfortunately, the clear simple response is easier to sell to voters than the accurate, or more sophisticated, kind of analysis.”

GORDON — “They say that for every complex problem there’s a simple solution. It’s wrong, but it’s simple.”

HUTTNER — “This conversation is all about military and terrorism. That’s how McCain wants to keep it. He doesn’t want to address the economy, which he’s admitted he knows little about. He would rather the conversation be about his history as a war hero and the military options.”

Will this convention benefit Denver?

ROMANOFF — “Unambiguously, yes, for a lot of reasons.

“It’s good economically, because it will bring more revenue into the city.

“It’s good politically, because it spotlights what we’ve been trying to do in Colorado to make us the capital of the New West and the new Democratic Party. It forces candidates to focus attention on regional issues that are unique to the Rocky Mountain region.”

GORDON — “It helps us nail down our role as the capital of the Rocky Mountain West.”

As Jews — and not necessarily as Democrats — what are your primary areas of concern vis-à-vis Barack Obama and the Democratic Party platform?

GORDON — “I think that Jewish values tend to be more like the values of Democrats than Republicans. The way I was brought up, we believe in education; we believe in community — all of us together, working together; and we believe in tikkun olam — protecting the world. I’ve often thought that the Democratic Party is a good fit for Jewish people and their values.

“And I think the last eight years have shown pretty much that the other way of doing it — saying we’re the strongest guy on the block and we’re going to make everybody do what we want — doesn’t work. You have to include people. You have to listen to them.

“As a Jew, I’m much more comfortable with the Democratic method of handling conflict in the world than a failed Republican vision.”

ROMANOFF — “I think the prospect of a nuclear Iran, led by a president who pledged to wipe Israel off the face of the map, is frightening to us — as Jews, as Americans, and frankly as human beings. Senator Obama has made it clear that that’s not an option, that we’re not going to allow Iran to pose that threat or make good on it.”

HUTTNER — “There’s a lot of false information going on, especially in the Jewish community, about Obama. It’s a real concern for someone who’s been active in Jewish community groups all my life. It is disappointing that a lot of it stems from people who should know better.”

ROMANOFF — “There was a story along these lines in the New York Times a few weeks back, about misinformation or maybe disinformation. There’s a great Mark Twain line about this that said, ‘A lie can make its way around the world while the truth is still tying its shoes.’”

GORDON — “I think it injured the Clinton campaign when they had this negative campaigning against Barack Obama. I think that’s one of the reasons that people turned to Obama. They didn’t like it..”

How do you feel about the anti-Zionism, or perhaps even anti-Semitism, on what might be called the hardcore left, particularly in academia?

HUTTNER — “I’ve seen that, and I’ve also seen information from the right where their support of Israel is ultimately to fulfill an evangelical Christian promise that everybody will fall into Christendom. There have always been elements of people from all over the political spectrum who think like that.”

This quote is taken from Ken Gordon’s recent email newsletter: “If there is no issue that a candidate has an unpopular position on, then they are probably pandering.” Based on that thinking, what is Obama’s unpopular position?

GORDON — “By abandoning the conventional wisdom that what you need to do is appeal to enough interest groups to get that 50% plus one, Obama is not pandering so much to traditional Democratic groups. He’s taking positions that are intended to include others.”

ROMANOFF — “I think he would tell you that his opposition to the war in Iraq came at a time when most of the country supported it. You could make the case that that was a popular position running for the Democratic nomination in Illinois at the time, but a speech he gave early on put him at odds with most of the Democratic and Republican establishment.

“I think he’s also taken some positions around education reform and rewarding teacher performance that put him at odds to some extent with Democratic allies.

“There’s a thread that runs through Obama, Bill Ritter, Ken Salazar. They all seem pretty well grounded in a core set of values and convictions. They have a good sense of true north, not just political but personal compasses that guide them.”

HUTTNER — “One thing that I think both McCain and Hillary were trying to go after for awhile was the notion that Obama would be willing to sit down with countries that have been, I guess you could say, our enemies. He has stuck with that position, even though it might not be the most popular.

“There’s actually a bigger note. The qualitative difference between people who are part of a movement versus somebody who is looking for a Democratic or Republican winner in November, is that after November, if Obama wins, there’s still a huge need to give him the kind of grassroots support to allow him to effectuate the kind of change that he’s promising.

“If we don’t keep pushing the press and different groups all over the country to support measures like universal health care, smaller classrooms and other educational reforms, then he’s not going to have the political will or public support to do that.

“November is important, but I think so often we get so caught up in the horse race. What’s important is that you’ve got to be ready to go right after the elections. It’s not just winning in November.”

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IJN Assistant Editor | [email protected]

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