I spoke to the senator, now the presumptive Republican candidate for president, March 26, while he was in Los Angeles for a full schedule of speeches and fundraisers. One of his local supporters arranged the interview, the only one he's given to the Jewish press since clinching the nomination early last month, and the McCain campaign agreed to talk because they understand something uncommon is happening in this election: The Jewish vote is in play.McCain answered comments made quite a while back by those who endorsed him.
A higher percentage of Jews than usual are expected to take a second look at the Republican candidate for president this year. It doesn't happen often, but it's not unprecedented. In 1980, when Ronald Reagan ran for president, he got 38 percent of the Jewish vote. Once again, Republicans believe, this could be their year.
To paraphrase Mark Twain, Jews are like most Democrats, only more so.
"A sizable proportion of Democrats would vote for John McCain next November if he is matched against the candidate they do not support for the Democratic nomination," according to a recent Gallup poll of all Democrats. "This is particularly true for Hillary Clinton supporters, more than a quarter of whom currently say they would vote for McCain if Barack Obama is the Democratic nominee."
On issues of foreign policy, the Middle East and Israel, Jews will be weighing the candidates carefully.
So as pollster Peter Hart told Maureen Dowd last week, the question voters will ask about Sen. Hilary Clinton, is, "Is she honest?" Of Obama they will ask, "Is he safe?"
As for Jews, I suspect the McCain question will be just as simple: "Is he Bush?"[...]
In an election season with a very unpopular war as its backdrop, McCain's serious ideas about Iraq are bound to be demeaned and caricatured, as they already have been, everywhere from YouTube to The Huffington Post. (In fact, McCain has gotten a fairer and more insightful hearing on Jon Stewart's "The Daily Show," where he has made 11 appearances, than he has on HuffPost.)[...]
I started with Israel, asking the senator to compare his policies toward Israel to those of Clinton and Obama. I told him my sense is that over the years a bipartisan consensus has developed on the major Israeli-Palestinian issues, no matter who occupies the Oval Office. McCain deflected.
"Well I don't know what their support is, so it's hard for me to compare it," he said.
He reiterated an often-told story he's made to Jewish groups, about flying to Israel for the first time with the late Sen. Henry "Scoop" Jackson, and landing at the airport, and witnessing Jackson being greeted by Soviet refuseniks he'd helped rescue.
"I'll never forget that one as long as I live," he said.
"Look," he added, "like on other national security issues, it's a matter of knowledge, background, experience and judgment. That's all."
There also has been a "Battle of the Advisers" going on, with Republican Jews singling out Obama military adviser General Merrill A. "Tony" McPeak for statements that suggest American Jews wield too much influence over America's Middle East policy. I asked McCain if he puts much stock in such critiques, given that his adviser, former Secretary of State James Baker, has said the same and worse (There was, for instance, Baker's "F--- the Jews," although I didn't cite this example).On the Supreme Court:
"Former Secretary Baker is not a quote 'adviser' of mine," McCain replied. "It was only recently that former Sec. Baker endorsed me. It was just before some of the later primaries. But look, I in no way distance myself from Secretary Baker and my respect for what he's done for the country. We just may not agree on every issue that affects the state of Israel, or other issues."
McCain also defended his support of the controversial Rev. John Hagee, a staunchly pro-Israel evangelical who has been criticized for his anti-Catholic comments. I asked the senator how he would get pro-Israel evangelicals, who have been staunchly opposed to Israel giving up territory or compromising on the status of Jerusalem, to support any peace agreement.
"You can't jump ahead here," he said. "I know they favor a peace process. I know they favor that because of my close relations with them, and pastor John Hagee ... is one of the leaders of the pro-Israel-evangelical movement in America."
I started to correct him -- Hagee and other evangelicals most certainly don't support compromise on territory or Jerusalem, and McCain must know this. That's when I got my first taste of the famous McCain technique: I'll-talk-so-you-can't.
"Look," he cut me off, "I just have to tell you that we should be so grateful for the support of the evangelical movement for the state of Israel, given the influence that they have, beneficial influence that they have over millions of Americans, and then we'll worry about a peace process later on, but I know that they are committed to peace between Palestinians and Israelis as well."
Then I turned to judicial nominations: McCain is opposed to legalized abortion, and the idea that he could appoint members of the Supreme Court who would overturn Roe v. Wade would be a deal breaker for many otherwise-McCain-leaning Jews. What would he say to them?
"I have no litmus issues, nor is it proper to do so," he said, "but I will nominate judges who will strictly interpret the Constitution of the United States. And if that's the most important issue, that I nominate those people who strictly interpret the constitution of the United States, then I respect [their] priorities."