For decades, Americans have looked on with amazement and disgust as a few hundred thousand farmers in Iowa made monkeys of anyone who was crazy enough to run for president.
For a couple of months every four years, Des Moines replaces Washington, D.C., as the political capital of the United States. Though it competes for attention with New Hampshire, whose first-in-the-nation primary follows soon after, the Hawkeye State's status as the place where the first votes for presidential nominees are counted allows Iowans to make the candidates dance for their pleasure.
While the Iowa caucus is not the sole reason why we still have farm subsidies, as well as massive federal investments in such dubious projects as ethanol, it certainly is a major factor in the perpetuating this waste of federal dollars.
But months after the hopefuls and the journalists following them ceased tramping through the snow-covered fields of Iowa, another state is about to get the same experience. The unforeseen Democratic deadlock between Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama means that rather than folding up its tents until 2012, the nominating circus is coming to Pennsylvania.
The Iowa Treatment
Via a quirk of the primary schedule, the Democratic calendar will be empty from March 11 until the Pennsylvania primary scheduled for April 22. And that means that for the next six weeks, the Keystone State will get the Iowa treatment.
This is a windfall of historic proportions for Pennsylvania's political junkies and journalists. It is also an opportunity for the citizens of a state that is far larger and more representative of the nation to exert its influence on the two people who are left in the Democratic race.
Many Pennsylvanians will follow the Iowa model and try to coerce otherwise eco-friendly Dems to pledge allegiance to a coal industry that is unpopular elsewhere, but still provides lots of jobs here. Support for industries in crisis such as steel will also be required as both Obama and Clinton will be forced to pretend that factory and mill jobs that have been lost due to the economic realities of the 21st century will return.
Though the specter of a recession will focus the voters and the candidates on the economy, the next six weeks (which may seem like six years before they are over) will offer chances for other important constituencies to make their voices heard.
One of them is a Jewish community that is heavily Democratic and turns out to vote in numbers that far outstrip its numbers when compared to other more numerous sectors of the population.
Like Iowans who make the candidates do everything but shovel their driveways during the endless weeks before the caucus, this is what may well be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Jewish Pennsylvanians to help set the national agenda.
Pennsylvania may not have as many Jews as New York, New Jersey, Florida or California. But unlike the residents of those states whose primary votes were cast either just before or during the Super Tuesday crunch in early February, the nearly 300,000 Jewish Pennsylvanians can count on the undivided attention of the candidates this spring.
What issues can win Jewish votes?
Non-Jewish politicians often wrongly assume that Jews focus on parochial interests, but typically, Jews are not single-issue voters on Israel. Other concerns, such as church-state separation and support for a variety of liberal social-justice causes are far more likely to win their affection. And given that surveys tell us that Jews oppose the war in Iraq more heavily than virtually any other demographic group, even if foreign policy is a factor, Israel may not influence the outcome.
But the circumstances surrounding this vote require Jewish Democrats to be thinking about their responsibility to play a special role in this election year.
What should they be demanding of the candidates?
We don't need to make Obama and Clinton merely mouth more platitudes about support for an Israel that continues to suffer terrorist attacks from a foe that is uninterested in peace. Both have already aligned themselves with the pro-Israel cause.
Rather, local Dems need to use every rally, town-hall meeting and fundraiser as a chance to have the candidates further define their stands on points like negotiating with Hamas, U.S. aid to a Palestinian Authority that foments hate against Jews and supports terror, as well as the right of Israel to self-defense against those who attack it. They need to be asked about whether they will continue to push a failed peace process as the Clinton and Bush administrations have done? Can they offer a more prudent alternative?
Even more importantly, Democrats here must use these weeks to press Clinton and Obama on Iran and its drive for nuclear weapons. There is simply no other issue on which so many lives will hang during the next four years as this one.
We know that both favor diplomacy (as does Republican candidate Sen. John McCain and the State of Israel) to persuade the Iranians to drop their push for nukes. But if, as seems likely, Tehran gets the bomb during the next administration, we must know if these leaders are afraid to do whatever it takes, including pre-emptive strikes, to see to it that the mullahs and their genocidal frontman Mahmoud Ahmadinejad don't have the power to unleash mass murder on Israel or any other country.
But although the overwhelming majority of Democrats want a president who will back Israeli self-defense and face down Iran, some worry that by raising Israel as an election issue, they will be disrupting the bipartisan consensus that has helped solidify the alliance. Many Democrats think trying to hold the candidates accountable on Israel issues is just a way for the Republicans to create a wedge issue.
Will They Speak Up?
No doubt, that's exactly what the GOP wants. But given the rock-solid partisan loyalty of most Jewish Democrats, their chances of doing so are not great.
Instead of being concerned about the Republicans making hay, what Jewish Dems should think about is their chance to have Obama and Clinton prove that they cannot be outflanked by John McCain on either Iran or Israel. Taking Israel or even Iran off the table, which some insist is in the community's interest, won't help the Democrats hold their share of the Jewish vote especially if a failure to raise these issues gives either Clinton or Obama the idea that we don't care. Accountability isn't a GOP trick, it's an essential part of democracy with a small "d."
While the political circus is in town, voters need to cast caution to the winds and make sure these vital issues don't get loss in the shuffle. When it comes to issues that are literally a matter of life and death, local Jewish Obama and Clinton fans alike need to remember that the whole world is watching what they do and say.