Long Island attorney Jeffrey Schwartz peered at the Capitol through the window of a chartered bus that was whisking him and a group of Jewish Democrats across town from their conference site to a private reception on Capitol Hill being hosted by Jewish members of Congress.
After a moment, Schwartz — who recalled standing out in the cold before that very same building to witness the official start of President Bill Clinton's second term in 1997 — declared that "this is where we're going to inaugurate a Democratic president in January 2009."
Retaking the White House, increasing the party's narrow majority in the Senate and beating back Republican attempts to lure Jewish voters away from their traditional party loyalties topped the agenda for the roughly 200 partisans — be they big-time donors or political neophytes — who, like Schwartz, had traveled from across the country to Washington, D.C., last week for the National Jewish Democratic Council's inaugural, three-day policy conference, held April 23 to April 25.
The event's major attraction was the chance to hear directly from the candidates vying for the party's presidential nomination in 2008: U.S. Sen. Joe Biden (D-Del.), U.S. Sen. Hilary Clinton (D-N.Y.), U.S. Sen. Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.), former U.S. Senator John Edwards, U.S. Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio), U.S. Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson.
While the presidential contenders were jockeyed for pole position — with Clinton and Obama trying to outdo each other, and the rest attempting to present themselves as alternatives to the front-runners — Democratic officials and conference organizers emphatically tried to make the case that the candidate who gets the nod will have a great chance to beat the GOP nominee.
"If I was a Democrat, I'd be pinching myself," said political analyst Charlie Cook, during a panel discussion at the conference that focused on the 2008 elections. Another panelist, Democratic pollster Mark Mellman, compared the Republican record of the last year or so — with the events in Iraq, the midterm election loses, the controversy surrounding Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and the president's low approval rating — to the 1988 Baltimore Orioles' 21-game losing streak.
But when it comes to the Jewish community, Democratic party officials don't want to leave anything to chance, especially since the Republican Jewish Coalition — a far larger and better funded group than the NJDC — keeps making an aggressive case that the Republicans are the ones with Israel's best interests at heart. Though many participants had hoped for a focus on domestic issues, it was foreign policy that dominated the sessions.
"Republicans have tried to turn Israel into a wedge issue," Howard Dean, Democratic National Committee chairman, said to about 200 people gathered in the Almas Temple at 14th and K streets, the mosque-inspired Masonic building where the conference was held. "They did not succeed. Supposed pro-Israel candidates such as [Pennsylvania] Sen. [Rick] Santorum did not get re-elected," continued Dean, who then made a statement that was reiterated in some form by practically all the candidates during their stump speeches.
"I believe the Bush administration's policies have made Israel's position weaker," he added, referring to the heightened Iranian threat and last summer's war with Hezbollah.
And, like virtually all the candidates, Dean said that Iran must not be allowed to obtain nuclear weapons, while still insisting that the United States should engage in direct talks with that country's leaders, as it had with the Soviet Union often during the Cold War.
Kucinich, the most left-leaning in the field, didn't flatly disagree with Dean on this point, but he came close. Though he admitted that Iran poses a threat, the Ohio congressman — who failed to garner serious support in his 2004 bid — discounted a U.S. military option vis-à-vis Iran.
"Israel is not going to be safe with the United States pursuing a policy of pre-emption," he said.
Not that long ago, Democrats seemed reticent to claim that Bush has been bad for Israel; instead, they've lobbed their critiques at the president's domestic policy and his handling of the Iraq war.
Dean told the crowd that 87 percent of Jewish voters backed Democrats in the November elections, citing the National Election Exit Poll.
Scott Feigelstein, director of the Pennsylvania chapter of the Republican Jewish Coalition, disputes that figure, arguing that the RJC's own poll had 26.4 percent of Jewish voters in key states backing Republicans.
The same day that the Democratic conference concluded, Feigelstein helped bring 75 Jewish Republicans affiliated with the New York and Pennsylvania chapters of RJC to a day of advocacy, including meetings with GOP senators and congressional members. These were closed to the press.
"The trend is going to continue in our direction," declared Feigelstein. "The Jewish community is not going to continue to march in lock step with the Democratic Party."
Engage With Rogue Nations
At the conference, Clinton and Obama generated the greatest buzz, filling the largest number of seats, and drawing the most TV cameras and print-media representatives. In addition to laying out a broad domestic agenda that included universal health care — a goal that eluded her when she spearheaded the issue during her husband's first term — and reiterating her support for Israel, Clinton argued that the United States has lost credibility in the world, and needs to engage in direct talks with rogue nations such as Syria and Iran.
The Bush administration has resisted such calls, saying that engaging Iran and Syria in high-level diplomacy lends legitimacy to those governments.
"It is the No. 1 mission of the next president — we have to convince ourselves first and foremost that we are the America that can be a leader again, that we will meet the challenges that we know are awaiting us," said Clinton.
Obama, who some observers said was less dynamic than usual, sounded a similar note, arguing that since he'd lived in Indonesia for four years as a teenager, he'd be able to serve as a better ambassador to the world at large, particularly the Muslim nations.
"We will use sustained diplomacy to build a true international coalition that can pressure Iran to give up its nuclear ambitions once and for all," he said. "Our lackluster diplomatic efforts today leave a huge hole that threatens the security of America and the broader Middle East."
The remaining contenders tried to slow the front-runners' momentum. Touting his résumé as a former energy secretary and U.N. ambassador, Richardson said that he — and not the "rock star" candidates — could appeal to the Midwest and Southwest to carry the Electoral College.
Biden, sticking largely to foreign policy, offered the most specific plan on Iraq.
Edwards, the party's 2004 vice-presidential nominee, focused more on domestic issues and economic disparity.