Arizona’s Savvy Israel Ally
Wunderkind Democrat Andrei Cherny, ‘Clinton’s heir,’ is focusing on the Jewish state in his race for Congress
Andrei Cherny needed to charge his iPhone.
The 36-year-old political wunderkind was squeezing in a meeting with me at a Pret A Manger in downtown Washington, D.C., before his next appointment, a fundraiser for him hosted by Rep. Henry A. Waxman, Democrat from California—one in a long, long list of veteran Democratic pols eager to help this young man run to represent Arizona’s brand-new 9th Congressional District. That list stretches all the way up to former President Clinton, Cherny’s former boss, who flew into Arizona in 2010 to stump for Cherny’s unsuccessful run for state treasurer. Wearing a suit with a white shirt and blue tie—he has somehow made this ultimate standard dress his trademark—Cherny had brushed hair and a clean shave. He looked as though he was eager to impress some Capitol Hill chief-of-staff in order to get hired for a policy job. He could easily have passed for 30.
Cherny is the 21st-century version of all-American. All four of his grandparents survived the Holocaust. His parents, dissident Jews in Prague’s arts scene alongside Vaclav Havel, were kicked out of Czechoslovakia post-’68 and moved to California. Cherny grew up in that ultimate suburbia of the modern American imagination, the San Fernando Valley. He went to Harvard. He married Stephanie Fleischman, a lawyer with whom he has two kids, Ben and Arabelle, and moved to her hometown of Phoenix, Ariz.—the Sun Belt city that is so literally the future that when Arizona gained an extra congressional seat following the 2010 census, the seat was plopped down right there, starting in Phoenix and wending southeast through the sprawling metropolis past Scottsdale and into Tempe, home of Arizona State University.
If you visit any of the candidates’ websites, the issues hammered home are thoroughly domestic: jobs, health care, taxes, immigration, and, since this is Arizona, protecting Medicare and Social Security. Cherny’s campaign slogan is “Save the Middle Class,” and he says he’d like to make Arizona “the solar state.” But the middle class isn’t what has made this primary into a race with a national profile, and it’s not what we chatted about earlier this month. Adopting the clipped, rote tone of someone who’s done this before and knows exactly what to say, Cherny told me: “Israel’s security and America’s security are inextricably linked.”
Why was Cherny talking about Israel? A decade ago, Slate’s David Plotz called Cherny “Clinton’s truest heir,” which he didn’t mean in an entirely positive way. For all Clinton’s successes—and if you’re a progressive, those were eight extremely good years—the president was a pure political animal, someone with no trust for the other side and so willing to compromise his own principles for the sake of getting a result that critics accused him of lacking principles altogether. Since 2001, Cherny has been, in the Clinton tradition, an avid policy wonk and a triangulator. “Bill Clinton would be the person who is still where I would be most comfortable on most issues,” Cherny told me.
In this race, Cherny has unabashedly—his opponents say unfairly—drawn stark distinctions with his key rival, State Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, on the question of Israel and national security in order to position himself to her right. He is doing this partly out of principle: Of Sinema’s record, a longtime friend of Cherny’s told me, “Andrei is someone who is patriotic. I’m sure it bothers him.” Cherny no doubt intends to vote in support of the Jewish state if he is elected. But for now, with the race two months away, the question is whether Cherny’s strategy, borrowed from the Clinton playbook, will convince Arizona voters that he should be their congressman.
If you just looked at Cherny’s curriculum vitae, you’d assume he was the fictional fourth child in The Royal Tenenbaums, the one with a yen not for finance, playwriting, or tennis but politics. Cold War-obsessed, he volunteered to work for the Michael Dukakis campaign when he was 12. Sometime before his senior year of college, he changed his name to make it easier to pronounce, adding an “h” to Cerny—the immaculate sign of the striver. A line in an op-ed he wrote for the Crimson when he was 20 found its way into Clinton’s second inaugural address; upon graduating, he was hired for the White House speechwriting corps, working primarily for the vice president. In 2000, he was the lead writer of the Democratic platform. In the early 2000s, he ran unsuccessfully for California state assembly; worked on John Kerry’s campaign well before the Massachusetts senator was the nominee (he was let go in mid-2004); and studied nuclear proliferation issues at the Kennedy School. In the late 2000s, he co-founded Democracy, a public-policy journal that was crucial to launching star liberal Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren’s political career, and published The Candy Bombers, a history of the Berlin Airlift. After 9/11, he joined the Navy Reserves as an intelligence officer.
His education in the Middle East, he told me, goes back at least to the summer of 2000, when he would regularly speak with then-National Security Adviser Sandy Berger to make sure the Democratic platform reflected what had just gone down at Camp David. Cherny has written persuasively and articulately—if elected, he’ll be the politician with the best prose since Barack Obama—that “War on Terror” is an apt phrase for an indispensable mission the Bush Administration tragically bungled. “I was sounding the alarm about Iran and its nuclear weapons program in 2004 and 2005, taking heat from fellow progressives, long before it was dominating headlines,” he boasted.
The Candy Bombers, his Berlin airlift book, which earned him a comparison to the late historian Stephen Ambrose, typifies what Cherny stands for. He started the book soon after the Iraq War commenced, and the animating question behind it, he told me, was: “ ‘When did America get it right in the world? When did we combine our military and moral power together?’ ” At Stephen Colbert’s goading, Cherny gladly referred to the Soviets as “Godless Commies;” he also marveled on Colbert’s show that the airlift “only worked because it was such a regimented, rigid operation,” which you might also say about Cherny’s public life.
Such achievements and ideas—and the ability to present them persuasively, while wearing a sunny smile—will land you a spot on Colbert, but may not be enough to win a Democratic primary. Cherny readily admits that there isn’t much daylight between him and his opponents on domestic issues. (“There are some differences, but more differences of approach,” he said.) Facing one opponent, Sinema, with the ability to excite the leftward portion of the base, and another candidate, state Senate Democratic Leader David Schapira—also Jewish—whose current district covers much of his hoped-for one, Cherny apparently calculated that in an otherwise bland race, the tie wouldn’t go to him. Which is likely why he decided to put his best foot forward, or at least the one that will most clearly distinguish himself: Israel.
Lebanon’s Party of God is feeling heat from certain Shiites, who aren’t eager to serve as human shields again