In November 2015, Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign surprised TV network CBS when it insisted on minimizing foreign policy content in the channel’s Democratic debate, even though the face-off was taking place right after deadly ISIS massacres in Paris had left 130 people dead. As Politico reported at the time, CBS sought to alter the debate format to address the attack, but was stymied by Sanders’ campaign:
Sanders’ team forcefully opposed any changes–and, to the amazement of the network and the other Democrats who decried his tone-deafness, crowed publicly about limiting the foreign policy component to spend more time discussing economic inequality and other issues central to the Vermont senator’s candidacy.
Months later, this moment stands as the ultimate expression of Sanders’ strategy to make his presidential campaign about domestic issues, to the exclusion of foreign affairs. “Sanders appears to have no foreign policy at all,” wrote Vox foreign editor Max Fisher in February. “He has no direct experience, no major policy proposals, not even, as best anyone can tell, a single foreign policy staffer or adviser. When asked about foreign policy, he tends to change the subject or merely argue for maintaining Obama administration policies.” It’s a savvy scheme which plays to Sanders’ strengths and experience while pivoting away from those of his rival, Hillary Clinton, a former Secretary of State.
It’s also why Sanders was never going to address the AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington D.C. this year, even as all the other Democratic and Republican candidates will be doing so. Simply put, a presidential contender who has yet to give a single speech devoted to foreign policy during his entire campaign is not about to start with Israel/Palestine, one of the most fractious and controversial international issues of all. (Hillary Clinton, by contrast, has delivered multiple foreign policy addresses during her campaign, from the Council on Foreign Relations to the Brookings Institute.)
Thus, it is no surprise that on Friday, Sanders politely declined to personally address AIPAC at this week’s conference. “I would very much have enjoyed speaking at the AIPAC conference,” he wrote to the organization’s president, Robert Cohen. “Obviously, issues impacting Israel and the Middle East are of the utmost importance to me, to our country and to the world. Unfortunately, I am going to be traveling throughout the West and the campaign schedule that we have prevents me from attending. Since AIPAC has chosen not to permit candidates to address the conference remotely, the best that I can do is to send you a copy of the remarks that I would have given if I was able to attend.”
While some radical anti-Israel activists have attempted to spin this as a rejection of AIPAC or Israel, both Sanders’ own cordial language in the letter and his past pro-Israel record (he attended AIPAC in years past, and actively defended Israel’s conduct to constituents during the 2014 Gaza war) clearly demonstrate otherwise. A consistent supporter of a two-state solution that would bring an end to Israeli settlements and Palestinian violence against Israel, Sanders’ viewpoint falls well within the mainstream pro-Israel community.
Rather, the reason for Sanders’ absence at AIPAC is simple: it would be political malpractice for him to allow his campaign’s narrative to be hijacked from its core concerns by a deeply divisive foreign policy topic of little import to his candidacy or his voters. Especially now that the delegate math has largely reduced Sanders’ presidential run to a protest candidacy intended to draw attention to key domestic problems, it would be a grave error to change the subject to the Middle East.
The candidate who refused to be thrown off-message by a mass terrorist attack was not about to let AIPAC accomplish what even ISIS could not.
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