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.
Cherny’s campaign argues that Sinema’s longtime associations with far-left-wing groups make her a dangerous woman to put in Congress, or to nominate for a seat the Democrats could win. “On Israel,” Cherny said of Sinema, “she has a 10-year track record of taking positions that are at odds with American policy and administrations of both parties.” Nor is this ancient history: “She was involved with groups and individuals that questioned Israel’s existence up to last year, 2011,” he said.
Sinema, a year younger than Cherny, is her own kind of wunderkind. Soon after 9/11, at 25 years old, she co-founded Local to Global Justice, a local advocacy group. Its initial mission was to oppose the invasion of Afghanistan, but in 2007 it signed a petition calling for an end to U.S. aid to Israel and another in 2008 decrying Israeli “human rights violations against Palestinians in the Occupied Territories and against civilians in Lebanon.” Sinema joined Women in Black, a group founded by Israelis during the First Intifada to protest human rights abuses in the territories—a history of which Sinema claimed to be unaware. (That’s pretty hard to believe, since the group was founded in 1988 and is easily located on Google.) Also in 9/11’s aftermath, she helped organize the Arizona Alliance for Peaceful Justice; its motto was, “military action is an inappropriate response to terrorism.” According to The Hill, this was her position, too. At least as late as 2010, she continued to associate with these groups, speaking, for example, at an antiwar rally several sponsored. She has since severed ties.
Sinema and Schapira have in turn joined to accuse Cherny of “Karl Rove-styled attacks” and “sleazy campaigning.” A Sinema spokesman pointed me to an official position paper laying out standard pro-Israel views and insisted that much of Sinema’s awkward past derives from a simple fact: “She was 24 years old, very frustrated with the Democratic Party, [and] thought that the Green Party was more progressive on environmental issues and sustainability.” To which Cherny’s response might be: When I was 24, I was already on-message and certainly wasn’t a Green Party supporter.
Sinema’s spokesman dismissed Cherny’s attacks as spin—the result “of a campaign deciding to try to make Sinema look bad because she had the courage to be outspoken against the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars.” He also pointed to Sinema’s position paper on Israel and Iran, which calls for a two-state solution and vigorous sanctions against the Islamic Republic, and mentions a trip she took to Israel in 2009, when she visited Sderot and was moved by the inhabitants living under the threat of rockets. The conservative Washington Free Beacon reported (in one of the instances in which this race has received attention beyond Maricopa County) that she attended this year’s AIPAC Policy Conference.
But the Sinema campaign has also gone on the offensive. Last week, Sinema and Schapira jointly blasted Cherny for disseminating “false attacks on his opponents.” They’ve also pointed to a mailer he used in his California campaign 10 years ago: It warned that his opponent wouldn’t make the streets safe, next to a picture of a shirtless black man pointing a gun. And they accused Cherny of making hay out of Sinema’s sexual orientation (she is bisexual). “I don’t think he’s running an honest campaign,” said Sinema’s spokesman. (After briefly touching base last week, Schapira’s campaign manager has not returned repeated requests for comment.)
Cherny’s surrogates have punched back, accusing Sinema and Schapira of “engag[ing] in the politics of personal destruction.” Though he denied that he tried to use Sinema’s sexuality against her, in our conversations Cherny stood by his criticisms of Sinema’s national-security record. “I think the discussion of an important issue like Israel and its future is something we should be talking about,” he told me. Or, as he wrote several years ago in Democracy, “The idea that ‘politics stops at the water’s edge’ has served as a club—ready to be used against opponents that crossed an invisible line.”
If you pan out a bit, the candidates fall pretty neatly into three recognizable archetypes: the local favorite who has paid his dues (Schapira); the unapologetic lefty (Sinema); and the safe establishmentarian who is, at least graded against an extremely harsh curve, an outsider (Cherny). According to Rodolfo Espino, a political-science professor at Arizona State, any of them could win, though he thinks Sinema is least likely. The National Republican Congressional Committee has ignored Schapira, and it’s hard to imagine that Republicans wouldn’t prefer to run against Sinema.
Schapira and Sinema both paint the 9th Congressional District as a toss-up. Cherny, by contrast, has taken pains to argue that the 9th by all rights should be a Democratic pick-up. The point is less who is right—The Hill rates the district a toss-up; its voters supported Obama in 2008 (despite its being Sen. John McCain’s home district) and John Kerry in ’04—than the political logic that undergirds why they describe it in different ways. Sinema and Schapira predict a close general election in order to advocate for a principled progressive who excites the base (Sinema) or a down-home guy who can draw on grassroots support (Schapira), and not a milquetoast outsider (Cherny). By contrast, Cherny sees a logically Democratic seat, because he can then argue that Democrats should nominate the safe, smart, well-endowed, responsible candidate (Cherny) instead of the radical (Sinema) or the nice guy who isn’t ready for prime time (Schapira).
It’s eerily reminiscent of the dilemma left-wing voters faced in the 2000 presidential election: Vote for the outside-the-system lefty whom you support but who might hand victory to the Republicans, or vote for the safe, slightly boring Democrat who would be superior to George W. Bush? Green Party nominee Ralph Nader’s voters likely denied Gore a number of state wins (though not in Arizona), practically any of which would have given him an electoral college triumph to match his popular-vote advantage and handed him the presidency. That year, as Cherny worked hard for Team Gore, Sinema was Nader’s Arizona spokesperson.
When I asked Cherny if this irony resonated, he replied, “I laugh about it, but certainly.” He continued: “The 2000 election was, looking back on it, probably one of the most consequential. If you play out the past decade with Al Gore as president instead of George W. Bush, we’d be living in a very different America and different world.” And, possibly, a very different Andrei Cherny.
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Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic, and was previously a staff writer at Tablet. He tweets @marcatracy.
Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic, and was previously a staff writer at Tablet. He tweets @marcatracy.