Monday, June 2nd, 2008
James Besser in Washington
It’s hard to get your hands around an AIPAC policy conference.
The size and scope are daunting. Major sessions are held in a room the size of several football fields, with an outsized dais that this year looked like a set from Ben Hur; immense video screens make speakers visible to delegates a good city block from the rostrum; the endless rows of chairs, dramatic lighting and throbing music make the place slightly disorienting. The announcer who tells delegates to take their seats sounds like he’s speaking from the bowels of the earth.
Finding your way to breakout sessions sometimes requires a GPS; this year, some AIPAC officials were tooling around on Segways, and there were undoubtedly weary delegates who wished they could do the same.
It is a scene meant to impress. And the political bigwigs who dutifully troop to the policy conference every year get the message: this is a group it’s wise not to ignore. Subtlety is not one of the political arts.
The pep rally atmosphere of some sessions suggests a remarkably unified body of people, but the policy conference audience is actually segmented.
There are the ordinary AIPACers by the thousand, including many star struck first-timers, who seem on a three-day high (and who wouldn’t feel that way, when the major House and Senate leaders, along with all the presidential candidates, come courting?). You can see them in the hallways studying their schedule books, trying to decide: do I go to the session on “Saudi Arabia’s Identity Crisis,” or the one on “The Impact of Russia, China and Europe on American Foreign policy,” or do I just go to the café and get a Coke?
Then there are the AIPAC insiders and big givers, always bustling off to private receptions, greeting their friends in the House and Senate behind curtains that separate them from the ordinary folks, wearing conference ID tags decked out in ribbons identifying the VIP groups to which they belong.
The crowd is always peppered with students – this year more than 1200 of them, annoyingly energetic, asking the most earnest questions at breakout sessions.
The conference also attract hundreds of activists from other Jewish organizations who come in part for the workshops and speeches, maybe even more to network and to absorb the spectacle of it all.
Then there’s the media: affecting a blasé attitude but generally impressed by the seemingly endless parade of national leaders, power brokers and foreign diplomats who come year after year. Reporters flit in and out of the important sessions and spend a lot of time cruising the Internet or pecking away at Blackberries during speeches.
AIPAC members are activists, so it’s not surprising they have strong opinions about everything political. The perception is that the group leans Republican and conservative. That may be true of the top leadership tier, but it’s hard to pigeonhole the broader group of delegates.
Some AIPAC leaders say the membership is still predominantly Democratic, like the Jewish population as a whole. Policy conference audiences in recent years seem to reserve the strongest ovations for Republican speakers, but there’s no accurate measure of partisan affiliations. Maybe the Republican sympathizers just have the loudest voices.
Last year AIPAC was embarrassed when some delegates booed House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. This year, worried that Sen. Barack Obama – the object of a fierce campaign meant to portray him as soft on Israel – would suffer the same fate.
Rule number one for an effective lobby: don’t start your relationship with a guy who might be moving into the White House next year by embarrassing him this year.
The result was an unusual letter to delegates before the meeting making it clear that every speaker can be assumed to be a “strong friend of AIPAC and a dedicated proponent of the special relationship between the United States and Israel.”
To punctuate the point, former AIPAC president Bernice Manocherian repeated that plea in opening the conference on Monday morning, urging delegates to treat all speakers as “friends and guests in our home.”
It’s a mighty big home, that’s for sure.