Commentary Magazine


Topic: Debbie Wasserman Schultz

Religious Venues as Partisan Outposts?

Back in May, I wrote about the controversy that ensued when a Miami synagogue invited Democratic National Committee Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz to speak at a Friday evening Sabbath service. When members protested about the hijacking of a religious observance for partisan purposes, Miami’s Temple Israel disinvited her, leading to some spurious charges that local Republicans had “bullied” the shul. As Bryan Schwartzman of Philadelphia’s Jewish Exponent reports, DWS is back in the news this week for another synagogue appearance, this time at Reform Congregation Knesseth Israel (KI) in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania, and again, Republicans are complaining.

While this event is far more defensible than the Miami appearance, it still raises some important questions about the way religious institutions get dragged into partisan politics. With polls showing President Obama losing popularity among Jewish voters, Democrats are going all out to try to prevent a precipitous drop in support in this otherwise solidly liberal community. Which means synagogues are on the front lines of a nasty partisan argument that they would do well to avoid.

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Back in May, I wrote about the controversy that ensued when a Miami synagogue invited Democratic National Committee Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz to speak at a Friday evening Sabbath service. When members protested about the hijacking of a religious observance for partisan purposes, Miami’s Temple Israel disinvited her, leading to some spurious charges that local Republicans had “bullied” the shul. As Bryan Schwartzman of Philadelphia’s Jewish Exponent reports, DWS is back in the news this week for another synagogue appearance, this time at Reform Congregation Knesseth Israel (KI) in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania, and again, Republicans are complaining.

While this event is far more defensible than the Miami appearance, it still raises some important questions about the way religious institutions get dragged into partisan politics. With polls showing President Obama losing popularity among Jewish voters, Democrats are going all out to try to prevent a precipitous drop in support in this otherwise solidly liberal community. Which means synagogues are on the front lines of a nasty partisan argument that they would do well to avoid.

We should specify first that there is a big difference between the Miami dustup and the one that is stirring in Pennsylvania. The Elkins Park event is scheduled for a Monday evening and is not part of a synagogue religious observance, meaning that Wasserman Schultz won’t be speaking from the pulpit. The synagogue’s religious leader, Rabbi Lance Sussman, is doing his best to represent the event, which will also feature local Jewish Democratic politicians, as informational. (Full disclosure: I am a member of a Conservative synagogue that shares space at the Knesseth Israel building but is not a co-host of this event.) Sussman, a respected historian, also says he thinks it’s better to hold two separate events in which the major parties will conduct outreach to the community rather than hosting a debate at which the two sides can have at each other.

There is something to be said for that point of view, but the problem is that very little if any effort seems to have been made to schedule a Republican event at the synagogue and, as of this writing, there is nothing in the works. So while the synagogue’s intention may not have been to create the impression of a partisan endorsement, at least for the moment, that is exactly what has happened.

Appearances aside, some question whether the synagogue providing a venue for what is, for all intents and purposes, a partisan political rally, is appropriate or a violation of their tax exempt status. While witch hunts aimed at punishing non-profits for perceived partisanship should be avoided, part of the specific problem here is that, as Adam Kredo reports in the Washington Free Beacon (who obtained an invitation to the event), rather than the Wasserman Schultz appearance being part of a program organized by the synagogue, it appears to be directly staffed by President Obama’s campaign. Theoretically, a Republican event, should one ever occur, could be similarly run by the Romney campaign or its Jewish surrogates. But even if that is true, the spectacle of a political party taking over a religious institution — as opposed to renting its catering hall or public area—is unsettling.

In its defense, Knesseth Israel, which is the largest synagogue in the region, believes it has an obligation to provide programming for its members about important issues where they can hear directly from newsmakers rather than hearing it through the filter of the media. They are right about that. But this is not just one event in a lecture series in which a number of different points of view or issues will be heard. It is a one-off political rally.

It has become all too commonplace for religious venues to become partisan outposts during election years. Sunday services at inner city African-American churches are regular campaign stops for Democrats. Republicans have used evangelical churches in other areas for similar purposes. That is wrong no matter who is the offender. While religious institutions should not be aloof from politics and issues, they should be careful about crossing the line into partisanship. Unlike the Miami dustup, this event falls into a gray area rather than an expression of open partisanship. But given the close identification of Reform Judaism with liberal stands on most of the political issues of the day, all Reform synagogues need to be doubly careful not to reinforce the movement’s proverbial image as a group whose definition of Judaism is the Democratic Party platform with holidays thrown in. That is not a fair characterization of Reform Judaism, but when synagogues blunder into partisan thickets, they can’t be surprised when they wind up in the middle of disputes in which they have no proper place.

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Keep Politicians Out of the Sanctuary

A Miami synagogue is the center of controversy this week for canceling an appearance by Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the chair of the Democratic National Committee. The president of Temple Israel there said the invitation for her to speak after Friday night services was cancelled due to “security concerns.” But, as the Miami Herald reports, it’s no secret the real reason is that a prominent member of the synagogue had resigned because he was told there would be no equal time on the program for a Republican.

Wasserman Schultz and the Democrats are representing this as an attempt to prevent her voice from being heard and an instance of Republicans injecting politics into the situation. But the truth is just the opposite. As the congresswoman says, constituents should be able to hear their representative, but the Reform synagogue is not in her district. Even if it was, inviting an intensely partisan figure such as the DNC chair to speak at a religious service during an election year is inappropriate. Sabbath services should not be turned into rallies for the Democratic Party or President Obama or occasions for trashing the GOP, because we all know all too well that is what happens every time DWS opens her mouth. The same principle would apply were it House Majority Leader Eric Cantor being imposed on the congregation.

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A Miami synagogue is the center of controversy this week for canceling an appearance by Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the chair of the Democratic National Committee. The president of Temple Israel there said the invitation for her to speak after Friday night services was cancelled due to “security concerns.” But, as the Miami Herald reports, it’s no secret the real reason is that a prominent member of the synagogue had resigned because he was told there would be no equal time on the program for a Republican.

Wasserman Schultz and the Democrats are representing this as an attempt to prevent her voice from being heard and an instance of Republicans injecting politics into the situation. But the truth is just the opposite. As the congresswoman says, constituents should be able to hear their representative, but the Reform synagogue is not in her district. Even if it was, inviting an intensely partisan figure such as the DNC chair to speak at a religious service during an election year is inappropriate. Sabbath services should not be turned into rallies for the Democratic Party or President Obama or occasions for trashing the GOP, because we all know all too well that is what happens every time DWS opens her mouth. The same principle would apply were it House Majority Leader Eric Cantor being imposed on the congregation.

Religious institutions with tax-exempt status are forbidden from conducting partisan activities, but this is a rule that is often observed in the breach in some communities, especially where one party predominates. The use of inner city African-American churches as platforms for Democratic politicians seeking to mobilize voters is a tradition that few question. The same is true in some evangelical churches for conservatives. That predominantly liberal American Jewish institutions would be tempted to play the same game is hardly surprising. But though Republicans are a minority in most Jewish communities, they still exist. In the case of Temple Israel, 85-year-old philanthropist Stanley Tate, the co-chair of the Romney campaign in Miami-Dade county is, or was, a member and asked to be able to respond to Wasserman Schultz’s remarks. When he was told that he couldn’t, he quite understandably resigned from the synagogue. Faced with the choice of losing a cherished and generous member, or an appearance by DWS, the temple discovered a “security problem” that forced their cancellation of the congresswoman’s visit.

Tate will be criticized for throwing his weight around and so will the temple leadership (the president is a prominent Democrat) for caving in to him. But Tate should never have been put in that position to begin with. Synagogues and churches should stay away from allowing their services to be commandeered by partisans, especially during a presidential election in which the considerable Jewish vote in Florida may be up for grabs.

The problem here though is not just poor judgment on the part of Temple Israel but the assumption on the part of many liberal Jews that there is no difference between their faith and their political party. Though the old joke persists that Reform Jews define Judaism as the Democratic Party platform with holidays thrown in, Republican and independent members of Reform synagogues are rightly under the impression that they are there to practice their faith, not cheer for the Democrats. While we don’t blame Wasserman Schultz for seeking any opportunity to address an audience, Temple Israel owes Tate an apology. Other religious institutions similarly tempted to play politics in this manner should take a lesson from their embarrassment and resolve to keep partisanship out of the sanctuary at least until November.

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DNC Adviser Blasts Ann Romney

On “Anderson Cooper 360″ last night, Hilary Rosen slammed Ann Romney for “never actually work[ing] a day in her life.” Within two hours, both David Axelrod and Obama campaign manager Jim Messina were scrambling to distance themselves from Rosen’s comments on Twitter.

Why is the Obama campaign so concerned? Apparently Rosen was enlisted in February to advise Democratic National Committee Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz on public relations (h/t Jim Geraghty’s invaluable Morning Jolt). The Wall Street Journal reported on Feb. 16 that Rosen was brought on to “tone down” DWS’s image:

Obama advisers have occasionally told [Wasserman Schultz] to “tone it down” and “back off a smidgen,” Ms. Wasserman Schultz says. She agreed with them to enlist two seasoned Democratic female pros, Anita Dunn and Hilary Rosen, to begin giving her occasional political advice and media training, advisers say. “I’m glad to get constructive criticism,” Ms. Wasserman Schultz says.

The media pros prepped her for an important Jan. 13 appearance on the “Bill Maher Show”—from her tone to her clothes (they know better than to suggest she blow out her curly hair, advisers say). Ms. Wasserman Schultz had lots of “don’t” instructions: Don’t make news, don’t try to be funny, don’t laugh at the comedian’s jokes, don’t use your hands (although she balled her fists at one point and did “karate chops” when making her points). Her biggest “do:” Attack Mitt Romney, which she managed to do despite the topic of discussion: Marines urinating on dead Taliban fighters.

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On “Anderson Cooper 360″ last night, Hilary Rosen slammed Ann Romney for “never actually work[ing] a day in her life.” Within two hours, both David Axelrod and Obama campaign manager Jim Messina were scrambling to distance themselves from Rosen’s comments on Twitter.

Why is the Obama campaign so concerned? Apparently Rosen was enlisted in February to advise Democratic National Committee Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz on public relations (h/t Jim Geraghty’s invaluable Morning Jolt). The Wall Street Journal reported on Feb. 16 that Rosen was brought on to “tone down” DWS’s image:

Obama advisers have occasionally told [Wasserman Schultz] to “tone it down” and “back off a smidgen,” Ms. Wasserman Schultz says. She agreed with them to enlist two seasoned Democratic female pros, Anita Dunn and Hilary Rosen, to begin giving her occasional political advice and media training, advisers say. “I’m glad to get constructive criticism,” Ms. Wasserman Schultz says.

The media pros prepped her for an important Jan. 13 appearance on the “Bill Maher Show”—from her tone to her clothes (they know better than to suggest she blow out her curly hair, advisers say). Ms. Wasserman Schultz had lots of “don’t” instructions: Don’t make news, don’t try to be funny, don’t laugh at the comedian’s jokes, don’t use your hands (although she balled her fists at one point and did “karate chops” when making her points). Her biggest “do:” Attack Mitt Romney, which she managed to do despite the topic of discussion: Marines urinating on dead Taliban fighters.

Despite the backlash from conservatives and the repudiation from the Obama campaign, Rosen stood behind her comments in a lengthy post on Anderson Cooper’s blog:

“My wife has the occasion, as you know, to campaign on her own and also with me,” Romney told newspaper editors, “and she reports to me regularly that the issue women care about most is the economy.”

So it begs the question, is Ann Romney Mitt’s touchstone for women who are struggling economically or not? Nothing in Ann Romney’s history as we have heard it — hardworking mom she may have been — leads me to believe that Mitt has chosen the right expert to get feedback on this problem he professes to be so concerned about.

I have nothing against Ann Romney. She seems like a nice lady who has raised nice boys, struggled with illness and handles its long-term effects with grace and dignity. I admire her grit in talking about her illness publicly.

What is more important to me and 57 percent of current women voters is her husband saying he supports women’s economic issues because they are the only issues that matter to us and then he fails on even those.

Rosen certainly helped “tone down” and “soften” Wasserman Schultz’s image last night, if only because she was the one making the inflammatory charges, not DWS. The question now is whether Messina and Axelrod will stand behind their own criticism of Rosen — that her comments were “offensive” and “inappropriate” and merit an apology. Will Wasserman Schultz and the DNC cut off Rosen’s advisory role? Or is the Obama campaign content to use Rosen as an attack dog and private consultant, while outwardly shunning her attacks on their opponent’s wife?

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DNC Chair Learns the Quality of Mercy

We don’t often have occasion to say anything complimentary about Democratic National Committee Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz. In her designated role as President Obama’s attack dog, Rep. Wasserman Schultz has made a specialty of taking cheap shots at her opponents. When not attempting to demonize Republican positions on the deficit and entitlements, she has even stooped to blame conservatives for the shooting of Gabriella Giffords. But as unfair as she has been to those on the other side of the aisle, that doesn’t justify treating Wasserman Schultz or anyone on her staff in a similar manner. And that is exactly what happened to Danielle Gilbert, a DNC staffer who has been pilloried lately for some silly pictures she posted to her personal Facebook account six years ago when she was in college. But despite reports of pressure from the White House, Wasserman Schultz has refused to dump Gilbert. To that we can only say, good for her.

It is true the picture in which Gilbert is seen kissing money and referring to herself and some friends as “Jewbags” was in poor taste. But the posting by Gilbert, who is the daughter of prominent Jewish contributors to the Obama campaign and now works as the DNC’s outreach liaison to the Jewish community, was a joke and nothing more. The existence of the photo didn’t merit a story. Nor did it justify subjecting a young woman who has done nothing wrong to the sort of humiliation that is part of being the subject of even a minor political dust storm such as this one.

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We don’t often have occasion to say anything complimentary about Democratic National Committee Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz. In her designated role as President Obama’s attack dog, Rep. Wasserman Schultz has made a specialty of taking cheap shots at her opponents. When not attempting to demonize Republican positions on the deficit and entitlements, she has even stooped to blame conservatives for the shooting of Gabriella Giffords. But as unfair as she has been to those on the other side of the aisle, that doesn’t justify treating Wasserman Schultz or anyone on her staff in a similar manner. And that is exactly what happened to Danielle Gilbert, a DNC staffer who has been pilloried lately for some silly pictures she posted to her personal Facebook account six years ago when she was in college. But despite reports of pressure from the White House, Wasserman Schultz has refused to dump Gilbert. To that we can only say, good for her.

It is true the picture in which Gilbert is seen kissing money and referring to herself and some friends as “Jewbags” was in poor taste. But the posting by Gilbert, who is the daughter of prominent Jewish contributors to the Obama campaign and now works as the DNC’s outreach liaison to the Jewish community, was a joke and nothing more. The existence of the photo didn’t merit a story. Nor did it justify subjecting a young woman who has done nothing wrong to the sort of humiliation that is part of being the subject of even a minor political dust storm such as this one.

Wasserman Schultz’s instinct to back her aide is laudable. As she rightly points out, it is important for young people (as well as not so young people) to understand that anything — whether innocent jokes or not so innocent behavior captured in a photo or video — they publish on Facebook or Twitter is a matter of public record and can come back to haunt them at any time in the future. But destroying the budding career of an otherwise blameless youngster over such nonsense is both unjust and unethical.

In the no-hold-barred world of political combat in which both parties and their respective journalistic cheering sections are constantly engaged in the business of embarrassing each other, it sometimes feels as if anything is fair game. Far worse things than the Gilbert photo — such as, to take just one egregious example, the unsubstantiated innuendo masquerading as investigative journalism alleging infidelity on the part of then Republican presidential candidate John McCain published by the New York Times in 2008 — easily come to mind. But politics and journalism ought to be better than that. We hope the next time a similar alleged youthful indiscretion about a politician or activist is unearthed, journalists will choose not to go down this same road. We also hope Wasserman Schultz will remember this the next time she is inclined to indulge in uncivil rhetoric herself.

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Ryan Budget Will Be GOP Blueprint

As Pete wrote earlier, Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget plan passed the House as expected this afternoon. And while that’s probably going to be the furthest it goes this year, Republicans are looking to make it their guiding message heading into the general election season.

House Speaker John Boehner kicked off this effort shortly after the budget plan passed:

House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said Thursday afternoon that the budget proposal put forward by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) is a “real vision” of how Republicans would govern if they had more control of Washington.

“So I applaud my colleagues,” he said of those who worked on the Ryan budget, “for the tough decisions they’ve made, to try to do the right thing for the country, to lay out a real vision of what we were to do if we get more control here in this town. It’s still a Democrat-run town.” …

“You look at all the proposals we’ve seen in this debate, it’s all more of the same,” Boehner said. “Two things that are prevalent: let’s raise taxes on the American people once again, and secondly, let’s kick the can down the road as if no one knows that Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid are going broke.” …

“While we did a budget last year, we’re doing another budget this year, we’re making tough decisions to help preserve Social Security and preserve Medicare, the United States Senate… it’s been 1,065 days since they passed a budget,” he said. “Almost three years since they’ve had the courage to show the American people what their solutions are.”

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As Pete wrote earlier, Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget plan passed the House as expected this afternoon. And while that’s probably going to be the furthest it goes this year, Republicans are looking to make it their guiding message heading into the general election season.

House Speaker John Boehner kicked off this effort shortly after the budget plan passed:

House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said Thursday afternoon that the budget proposal put forward by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) is a “real vision” of how Republicans would govern if they had more control of Washington.

“So I applaud my colleagues,” he said of those who worked on the Ryan budget, “for the tough decisions they’ve made, to try to do the right thing for the country, to lay out a real vision of what we were to do if we get more control here in this town. It’s still a Democrat-run town.” …

“You look at all the proposals we’ve seen in this debate, it’s all more of the same,” Boehner said. “Two things that are prevalent: let’s raise taxes on the American people once again, and secondly, let’s kick the can down the road as if no one knows that Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid are going broke.” …

“While we did a budget last year, we’re doing another budget this year, we’re making tough decisions to help preserve Social Security and preserve Medicare, the United States Senate… it’s been 1,065 days since they passed a budget,” he said. “Almost three years since they’ve had the courage to show the American people what their solutions are.”

If you want a perfect example of the contrast Republicans are trying to create between their own vision and the vision of the Democratic Party, take a look at this exchange between Ryan and Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz. On the floor yesterday, DWS launched into a dramatic spiel about how the Medicare growth rate in Ryan’s plan would ravage the lives of the elderly. But as Ryan points out, the growth rate he proposes is the same as the one in another plan DWS should be very, very familiar with:

Of course, the way Ryan and Obama each choose to deal with the growth rate is very different. While Obama’s seeking to put price-control power under the jurisdiction of a board of unelected bureaucrats, Ryan’s proposal would rein in costs through competitive bidding provisions. Private choice as opposed to government management. And that’s the contrast the GOP will work to highlight between now and the fall.

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Flotsam and Jetsam

Double standards, you say? John Noonan: “Israel gets an ultimatum; Syria gets an ambassador.” He suggests: “Syria doesn’t deserve to be recognized or rewarded with an ambassadorial presence — at least, not until lawmakers and diplomats see tangible evidence of the positive liberalization trend that was promised by Bashar al-Assad when he assumed power in 2000. The State Department needs to articulate clearly what foreign policy objectives they expect to be served by reopening an embassy in Damascus, but–more importantly–Syria must prove to the world that they are capable of rational action and discourse.”

Farce, you say? Bill Burck and Dana Perino find it “truly astonishing that Rep. Bart Stupak has been duped into thinking the president’s executive order has done, or can do, anything to alter the Senate bill. Executive orders have the force of law only within the executive branch and only to the extent they are consistent with legislation. Stupak believes that the Senate bill does not do enough to prohibit the use of federal funds; what he apparently does not realize is that the executive order can do no more to prohibit use of federal funds for abortion than the Senate bill does.”

Disingenuous, you say? Debbie Wasserman Schultz says the executive order is meaningless.

Unifying, you say? “Pro-choice and pro-life groups on Sunday strongly denounced a deal by pro-life Democrats and President Obama to ensure limits on taxpayer money for abortion services, outlined in a Senate health insurance overhaul now on the verge House approval. Abortion rights supporters chastised the president, saying he caved on his principles by agreeing to issue an executive order that strengthens limits on abortion. Abortion opponents, on the other hand, said Obama’s pending order does nothing to prohibit spending on abortion services as provided in the Senate bill.” Really, though the pro-choice groups know it’s just for show.

Fortuitous, you say? “You’ve probably never heard of Dan Benishek, but he’s a Republican running against Rep. Bart Stupak (D-MI), who struck a deal with Nancy Pelosi that is believed to be the decisive vote to pass ObamaCare. More than 1,700 people have already joined Benishek’s Facebook page. Liberty First PAC has added Stupak to its target list, and Stupak is probably going to be on a lot of other lists pretty soon.”

Obvious, you say? Jeffrey Goldberg is miffed at AIPAC because there is “a dearth of speakers who approach the most contentious issues of the Middle East from a left-Zionist perspective.” Hmm. Could be that these people don’t share it. Haven’t heard anyone pining for Eric Yoffie to announce what settlement terms he would like to foist on Israel.

Wising up, you say? “[Joseph] Cao (R-La.) said that the deal that Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.) struck with the White House for an executive order on abortion funding doesn’t go far enough.”

Disturbing, you say? Mike Pence says Bart Stupak is “trading 30 years of pro-choice protections in the law for a piece of paper signed by the most pro-abortion president in history.”

Double standards, you say? John Noonan: “Israel gets an ultimatum; Syria gets an ambassador.” He suggests: “Syria doesn’t deserve to be recognized or rewarded with an ambassadorial presence — at least, not until lawmakers and diplomats see tangible evidence of the positive liberalization trend that was promised by Bashar al-Assad when he assumed power in 2000. The State Department needs to articulate clearly what foreign policy objectives they expect to be served by reopening an embassy in Damascus, but–more importantly–Syria must prove to the world that they are capable of rational action and discourse.”

Farce, you say? Bill Burck and Dana Perino find it “truly astonishing that Rep. Bart Stupak has been duped into thinking the president’s executive order has done, or can do, anything to alter the Senate bill. Executive orders have the force of law only within the executive branch and only to the extent they are consistent with legislation. Stupak believes that the Senate bill does not do enough to prohibit the use of federal funds; what he apparently does not realize is that the executive order can do no more to prohibit use of federal funds for abortion than the Senate bill does.”

Disingenuous, you say? Debbie Wasserman Schultz says the executive order is meaningless.

Unifying, you say? “Pro-choice and pro-life groups on Sunday strongly denounced a deal by pro-life Democrats and President Obama to ensure limits on taxpayer money for abortion services, outlined in a Senate health insurance overhaul now on the verge House approval. Abortion rights supporters chastised the president, saying he caved on his principles by agreeing to issue an executive order that strengthens limits on abortion. Abortion opponents, on the other hand, said Obama’s pending order does nothing to prohibit spending on abortion services as provided in the Senate bill.” Really, though the pro-choice groups know it’s just for show.

Fortuitous, you say? “You’ve probably never heard of Dan Benishek, but he’s a Republican running against Rep. Bart Stupak (D-MI), who struck a deal with Nancy Pelosi that is believed to be the decisive vote to pass ObamaCare. More than 1,700 people have already joined Benishek’s Facebook page. Liberty First PAC has added Stupak to its target list, and Stupak is probably going to be on a lot of other lists pretty soon.”

Obvious, you say? Jeffrey Goldberg is miffed at AIPAC because there is “a dearth of speakers who approach the most contentious issues of the Middle East from a left-Zionist perspective.” Hmm. Could be that these people don’t share it. Haven’t heard anyone pining for Eric Yoffie to announce what settlement terms he would like to foist on Israel.

Wising up, you say? “[Joseph] Cao (R-La.) said that the deal that Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.) struck with the White House for an executive order on abortion funding doesn’t go far enough.”

Disturbing, you say? Mike Pence says Bart Stupak is “trading 30 years of pro-choice protections in the law for a piece of paper signed by the most pro-abortion president in history.”

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