Shortly after Hillary Clinton conceded the Democratic primary to Barack Obama in 2008, Portfolio magazine published a profile on Democratic financier and media mogul Haim Saban. Clearly still stinging from Clinton’s defeat—whose political career and presidential campaign he had pumped millions into—Saban contemplated the ways he could help the designated Democratic nominee.
“Option No. 1 is to vote for Obama send him a $2,300 check, and sayonara—hope he wins,” Haim Saban told the magazine. “Option No. 2 is, Go big. If I’m going to go big, I have to go biggest. I have zero interest in being big. Biggest, I have an interest.”
In fact, Saban never appeared to follow through with either option. A major Obama fundraising event he considered throwing never ended up materializing. And according to election filings, the mogul didn’t even chip in the $2,300 donation to the Obama campaign—pocket-change for a notorious political kingmaker worth billions. Instead, the ardent Democrat has become something of an Obama critic, even suggesting last week that he has no plans to donate to the president’s 2012 campaign.
So what happened? What makes one of the biggest Democratic donors of all time go from considering a massive fundraising campaign for a politician, to saying he doesn’t plan to contribute a cent to his reelection just three years later?
The answer to that question lies at the heart of a major problem that the Democratic Party is currently facing: its growing divide over Israel policy. While most Democratic lawmakers are strong Israel supporters, there is a budding subset in the Obama administration that believes the U.S. needs to ramp up its pressure on the Jewish state. And this coldness toward Israel is what’s making some Jewish voters and donors increasingly uneasy.
Unfortunately, this isn’t an issue many on the left want to contemplate, or even acknowledge. Over at Think Progress, Ali Gharib writes that my post yesterday gave the “misleading implication that Saban’s comments [about not contributing to Obama] are ‘significant.’ ”
But Gharib is missing a crucial distinction between 2008 and 2011. It’s one thing for an influential Democratic Party donor to quietly sit on his hands after a contentious primary. It’s quite another for him to announce that he has no plans to support to his party’s only 2012 candidate for the presidency. The fact is, Saban is one of the top Democratic fundraisers and an invested party member who gives generously to presidential nominees. While he’s been critical of Obama’s Middle East policy, the announcement that he has no plans to get involved in this election isn’t a small matter.
But more that that, Saban is seen as a bellwether for Jewish voters and donors, many of whom share his liberal views on social issues and strong support for Israel. He has a reputation as both a devoted Zionist and a devoted Democrat. So the fact that he’s breaking with his party’s candidate over Israel is something that will be widely noted in the Jewish community—and that’s exactly what has many Democrats worried.