FORT MYERS, Fla., Dec. 4, 2015 — With just two months before the Feb. 1 Iowa caucus, Republicans still have 14 presidential candidates to choose from. Thanks to the Republican Jewish Coalition, voters got to see and hear almost all of them in the most substantive way possible.
The RJC is the premiere organization linking those who share the religion of Abraham and the political party of Abraham Lincoln. As in 2007 and 2011, the 2015 forum was far more important than a debate.
With most presidential debates, candidates get maybe one or two minutes to talk as they compete for airtime and battle with moderators.
At the RJC forum, all 13 candidates in attendance were given around 20 to 25 minutes to make an uninterrupted presentation. The ones who used their entire time ducked having to answer questions, which did not go over well with the attendees. Those who did take questions from RJC executive director Matt Brooks were treated as seriously as anyone facing a job interview for the toughest job in the world.
In alphabetical order, the candidates who attended were former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, retired surgeon Ben Carson, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, retired businesswoman Carly Fiorina, former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, former New York Gov. George Pataki, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, and businessman Donald Trump.
Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul was not in attendance. His non-interventionist foreign policy does not go over well with the many neoconservatives in the RJC. Initial reports said that Paul could not make his scheduled speaking time due to votes in the Senate. The other senators did attend. Sen. Paul is the son of former Texas Congressman Ron Paul, who did not have a good relationship with the RJC. Rand Paul supporters insist that he is not anti-Israel, but skipping this forum was not a good way to reach out to a key constituency.
For the lucky 13 who did show up, this event was not about politics, and it was certainly not about process. This forum was about policy.
Many members of the Republican Jewish Coalition are primarily interested in Israel. One applause line comes in the form of promising to move the United States embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Attacking the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement as anti-Semitic is another sure-fire way to excite the crowd. The candidates who take the toughest stands on Iran and radical Islam are usually guaranteed to be received warmly.
However, this audience is sophisticated enough to spot pandering. The audience is Jewish, but the group is the RJC, not the JRC. These are Republicans who want to hear where the candidates stand on Republican issues. The candidates are expected to be clear on taxes, spending, gun rights and a host of other issues.
This RJC forum is not any more of an election predictor than the Iowa caucus or New Hampshire primary. In 2007, Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney and Fred Thompson all gave presentations that were received far more enthusiastically than the downbeat words of eventual nominee John McCain.
What this forum does is remove the excuses any candidate may have with regard to media attention. All 13 candidates had ample time to speak. Some of them devoted their entire presentation to Israel and Jewish issues. Others spent almost zero time on this, insisting that their records spoke for themselves. The crowd generally agreed with the candidates who said this.
Clear divisions emerged on abortion, immigration, intervention in the Middle East and even whether to require Israel to take any further steps for peace. Some of the candidates were lighthearted while others were stone cold serious. Some were proud to be among long-time friends while others were being introduced to the RJC attendees for the first time.
One area of agreement between the candidates and the RJC attendees was that any one of the 13 candidates in attendance would make a better president than Hillary Clinton. They would all do a better job than President Barack Obama. Yet again, this was an event based on serious policy solutions to vexing complex problems.
There will be plenty of time in the coming days to dissect the remarks, actions, and inaction of all 14 candidates in detail. Their words can be compared and contrasted with their deeds. For now, political junkies and casual voters alike can be thankful that this forum occurred. Voters are constantly complaining that too much of politics focuses on the least substantive aspects of politics. Obsessions with delegates, electoral votes and demographics receives outsized attention, especially in the early states.
Not on this day. Not here. The Republican Jewish Coalition Presidential Candidates Forum brought the most in-depth look at the candidates that most voters will ever see.
The presentations are on the internet. Watch them. Take notes. Then watch them again.