Reviewing the Republicans who spoke at the RJC Annual Leadership Meetings this weekend
It is always fun to attend the Republican Jewish Coalition's annual leadership conferences in Las Vegas, but this year was particularly cathartic for those of us distressed over the results of the midterm elections last week. As someone who lives in the liberal bastion of hell known as Westchester County, New York, spending a weekend with likeminded conservative Jews is not just therapeutic, but also invigorating and grounding. (One tends to lose perspective living in a blue bubble of woke, abortion and transgender rights–obsessed, sanctuary city and defund the police–supporting lunatics.)
This year's confab, like those in the past that have always included the most consequential and influential Republican politicians, featured not just big-name Republican politicians, but those who will likely be sharing a future debate stage as the GOP primaries for the 2024 presidential election heats up. And every report that I've read from The New York Times to Ha'aretz recognized that we just watched the launch of the 2024 campaigns of most of the speakers.
My first RJC leadership meeting was well over a decade ago, when there were several hundred in attendance. This year ,there were reportedly over 850 attendees — all bringing with them enthusiasm and optimism, given the impressive slate of speakers (and, more importantly, presidential candidates).
Friday evening's Shabbat dinner featured Tennessee senator Bill Haggerty, truly one of Congress's biggest supporters of a strong U.S.-Israel relationship, who gave an impressive and powerful speech from the perspective of someone who was not as familiar with him prior to this weekend.
He was followed by Maryland's Governor Larry Hogan, whose disdain for former president Trump was on full display. His remarks in front of an audience that, notwithstanding Trump's shortcomings, still adores Trump and values everything he did for the State of Israel and fighting antisemitism felt completely out of touch, misplaced, and small. His handlers should have reminded him (and his speechwriter should have known) that spending his time at the RJC with 20 minutes of backhanded remarks attacking Trump wasn't a wise way to launch a presidential campaign. He also lacked even a modicum of charisma, giving a boring stump speech that I would have gladly skipped. It was clear that the audience agreed with me as he received very little applause throughout his remarks — in this regard, he set himself apart from all of the other speakers during the weekend, who drew cheers, standing ovations, and admiration.
Hogan was followed by former secretary of state Mike Pompeo, who was well received by the audience and whose speech was filled with humor as well as providing an air of confidence, discipline, and knowledge. The audience not surprisingly loved him.
The evening ended with an impassioned and terrific speech by former vice president Mike Pence. I believe he received the first standing ovation of the evening, and I feel comfortable saying he was the star of the night.
Many left the dinner thinking the evening's line-up of politicians was intentionally planned with those who felt comfortable voicing subtle (other than Hogan, who was anything but) attacks on Trump – that was the common denominator in the tenor of the evening.
As an aside, I first met Pence when he was a congressman and have been a huge fan ever since. I had expected that one day he would occupy the White House, and while I may be wrong, I do not believe that he is electable at this point in his career, given the state of today's political environment. He is sadly marred by his association with Trump, but there is also a portion of the country that does not seem open to electing an Evangelical Christian to the White House, notwithstanding how moral, honest, wise, experienced, and competent he may be. For those reasons, I am sad to report that as wonderful a president as he would be, I do not see his campaign finding success.
Saturday morning kicked off bright and early with remarks from Congressman David Kustoff, Congressman-Elect George Santos, Congressman-Elect Max Miller, Governor Chris Sununu, Senator Rick Scott, Governor Chris Christie, and Senator Tim Scott.
Highlights were Christie's honest assessment of what had transpired during the midterms and Trump's role in the current state of divisiveness within the Republican Party. It was somber but honest coming from a man whom Trump attacked and yet who remained loyal throughout his administration, despite not receiving a Cabinet position.
Tim Scott blew the audience away with his passion, words, and commitment to Israel and of course America. I also met Scott when he was just a candidate and have been impressed ever since. I would love to see him as the V.P. on a 2024 ticket.
One scheduled speaker who was a no-show without explanation from the RJC was Senator-Elect J.D. Vance.
The morning's highlights included Senator Ted Cruz, always an RJC favorite and one of mine personally; remarks from GOP leader Kevin McCarthy; livestreamed remarks from former and designated Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu; and livestreamed remarks from Donald Trump.
Cruz was fantastic, as he always is. He's brilliant, a wonderful orator, amazing on all of the issues, and the audience loved him. In fact, Pence specifically thanked Cruz the night before for all of the wonderful support the Trump administration received on important initiatives that Cruz helped usher through, including those specifically related to the amazing Trump policies on Israel — moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, and withdrawing from the JCPOA (Obama's Iran nuclear deal). Every high-profile speaker touched on these issues in some form or another other than Hogan, which says something about his political acumen.
McCarthy hit many of the right tones, promising that one of the most virulently antisemitic congresswomen, Ilhan Omar, would finally be removed from her assignment on the House Foreign Services Committee. It received one of many, many standing ovations during the morning's sessions. And McCarthy's presence and celebration of dethroning Pelosi was something that received applause consistently throughout the weekend.
Bibi Netanyahu's virtual presence at the conference was a real highlight for the RJC audience that recognizes what a consequential Israeli leader he has been. He discussed several passages from his new book, Bibi: My Story, including the brouhaha when he spoke before Congress about the disastrous nuclear deal that Obama was negotiating. The consummate diplomat, he called Biden a decades-long friend and stayed away from entering the fray of U.S. politics.
Trump's remarks were as low-key as those of his campaign announcement several days prior. Perhaps it was the audience, as he has made clear his frustration with American Jews who do not appreciate everything he did for the Jewish homeland; perhaps (although I doubt it) he is taking a new approach to campaigning; or perhaps he was tired (the America First Policy Initiative had held a large event at Mar-a-Lago the prior evening). After rambling on about all of his pro-Israel policies — for which he deserves tremendous credit and which were met with standing ovations from the audience — Trump sadly could not get out of his own way, and, in typical Trump style, he continually returned to ramblings about a stolen election in 2020, none of which was met with applause.
The Saturday morning sessions ended with a comedic trio of podcasters who asked the audience to conduct a straw vote on whom they would support in 2024. Trump received a respectable amount of cheering, but it was clear that he did not have the support of the room. When asked about DeSantis, the audience went wild.
Speaking of DeSantis, the guy is a rock star. The Saturday-evening gala dinner featured him and Nikki Haley, who preceded him. What struck me the most about Haley's clearly practiced and planned stump speech was that she was reading from her notes on the podium. Most every other speaker of consequence spoke off the cuff. Pompeo, Pence, Cruz, McCarthy, and DeSantis may have had a note here and there that they looked at, but they basically spoke off the cuff, and you never once felt as though they were just giving a canned speech. Not so with Haley. She says the right things, has a stellar record on the issues, but there is something second-tier about her in my view. She did, however, make it clear that she was running in the way she continually referred to herself on a future debate stage and other not so subtle references to a "she" in the White House.
Back to DeSantis, who rocked the room: He has this down. The RJC always included a good number of young professionals and college students who attend, and the moment DeSantis was announced, they all rushed the stage and didn't leave until his remarks were over. He shook hands with as many as possible and signed a few "DeSantis" hats and was ushered off the stage. There truly was no comparison to the way he was received; the remarks he made (touting all of his accomplishments, including that Florida is that place where woke goes to die); his affinity and respect for Jews and their Israeli homeland; and his polished, comfortable, and impassioned delivery.
There was a general concern throughout the weekend that if Trump loses the GOP primary, he will destroy whoever wins. I left Saturday evening's dinner thinking that DeSantis will survive whatever Trump throws at him if the former president does in fact become ever more vindictive and "DeSanctimonious" in his own right. Either way, it was clear this weekend that the GOP has a tremendous slate of candidates, most of whom would make amazing presidents. The race is on, and I expect a wild ride.
Photo credit: YouTube screen grab.