The Art of Lobbying

Over the next three days, journalist Simona Fuma will be guest blogging from the AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington, D.C. This is the largest gathering of the American-Israel political action committee, where the organization’s direction is decided, steered, and reengineered.

Despite being an AIPAC critic, public affairs strategist Dan Fleshler acknowledges that “there is no organization or company in America that turns out so many volunteers for a day’s worth of congressional lobbying, each and every year.†When I boarded one of four lobbying buses for Illinois delegates, deputy Midwest director Samantha Margolis thanked everyone for coming and told us that what we are about to do “is the most important part of why you’re here.â€

After chatting for a while with my fellow passengers, we were off!—trailing behind our police escort blaring sirens—as if we were a head of state or a convention of Saudi oil barons. I never got to the bottom of why AIPACers get this VIP treatment—some people I asked thought it had to do with security—and then I noticed that journalist Dana Milbank addressed the issue in a 2005 column: “How much clout does AIPAC have? Well, consider that during the pro-Israel lobby’s annual conference yesterday, a fleet of police cars, sirens wailing, blocked intersections and formed a motorcade carrying its conventioneers—to lunch.â€

We arrive at a congressional office building and 200 AIPACers from Illinois file in to lobby their two Senators: Dick Durbin and Roland Burris, who was appointed to Obama’s vacant Senate seat by Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich under questionable circumstances. The lines outside the House office buildings are so long that one House intern tells me, “I’ve never seen it like this.â€

And now I am in a bind. The AIPAC staffers were very adamant that I could only sit in on the lobbying session if I didn’t write anything down and kept what was said “off the record.†It seems silly, since any of the 200 people there could blog about what happened.

But I’ll just give you the general outlines. Both Durbin and Burris said they were co-sponsoring the Iran sanctions bill. Burris was deferential to the crowd, calling them “very intelligent†and warning that he might not have the answers to all their questions. The questions, mostly about his position on Iran, were indeed very intelligent and polished, but his comment was such a Jewish stereotype! Did Burris really feel intimidated by the intelligence of the AIPAC delegates or was he just flattering them in a way he thought they might like to hear? And were they aware that he was buttering them up, or were they themselves trying to play up the impression of being a very intelligent, wealthy and formidable audience?

I know I’m probably reading too much into one little comment, but this is how I felt throughout the entirety of the AIPAC conference. All communication between lobbyists and politicians was coded—and it was a job to decipher what they really meant.

There is a certain type of person who reads Politico, watches Sunday morning talk shows and revels in the intricacies of political signaling and maneuvering. Back at my synagogue in Chicago, those who generally went to AIPAC Policy Conference were ambitious, verbally gifted lawyers and businessmen who read every political magazine and had a Washington fetish.

The dancers and social workers tended not to go — maybe because they couldn’t afford the $500 conference fee, airfare and hotel. Each one of these AIPAC activists was formidable on his own — so I can see how thousands of them might be a force to be reckoned with. But nevertheless, I can see how the culture of Washington politics would appeal less to naïve idealists and more to lawyer types. There is certainly a lot of idealism in AIPAC surrounding Israel, but the means of helping Israel can be slick and, let’s say, practical.

Read all of MJL’s AIPAC blogs.

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