Hardball under the radar

The Republican Jewish Coalition, which hosted John McCain at a presidential candidates' forum last year, admitted to calling 750 Jewish voters in five states. (Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)

We've all been plagued at home by calls from telemarketers. Worse, however, is when a research firm, working at the behest of an unidentified political organization, rings you up for the ostensible purpose of conducting a poll, but actually with the intention of circulating half-truths and rumors about a targeted candidate.

Which is precisely what happened earlier this week, when 750 Jewish voters in five key states - Florida, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Ohio and Michigan - picked up their phones to discover that a firm called Research Strategies was on the line and eager to gauge the voters' feelings about Barack Obama. The first bunch of questions were fairly innocuous, but, as the minutes passed, some of the voters became so upset by the questions - and suspicious of the questioner - that they began to take careful notes. Unfortunately for Research Strategies, some of the note-takers shared their findings yesterday with journalists. Also unfortunately for Research Strategies, one of those note-takers happened to be Jonathan Cohn, a frequent contributor to The New Republic.

In other words, the firm got busted for doing something that was supposed to stay under the radar. And the firm's confidential client - whose identity will be revealed shortly - got busted as well. It's worth examining this episode, because this is how hardball is played, far away from the stump speeches and TV ads.

Let's start by noting the importance of Jewish voters, the political reasons why hundreds were targeted for these calls. Jews typically comprise no more than four percent of the national electorate, but they disproportionately reside in large states with double-digit electoral votes. Jews have typically rejected Republican presidential candidates - George W. Bush won 19 percent in 2000, and 25 percent in 2004 - but the McCain camp has been confident that it can crack 30 percent this year, and thus boost their prospects considerably in the aforementioned five states.

And, naturally, those prospects might well be boosted if moldy half-truths about Obama were freshened up and circulated to Jewish voters via telephone? Here are some of the ostensible "polling" questions that the call recepients wrote down:

Would it affect your vote if you knew that Obama had a decade-long relationship with pro-Palestinian leaders in Chicago? If you knew that Jimmy Carter's anti-Israel national security aide was an Obama adviser? If you knew that Obama had been a board member of a Chicago group that gave money to a pro-Palestinian charitable group? If you knew that Obama, as president, would call for a summit of Muslim nations? If you'd heard the claim that Obama is a Muslim? (Regarding the latter, one call recipient in Florida, Joelna Marcus, told the Politico website last night, "I went into this whole tirade about how I had read his autobiography, and how he wasn't a Muslim").

What's most striking is all the information about Obama that the inquisitors chose to omit. Obama did have those relationships in Chicago, but those pro-Palestinian leaders fell out with Obama a long time ago - because of his pro-Israeli positions. Indeed, Obama has had good relations with the Chicago Jewish community, and his stance on Israel has won plaudits from the biggest pro-Israel lobby group, AIPAC. Meanwhile, Carter's national security aide, Zbigniew Brzezinski, reportedly did advise Obama on a few occasions, but he's not on the Obama foreign policy team; on the contrary, five of Obama's Israel advisers are Jewish. Obama has also picked a running mate, Joe Biden, who has close, longstanding political ties to the Jewish community.

Two of the questions were true, as far it goes. Obama served on the board of a group that did give a grant to a Chicago community center founded by Palestinian activists. And Obama has indeed said that, as president, he'd like to convene a summit of Muslim nations - which sounds sinister only if the call recipient is prepared to believe all the other insinuations that the caller was seeking to plant in the brain. Otherwise, the call for a Muslim summit sounds merely like an attempt to reach out in the spirit of international inclusion.

But we know that the research firm did not intend to suggest the benign interpretation. And we know why all the half-truths were not adequately contexted. It's because the research firm was calling at the behest of the Republican Jewish Coalition, a group that toils on behalf of the GOP, albeit with no official party ties. But there are ties that bind, nonetheless; former RJC chairman Sam Fox donated $50,000 four years ago to the ironically named Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.

Yesterday, the group came forward and said that it had sponsored the calls. Matt Brooks, the RJC director, of course denied that he was spreading any rumors. He specifically denied that the "research" callers had repeated the Obama-as-Muslim rumor (even though Joelna Marcus, as noted earlier, says otherwise). In Brooks' view, he merely wants "to talk about what's really on the mind of the Jewish community." Therefore, these phone calls were merely "an effort to raise important policy issues and to encourage a debate in the Jewish community on these issues."

Sounds to me like he wants to encourage a "debate" between the half truths and the full truth - which, from his perspective, is surely a smart strategy, since that kind of equivalence lends weight to the negative insinuations that are most likely to hurt Obama and help McCain. At the very least, this episode is a clear signal that the GOP intends to slice into the Jewish Democratic electorate - and that it will do whatever it takes. And that John McCain will never need to dirty his hands.