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The Real Reason Romney Wants To Talk About Israel and ‘Culture’

All it had to be was one more slip-up; one more gaffe with which Mitt Romney could have further flooded the gaffe market, further devaluing all the others. That would be the logical plan, and it seemed to be the one his campaign was following after it was reported that Romney had attributed the massive difference between Israelis’ and Palestinians’ per capita GDP to “culture” (and “the hand of providence”) while speaking to Jewish donors in Jerusalem Monday morning. "His comments were grossly mischaracterized,” was the immediate response of spokesperson Andrea Saul, who was traveling with him. Then Romney himself visited friendly territory to deny it further: “I’m not speaking about it, did not speak about Palestinian culture,” he told Fox News’ Carl Cameron. Sure, the Palestinians might have thought it was racist—Palestinian Authority official Saeb Erekat’s word—it might have offended American liberals, and the media might correctly have perceived it as off-message. But, y’know, whatever. Head to Poland, get through the week, and celebrate Friday when the jobs report comes out and all of a sudden everyone can switch to saying that President Obama is the one who is in crisis.

Last night, though, the campaign reversed course. Romney published an op-ed on just how important culture is. That is, he reminded the world of and then stood behind what his own campaign had previously characterized as misstatement. “But what exactly accounts for prosperity if not culture?” he argued, clarifying later, “the choices a society makes have a profound impact on the economy and the vitality of that society.” Such a conspicuous and seemingly counterintuitive strategy could only come out of a belief in political expediency. In fact, it tells us a great deal about the state of current Republican thinking when it comes to Israel, in terms of both ideology and what it takes to win an election. Romney thinks this is a winner for him.

Let’s grant that comparing the Israeli and Palestinian economies is a really poor case study for probing the link between culture and economics, since Israelis reside in a sovereign nation with open borders and full control over its policies, while many Palestinians—and all the Palestinians Romney was referring to—er, don’t. Let’s also grant that when you travel to Jerusalem and praise Israel in front of a bunch of Jewish donors, your first priority probably isn’t to engage in a spot of ersatz sociology for purposes of intellectual stimulation; I'm not going to make myself the first person to compare Mitt Romney to Adlai Stevenson.

Contrary to what many pundits (on both sides) like to say, the election-year focus on Israel has almost nothing to do with the American Jewish vote, which is far too small (barely two percent of the population, and not even 3.5 percent in, yes, Florida) and reliably Democratic (the Republican Jewish Coalition will be rightly thrilled if Romney scores 35 percent of the Jewish vote, and here’s betting he won’t) to merit all this attention. It has barely more to do with Jewish GOP donors, who tend to be already convinced that just about anyone would be better for Israel than President Obama. (If anything, it is the actual outsize influence of Jewish donors that drives the phony outsize interest in the Jewish vote: the Sheldon Adelsons of the world—or, at the least, Sheldon Adelson, who possesses his own gravitational pull—want more Jews to vote Republican, and have enough money to create an artificial demand for converting their wayward co-religionists.)

Instead, Republicans have campaigned on Israel because, to many Americans, Israel is the starkest example of an ally that shares our values—starkest because of the familiar, and not altogether inaccurate, trope of its being a democracy in a sea of dictatorships dictatorships and anti-American democracies. There are few better shortcuts to making the case that Obama Doesn’t Share Our Values than to stand up for those Values’ ultimate totem—and criticizing the president for having sold it out, along with our values.

This has all been beneath the surface—until now. With Israeli “culture” out in the open, Romney has laid the groundwork to use Israel as merely the beachhead for a full frontal attack on Obama’s values and even Americanness. While Israel remains relatively parochial as a political issue, this link between culture and economics is anything but. And, as James Fallows reminds us, it's been nearly 50 years since Daniel Patrick Moynihan pointed out, "The central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics, that determines the success of a society." Moynihan was a Democrat, but through the early neoconservatives this "conservative truth" became a Republican talking point, one that evolved into such a winner that the only Democratic president to win re-election since its advent first had to sign a welfare reform law that was in many ways the fullest realization of that conservative truth.

Fallows and others still think this is a stupid play on Romney’s part—that his entire focus should be on the economy. But we are going to be talking about foreign policy over the next three months; we know for all but certain, for example, that one of the debates will be focused on it. It’s possible that Romney has figured out a way to make a non-economic issue about the economy.