Diplomacy-First Candidate Prevails At Debate

Richard Goldwasser
on February 9, 2016

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Something pretty remarkable happened last Tuesday night at Deerfield’s B’nai Jehoshua Beth Elohim Congregation. Two Jewish candidates for Illinois’ 10th district — Highland Park Mayor Nancy Rotering and former Congressman Brad Schneider — faced off in a very civil debate. The old political playbook would suggest that candidates should shy away from taking pro-diplomacy positions on the Middle East. But ultimately, it was Schneider, an opponent of the Iran nuclear deal, who shied away from defending his own record.

Voters in the Democratic-leaning Illinois’ 10th elected Republican Mark Kirk to Congress five times. In 2014, they elected another Republican — Bob Dold, who defeated Schneider. Kirk and Dold both followed the same formula to victory, running as social moderates and toeing a hard-right line on Israel. Their vocal and at times over the top opposition to the Iran deal was therefore completely unsurprising. So when Democrat Schneider penned an op-ed opposing the deal, many considered it smart politics, following closely in the hawkish footsteps of Kirk and Dold.

Then Rotering came along and flipped the script. Advocating tough diplomacy rather than a shoot first approach, Rotering came out in support of the deal early and in the face of a $40 million ad campaign by its opponents.

Rotering’s leadership did not go unnoticed. It was her support for the deal that led Abner Mikva to pull his endorsement from Schneider and get behind her. Rotering’s Iran position also helped secure Senator Dick Durbin’s recent endorsement.

And as we know now, the Iran deal opponents failed to muster the necessary votes to kill it, and two weeks ago, international monitors certified that Iran had shipped 97% of its enriched uranium out of the country, removed two-thirds of its centrifuges and placed them in internationally-monitored storage and poured concrete into the core of the reactor at Arak. Iran’s breakout time has gone from two months to a year, and for the first time in about decade, Iran does not have enough nuclear material for even a single bomb.

It was against this background that debate moderator Lynn Sweet, the Sun-Times’ Washington Bureau Chief, began by questioning the candidates on their Iran positions. Rotering proudly touted her strong and early support and hailed the deal’s achievements. She then called out Schneider for aligning himself with the Republicans and other deal opponents. In the ensuing back and forth, Schneider had at least three opportunities to defend his opposition to the deal but dodged them each time. Instead Schneider said he was “committed to making sure the deal works.” It was clear that the candidate worried about paying a political price was the one who had opposed the deal, not the one who supported it.

Toward the end of the debate, the question turned to electability, with Sweet asking Schneider how he could win when Dold had just beaten him. Schneider said that he wanted to be like Abraham Lincoln, Abner Mikva, and Dick Durbin, three politicians who rebounded after losses. It was an odd choice, considering that Mikva and Durbin cited Rotering’s position on Iran when they endorsed her.

Illinois’ 10th Congressional District has been a hotbed for hawkish pro-Israel positions. But on Tuesday night, Nancy Rotering showed that hard-nosed diplomacy isn’t just smart policy, it’s also smart politics.

Richard Goldwasser is a member of J Street’s Board of Directors. He’s on Twitter at @_goldwasser_