The Lone Jewish Republican in Congress Is Nostalgic for George W. Bush

Representative Lee Zeldin's takeaway from the Republican Jewish Coalition confab in Las Vegas is that the current president could learn a thing or two from his predecessor.

U.S. President George W. Bush holds a news conference in the Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House January 12, 2009 in Washington, DC.

Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

On Saturday night, former President George W. Bush made remarks at the spring meeting of the Republican Jewish Coalition behind closed doors, but some of his message trickled out. He argued against President Barack Obama’s planned course of action on Iran and expressed skepticism over the pending nuclear deal and motion to lift sanctions, attendees told the New York Times. The 43rd president strongly criticized the 44th president’s policies regarding the Islamic State and Iraq. “You think the Middle East is chaotic now?” Bush asked, an attendee told Bloomberg View. “Imagine what it looks like for our grandchildren. That’s how Americans should view the deal.” Obama was being naïve, Bush was saying. The United States could lose leverage.

By the end of his two presidential terms, Bush’s interventions in the Middle East were less than popular nationwide. In fact, the war Bush commenced in Iraq helped Obama ascend from little-known candidate to president. But, today, it seems that some Republicans long for a return to Bush’s approach—especially when it comes to his policies toward Israel.

Representative Lee Zeldin—the only Jewish Republican in Congress, and so a kind of superlative attendee at a convening meant to strengthen the bridge between Jews and Republican decision-makers—said he considered Bush’s speech the standout moment of the entire Las Vegas weekend.

“President Bush was extraordinarily well received,” Zeldin said Monday in a phone interview. “Specifically, his legacy as it relates to strengthening America’s bonds with Israel was very present in that room.”

“That strength that he brought, it went beyond his legacy of having stronger ties between U.S. and Israel,” Zeldin said. “It was really channeling the intense desire among attendees to have a leader of the free world who’s acting like one.”

Bush downplayed his connection to one of the presumed Republican presidential candidates, his brother Jeb Bush, saying he realized that he was a political liability, according to the Times. But the way Zeldin told it, connection to Dubya hardly seemed a disadvantage. (Zeldin said, too, that complications to Jeb Bush's candidacy caused by remarks of foreign policy adviser James Baker that were critical of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu didn’t come up once in any of his conversations.)

In George W. Bush's speech Saturday, the former president quoted South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham’s criticism of Obama’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq in 2011—Graham called it a “strategic blunder.” Bush called the rise of Islamic State as a “second act” for al Qaeda. And he defended the rightness of his administration’s approach in the Middle East, and its fight against terrorism. Bush said, “Just remember the guy who slit Danny Pearl’s throat is in Gitmo, and now they're doing it on TV.”

Zeldin said that those in attendance greatly welcomed Bush's views. He said, “I think right now, President Obama’s strategy is in need of evolving in order to actually defeat the threat. That’s why there’s this vacuum. When King Abdullah of Jordan speaks up after an attack on his people, or the Israeli Prime Minister speaks up on Israelis, same thing goes when President Bush speaks up in favor of the need to defeat the elements that are emerging most recently in the Middle East.” 

The Republican Jewish Coalition, as Bloomberg's Julie Bykowicz has written, is part audition and part seduction, an attempt to woo donors like billionaire casino owner Sheldon Adelson, the single biggest individual donor in the last presidential election. Zeldin said he had a chance to meet Adelson for the first time this weekend, at a “packed house” of a Shabbat dinner. Texas Senator Ted Cruz and former Texas Governor Rick Perry, Zeldin said, were among the 700-plus people guests who broke bread. Maybe challah.

When Zeldin and Adelson shook hands, Zeldin said, “he was sitting next to [House Majority Leader] Kevin McCarthy. He was very well aware of who I was and the dynamics urgently at play in Congress.”

McCarthy ascended to that post after Eric Cantor, the only Jewish Republican in Congress at the time, lost his seat in a primary-election upset in 2014.

Zeldin himself spoke twice at the event, on Saturday: he, as Adelson realized, had an unusual status there. But in conversation, Zeldin stressed the commitment to Israel of his fellow party members. “There’s 300 other Republicans who aren’t Jewish, but you have members like [Arizona Representative] Trent Franks who have five Jewish staffers, two of whom served with the IDF,” or Israel Defense Forces. Last week, in comments to the Wall Street Journal on the biggest challenge facing his potential 2016 presidential campaign, Graham said, “If I put together a finance team that will make me financially competitive enough to stay in this thing…I may have the first all-Jewish cabinet in America because of the pro-Israel funding.”

When I asked Zeldin what he thought of this comment last week, he simply said, “I would encourage any president to surround themselves with the best possible leaders in every field regardless of race, gender, religion or ethnicity.” 

On that question of future presidents, Zeldin declined to name any speakers in or out of attendance at the Las Vegas event who particularly impressed him—only the former president. Which may be tactical. 

Zeldin said, “While there were individuals there who have specific candidates, it was so clear just how wide open the field is, as far as cultivating relationships with prospective donors and volunteers.”

He added, “The strongest desire was to win.”

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