George Allen is one of the most successful politicians in the modern history of Virginia. In 1993, he overcame a 27 percentage point deficit in the polls to break the Democratic party’s hold on the governorship (the Dems had won it three straight times). The popularity Allen earned as a hugely successful governor enabled him to defeat another giant of Virginia politics (though a faltering one) — Chuck Robb — in the 2000 Senate election. Allen has become such a prominent Senator that it seems hard to believe he’s only just completing his first term.
To avoid a crushing defeat in 2006 (and perhaps to nip Allen’s presidential aspirations in the bud) Virginia and national Democrats rallied around a widely respected ex-Republican, James Webb. Even so, Allen appeared to cruising to victory until he used an obscure but offensive word (“maccaca”) to refer to a young Webb campaign aide. After that Allen seemed to go into free fall, to the point that some polls actually showed the Senate race to be even.
After a false start or two, Allen got his campaign back on track and, as of the last round of polls, appears to enjoy a fairly comfortable lead over Webb. Sensing that Allen might be vulnerable, however, the Webb campaign and its left-wing blogger friends have become increasingly weird and nasty. As Byron York notes, they took to referring to the Senator as George Felix Allen, Jr.
If that was the left jab, yesterday came the left hook. During a debate between the two candidates, one of the media questioners, a local tv news person named Peggy Fox, asked Allen:
It has been reported that your grandfather Felix, whom you were given your middle name for, was Jewish. Could you please tell us whether your forebears include Jews and, if so, at which point Jewish identity might have ended?
Such a question is plainly out-of-bounds. Has any candidate in the modern era ever been asked by a respectable interviewer about the religion of his “forbears?” Our Constitution, for good reason, bans religious tests for public office. It may nonetheless be legitimate under some circumstances to ask a candidate how his or her religious views might affect decisions (as Mitt Romney no doubt will be asked many times). But what legitimate basis can there be for injecting the religion of a candidate’s grandfather into a campaign? And if that is legitimate, what’s next — a question about whether a candidate’s forebears include African-Americans?
The unprecedented and un-American nature of Fox’s question, coupled with the reference to Allen’s middle name of Felix which the Webb people had already been making something of, causes one to wonder whether Fox was acting in concert with the Webb campaign or at a minimum acting on her own to advance its interests. To Fox and to the campaign it might have seemed that asking the question was a win-win proposition. Allen could say that his grandfather was Jewish, which Fox and/or the campaign might view as hurting Allen with some religious conservative voters. Allen could refuse to answer, in which case Webb’s people could accuse him of being a racist who is ashamed of his Jewish connection. And Allen might get angry and provide some unflattering video the Webb campaign could use.
Allen did refuse to answer the question, and he did get angry. However, it’s far from clear that, in the context of the highly offensive nature of the question, his anger will be held against him.
But the Webb campaign duly tried cash in on Allen’s response to the question. In a long post on the Daily Kos, it’s “netroots” coordinator argued that “George Allen appears to have some deep-seated ‘issues’ regarding his Jewish heritage – and regarding many other things as well.” But this claim makes sense only if one believes that there is nothing inherently offensive in a question to a political candidate about the religion of his “forebears;” otherwise, Allen’s displeasure can easily be understood without imputing to him any “deep-seated issues.” And if the Webb campaign believes there was nothing offensive about the question, then it has some “deep-seated issues.”
Which brings us back to Webb himself. He tries to keep his prints off the hit job of his netroots guy, who tells Kos’s readers that “the ideas expressed here belong to Lowell Feld alone, and do not necessarily represent those of Jim Webb, his advisors, staff, or supporters.” But what are Webb’s “ideas” about the nauseating question Allen was asked and about Allen’s response? The James Webb who earned the broad respect I mentioned at the beginning of this post would denounce questions about the religion of a candidate’s forbears and make it clear that the views of his netroots guy decidedly are not his views.
Will James Webb the Democratic politician do so?
JOHN adds: This really was a weird episode. It’s hard to understand what the Democrats could have been thinking. But we know from experience that anti-Semitism, like homophobia, is common on the left. The “nutroots” and their TV mouthpiece may therefore have considered it a natural assumption that it would hurt a candidate to be identified as Jewish. That’s the only explanation I can think of for the “Felix” thing. I get the impression that the TV reporter, Peggy Fox, was trying to “out” Allen as a Jew, just as many lefties like to “out” purported homosexuals.