Dispatch October 2008

McCain's Armenia Problem

"In the superheated world of ethnic grievance politics, rarely do presidential elections feature such a clear contrast between two candidates. In California, New Jersey, Michigan and Nevada, that contrast could hurt McCain."
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Eight years ago, George W. Bush was battling an unexpectedly competitive John McCain for the GOP’s presidential nomination. Scheduled to vote just days after South Carolina, Michigan suddenly looked decisive—and its substantial Armenian-American population became an attractive voting block.

Three days before the vote, Governor Bush sent a letter to two Armenian-American businessmen addressing the Armenian community’s biggest demand—recognition that the 1915 extermination of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire was an act of genocide. The Turkish government to this day denies that any genocide occurred, and no president since Ronald Reagan has used that term while in office. Bush pledged to correct that. “The Armenians were subjected to a genocidal campaign,” he wrote. “If elected President, I would ensure that our nation properly recognizes the tragic suffering of the Armenian people.” Bush lost in Michigan, won the presidency … and then bailed on his pledge. Last fall, the House of Representatives looked set to adopt a resolution affirming the Armenian genocide. But as Turkey threatened to disrupt its commercial ties with the United States and to invade Iraq, President Bush warned that America could not afford to alienate Turkey and pushed Congress to drop the measure. 

Today, Edgar Hagopian, one of the letter’s two recipients, acknowledges his disappointment. “I have written to President Bush many times but have not gotten a response,” he said, reeling at the remarkable turnaround that transformed Bush into the biggest obstacle to an official recognition.

Bush’s record is sure to haunt McCain’s 2008 presidential run, but it’s not as if the Arizona senator needed any help in alienating Armenian-Americans. McCain’s own stance against genocide recognition and his relative indifference toward bilateral relations with Armenia have been a matter of record since well before George W. Bush emerged on the national stage. Barack Obama, conversely, looked committed to the affirmation of the events of 1915 as a genocide long before he decided on a presidential run. In fact, in the superheated world of ethnic grievance politics, rarely do presidential elections feature such a clear contrast between two candidates. In the case of states with a substantial Armenian-American presence (including California, New Jersey, Michigan and Nevada) that contrast could hurt McCain.

Historically, neither party has owned the support of Armenian-Americans. Rather than stake their fortune with one party, national advocacy groups—starting with the Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA) and the Armenian Assembly of America—have pursued a bipartisan course.

Thanks in part to this strategy, the Armenian-American community has grown into a highly effective interest group. Cory Welt of Georgetown’s Eurasian Strategy Project mentions the Armenian lobby’s strength as an explanation for what he calls the “exceptional” size of Armenian foreign aid. The Congressional Caucus on Armenian issues has a bipartisan leadership (it is co-chaired by a Democrat from New Jersey, Rep. Frank Pallone, and a Republican from Michigan, Rep. Joe Knollenberg) and a large contingent of 150 members, including 13 of Michigan’s 15 U.S. Representatives, 38 of California’s 53 and 11 of New Jersey’s 13.

As a result, there has been little partisan divide on issues like genocide recognition and Armenian foreign aid, and past presidential candidates on the left and on the right were careful to pander to Armenian-American concerns. George H. W. Bush and his son both talked of genocide prior to their election before resorting to euphemisms once in office; Bob Dole was one of the strongest advocates of recognition efforts, as was John Kerry, who also championed other issues including the opening of the Turkey-Armenia border.

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