Commentators sometimes compare the American Israel Public Affairs Committee to the National Rifle Association. Both are powerful, controversial, single-issue, lobbying organizations. And both have had enormous success in shaping the Washington agenda.
But in their DNA, the two groups are utterly different. The NRA thrives on culture war. It produces videos attacking “lying member[s] of the media,” “Hollywood phon[ies],” and “athletes who use their free speech to alter and undermine what our flag represents.” Last week, at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference, NRA head Wayne LaPierre warned of “socialists” who seek “to deny citizens their basic freedoms.”
Many of the progressives who loathe the NRA loathe AIPAC, too. But you’ll never find AIPAC’s leaders at a CPAC conference. That’s because while the NRA feeds off of ideological and partisan polarization, AIPAC fears it. While the NRA can maintain its influence via hardcore partisanship, AIPAC can only succeed by working with whoever is in power.
AIPAC fears polarization because its mission requires wielding influence inside both parties. The NRA doesn’t need to work with Democratic presidents. It needs merely to mobilize its largely Republican congressional allies to block any gun-control measures a Democratic president might push. AIPAC, by contrast, is constantly massaging the relationship between Washington and Jerusalem. That requires good relations with the members of Congress chairing the Foreign Affairs and Armed Services committees. It requires constant contact with the Pentagon over U.S. arms sales and military exchanges, with the State Department and National Security Council over diplomatic initiatives, and with the Treasury Department over sanctions against common adversaries like Iran.