Jewish Journal

2008: The contest for the Jews

by Raphael J. Sonenshein

Posted on Jun. 12, 2008 at 2:33 pm

With Hillary Rodham Clinton's concession on Saturday, the real race begins. In the struggle between Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), there will be a fierce competition for Jewish support. Seeing potential weakness in Obama's Jewish flank, McCain will work overtime to grab as much as he can. At the same time, Obama finally has a direct line to compete for Jews without having to fight past Clinton. The battle began almost immediately after the last primary on June 3, when both McCain and Obama (as well as Clinton) spoke to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). While the Jewish vote does not seem likely to sway from the norm in the congressional races, where long-standing patterns of huge support for Democratic congressional candidates seem likely to continue and may help the Democrats add to their 2006 gains, in the contest for president things are not so certain. Jews are excited, nervous, concerned and searching for the comfortable. Many are ready to vote for Obama. Some still love Clinton, and are not ready to commit to a candidate. Others feel safer with the better-known McCain.

Does the Jewish Community Matter in 2008?

With their historically high turnout, Jewish voters will help determine who wins the national popular vote if the race is close. But the electoral college system skews that impact. Because of the electoral college, which awards all of a state's electoral votes to the candidate with the most popular votes, the Jewish vote will only matter directly in the presidential race if a state is heavily contested. Jews are concentrated in a number of important states with lots of electoral votes. Only some are battlegrounds. The pivotal states of Ohio and Michigan have relatively few Jewish voters, although a large Jewish turnout in the Cleveland suburbs could be a factor in closely matched Ohio.

Obama is likely to win Illinois and California by large margins, and it would be surprising indeed if he lost New York or New Jersey. Jews, though, are an important block in two battleground states, Pennsylvania and surprisingly Nevada, where Jewish turnout in the Democratic caucuses was extremely high. Jews in the growing cosmopolitan portion of Northern Virginia could be important in a state that now is trending from reliably Republican to contested. In critical Florida, however, the Jewish vote is central. McCain is running well ahead in Florida. If Obama can win over Florida's Jews, he has an outside chance of making the state competitive. The large majority of Florida Jews are Democrats, and had their preferences been counted accurately in 2000, Al Gore would be president. But Florida Jews are older and more traditional than California Jews. Many have ties to New York City, where Jews, while Democratic, are more conservative and where there had been significant conflicts between African Americans and Jews. Many wanted to vote for Rudy Guiliani and might be amenable to voting for McCain.

A second critical way that Jews matter is in campaign finance. Jews are major campaign donors, principally to Democrats, and they were keys to the Clinton successes in the 1990s. There are also Jewish donors who give to the Republicans, somewhat countering the overall Jewish tilt toward the Democrats. But this year there's a new paradigm: The Obama campaign finance model of small donors tapped numerous times over the Internet has revolutionized campaign fundraising and diluted the role of big donors. Big Jewish donors will have plenty of opportunities to give to the national party committees in larger amounts for the fall. And Obama is expected to be able to tap into additional funds as the Clinton donors move into the Obama camp, where Jewish donors will be back in the game. Jewish Republican donors might make a real difference to the underfunded McCain campaign.

But there is a third, less noticed reason why Jews matter in 2008. In a society that has become less and less informed about politics and government, Jews remain a deeply attentive political community. Intensely concerned about Israel and the protection of the Jewish community, but alert to so much more, Jews offer a candidate a tough audience on policy. Has anybody observed a Jewish audience in the last year that hasn't been seething with questions, insights, disagreements and more regarding the 2008 election? There are no softball questions in a Jewish audience. With a well-known Republican running against a less well-known Democrat, one can hear the agonized process of decision and the wheels churning.

Jews are found disproportionately in the chattering classes, thinking and commenting about public affairs, in the active stratum, running for office in strong numbers and winning, and can be found in the academy analyzing public policy. From the days of FDR's "Brains Trust," Jews have been advising presidents. And they sometimes can be found on opposite sides of the same issue. And because some of the central concerns of Jews, like Israel, have become mainstream issues, Jews can confer foreign policy legitimacy on a candidate by vetting them on Israel and a strong American role in the world. Pass the Jewish test in foreign policy, and you can take on anybody.

How Will the Candidates Attract Jews?

Politicians and parties are creatures of habit. Since Richard Nixon, Republicans have had one main avenue to Jewish support: Israel. As the party has moved farther to the right (Nixon would be a tax-and-spend, appeasing liberal in today's Republican Party), Jews have been offered a bargain: trade in your progressive ideals for unqualified support of Israel. On at least two occasions, Jewish voters responded positively. In 1972, Democrats nominated George McGovern on a peace platform, and against Nixon, he received one of the smallest shares of the Jewish vote. In 1980, President Jimmy Carter lost considerable Jewish support in his race against Ronald Reagan (although some of the Jewish voters lost to Carter went to third-party candidate John Anderson).

Since then, the Republican plan has worked poorly, in both congressional and presidential elections. Bill Clinton, Gore and Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) received extremely large shares of the Jewish vote, and congressional Democrats have received massive Jewish majorities. But the plan has a decent chance this year. McCain offers the Republican brand identification on foreign policy and on Israel, years of familiarity to the Jewish community and the help of independent, former Democratic Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut. Obama is still making himself known.

In theory, a black candidate should do very well among Jews, who are much more liberal than whites in general and who historically have provided the principal white base for black candidates. But the complex interplay between African Americans and Jews in urban politics in recent decades complicates the picture. Jews are acutely attuned (more than most liberal whites) to the slights against Israel and Jews that have at times emanated from segments of the black community. In a nutshell, that is Obama's Jewish problem, exemplified by the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.

Obama has to overcome black-Jewish tension, Wright and concerns about Israel (much like what Hillary Rodham Clinton faced and eventually overcame in New York state after her first Senate race in 2000). If McCain does well, he puts Florida out of reach. If Obama manages to seal this deal, he gets a gigantic policy boost to his campaign in the international arena, and maybe has a chance in Florida. He'll have help from a number of Jewish elected officials, including Rep. Bob Wexler in Florida, and Rep. Henry Waxman in Los Angeles. He will have more Jewish surrogates as the rest of the Clinton team comes over. He will need every bit of their help to overcome suspicions raised by, among other things, viral e-mails falsely accusing him of all sorts of things.

Each candidate will have to convince Jews that he is a genuine moderate. McCain's problem is that he has had to embrace President Bush in order to win the nomination and now must avoid him in order to win. McCain needs to be seen as similar to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a genuine moderate willing to take on his party's right wing. The amendment on the November ballot to outlaw gay marriage will not help McCain in that task, as the governor is likely to oppose it, and McCain will probably favor it. Jewish voters have shown no inclination to support right-wing Republicans but have long shown a willingness to give a hearing to genuine Republican moderates, such as Schwarzenegger and former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan. But these politicians were pro-choice and pro-gay rights, neither of which defines McCain.

Obama will obviously have to work hard to avoid being defined by Republicans as an out-of-the-mainstream leftist. Even though Jews tend toward the left politically, being seen as too far left activates a high level of concern among Jewish voters.

The Three 'I's at AIPAC

The contest for Jewish support really began last week as McCain and Obama spoke to the conservative-leaning AIPAC. This is a McCain audience, and he received a rousing welcome. He attacked Obama's proposal to talk to Iran and other adversaries. But Obama did surprisingly well, receiving an enthusiastic response to a strong and emotional speech heavily laced with strong support for Israel.

Their debate over foreign policy is about three 'I's: Israel, Iraq and Iran. McCain wants to make being tough with Iran a litmus test. But he is imprisoned by Bush's odd foreign policy that focuses on not talking to people we don't like. Supporters of Israel want to hear tough talk regarding Iran because they worry that Americans do not realize how serious a threat Iran is. But not talking makes little sense. It's not appeasement to talk to bad guys; it's what you give them that is appeasement.

To make this point, Obama has been quoting Presidents Kennedy, Nixon and Reagan about talking to adversaries, in order to highlight how out of the mainstream is the Bush approach that McCain has adopted. As he makes this argument, Obama has to be careful to not suggest that talk and action are the same thing, and to emphasize that diplomacy must be tough.

So this "talk" debate is perilous for both. McCain has to explain why every president except Bush is wrong, when the country has largely decided that Bush is wrong on most everything. Obama has to explain that he is not just a talker, and that he understands the old Nixonian mantra, "peace through strength."

This question of talking to adversaries is really interesting. Israel is talking to Syria, and the Bush administration is trying to block them from doing so. This has to be the first time that an American administration has actively discouraged Israel from talking with an enemy. It's remarkable also because Iran desperately hopes to keep Israel from making a deal with Syria. Israel may be smartly pursuing a divide-and-conquer strategy that has Iran worried. So why on earth would the United States act this way if the goal is to weaken Iran?

On Iraq, Obama has said from the start that the Iraq war was a mistake. McCain's position is that the war was right but has been carried out badly, until recently when it has been going better. Obama wants to get out as soon as possible. McCain seems willing to stay until "victory" is achieved.

And what about Israel? McCain argues that the war has made Israel safer. Obama says it has made Iran stronger. My assessment is that the Iraq War is a loser for McCain no matter what. His strongest case for the pro-Israel constituency is Iran. But Obama will not necessarily win the rational argument that the war has made Iran stronger and has not helped Israel, even though there is considerable evidence for it. People who think the Iraq War is a great idea are not going to be moved by an argument about its consequences. Attitudes about Iraq and Iran are only partly "rational." They are also about defining one's stance in the world. Obama would be safer simply arguing that the war has been a through and through mistake and that he will end it, but that he will be more than tough enough to deal with Iran.

The Friends of the Candidates...

Both candidates have friends who will carry their message to Jews. McCain has many allies in the Jewish community, from AIPAC on down. But his big cannon is Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn). Lieberman has taken up residence in McCain's corner. As much as his recent actions antagonize his Democratic colleagues, with whom he still caucuses, he may have no other option but to throw in his lot with McCain. His leverage over the caucus, in which his vote determines which party controls the Senate, will likely end in January if, as expected, Democrats pick up seats. Lieberman will attack Obama hard. He is already making the case that the Democrats are weak on foreign policy, and he will have an audience among Jews. His attacks annoyed Obama enough that the Democratic candidate took Lieberman aside in the Senate to confront him about his unwillingness to more clearly scotch the rumor spreading its way around the Jewish community that Obama is a Muslim.

McCain also has a complicated alliance with pro-Israel evangelicals. The trick for the Republicans has been to use the evangelicals to show their pro-Israel bona fides without letting people see too closely what somewhat deranged ideologies lie behind it. So, when the Rev. John Hagee was quoted as saying that Hitler had done a great service by driving the Jews to Israel, McCain had to cut his ties (although Lieberman seems to have not done so).

Of course, Obama has his own weird pastor problem, what with the public statements by the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Fortunately, Obama has a large and growing support base among Jewish elected officials and foreign policy specialists with credibility on Israel. Their help will be absolutely critical to him as he makes his case to the Jewish community, where the Wright controversy remains alive.

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