How did it happen? How did a respectable candidate like Sen. John F. Kerry lose to President George W. Bush, the fumbling commander-in-chief and avatar of cronyism in government?
Various explanations are possible, from the painfully obvious (Bush was seen as resolute, Kerry as flip-floppy) to the deliciously conspiratorial (the Republicans rigged the electronic voting machines, and prevented blacks from voting). Since, God help us, the 2008 presidential campaign has already begun, Democrats need a clear understanding of what went wrong.
Jewish Democrats in particular must analyze our defeat. A significant percentage of Jewish voters wandered off the reservation, and we want them back.
Fundamentally, foreign policy was the crucial electoral battleground, and Kerry was a casualty of the war against Islamist terror.
There are people who want to destroy America, and kill Americans; who have already killed thousands of Americans. They are a well-funded, transnational army of would-be martyrs seeking nuclear, chemical and biological weapons with which to kills scores of thousands or even millions, and cause billions of dollars in economic damage. After Sept. 11, Bush "got it." He realized that this is war, and like the war against Nazism, nothing less then total victory is required. To achieve victory, America must no longer tolerate Arab corruption and despotism, but must instead encourage democracy and liberalism. This is why the liberation of Iraq was so important. There's much to criticize in Bush's implementation, but he grasps the key point.
But while Bush is unexpectedly a Wilsonian "idealist," Kerry turns out to be a foreign policy "realist." Stability is a primary value for him. He doesn't appreciate the need for a democratic upheaval in the Middle East, including in Iraq.
Even more damaging, Kerry views Islamist terrorism as a law enforcement problem, not a war of national self-preservation. His favored strategies involve building coalitions, drafting United Nations resolutions and the like. His view of the balance between civil liberties and national security is illuminated by his comment that in a Kerry administration "there will be no John Ashcroft trampling on the Bill of Rights." But many Americans think that not being murdered by Islamo-fascists is itself an important civil right. They don't agree that Ashcroft is scarier than Osama bin Laden. Kerry's priorities planted doubts that he would protect America and smash the Islamist threat.
Similarly, while Kerry is undoubtedly a friend of Israel, the nagging question persists: What sort of friend? One wonders if he would have been an enthusiastic "peace processor," urging Israel to again make "good-faith gestures" to terrorists and "take risks for peace." There is a fear that Kerry's desire to repair relations with Europe and the United Nations could have led to undue pressure on Israel.
Bush has been inconsistent in his support of Israel, flip-flopping on everything from the security fence to the Syria Accountability Act to settlements to moving our embassy to Jerusalem. But there is a sense that at heart Bush takes seriously the fact that Israel faces the same malevolent forces we do.
All this was foreseeable. After all, Kerry has a Senate record of voting against new weapons systems, favoring nuclear freezes and so on. This was the Democrats' great mistake: when we realized that we needed an "electable" candidate, the Howard Dean fever broke. But instead of favoring a genuinely moderate, electable guy like Sen. Joe Lieberman, we turned to Kerry. Why? In the apparent belief that his four months in Vietnam would trump his 19 years in the Senate. In short, we gambled that his brief military career would make him a "war hero," immunizing him from the charge of being soft on national security and terrorism. In retrospect, that was nutty.
It didn't help that many Democratic activists seemed to lose their minds, blinded by their hatred of Bush. They saw a dim-bulb frat boy, a hard-drinking draft dodger, an election-stealing cowboy. But, the country as a whole did not share their loathing. Like it or not, Bush rose to the occasion after Sept. 11, and earned a measure of respect. The Democratic Party's inability to recognize this meant that we "misunderestimated" him again.
Ah, well. We Jewish Democrats can comfort ourselves with the knowledge that the clear majority of American Jews voted "correctly." On the other hand, we can't be complacent, as the demographic trends are not favorable. Younger Jews don't necessarily inherit their parents' or grandparents' FDR-molded allegiances. Foreign-born Jews such as the Russians, Persians and Israelis have no automatic distaste for the GOP. The burgeoning Orthodox community has its reasons for leaning Republican. And overshadowing all these considerations, as the Jewish community increasingly intermarries and assimilates, our voting patterns will increasingly mirror those of American society at large.
To prevail in 2008, we must realize that it's a competitive political environment, and Jewish Democrats will have to hustle. Expanding market share is the key to success. To do this, we must admit and confront the creeping anti-Israel bias on the left. We must take seriously the war on Islamist terrorism. Most of all, we must embody core Democratic values, as stated by Democratic President Andrew Jackson: "Equal opportunity for all, special privilege for none and support for Israel always." Well, perhaps he didn't actually say that last bit, but you get the idea.
Paul Kujawsky (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the president of Democrats for Israel, Los Angeles. The opinions expressed here are his own.