June 12, 2008
2008: The contest for the Jews
(Page 2 - Previous Page)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.