December 16, 1999
Can Bush Win the Jewish Vote?
After being vanquished from the White House nearly eight years ago, much of the Republican establishment is putting its faith -- and cash -- behind George W. Bush to lead the party back to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
Many Jewish Republicans appear to be no different.
After politely listening to the five other Republican presidential candidates trailing the Texas governor in the polls, a standing-room-only crowd of an estimated 700 hundred Jewish activists at a Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC) event recently gave the GOP front-runner a rousing reception.
Max Fisher of Detroit, the scion of Jewish Republicans who has advised every Republican president since Dwight Eisenhower, introduced Bush at the Dec. 1 event as the next president of the United States.
Many in the crowd gathered at the RJC's presidential candidate's forum described Bush as the "Republican Clinton" for his folksy speaking style, confidence and charisma.
Jewish Republican activists are saying -- as they have for years, Jewish Democrats note -- that this election will see a significant shift of the Jewish vote from the Democratic Party to the GOP.
Sheldon Kamins, a Maryland real estate developer who heads GOPAC, a Republican political action committee, predicted that if Jews -- who have traditionally voted overwhelmingly Democratic -- take a new look at the Republican Party, they will like what they see.
It is "imperative that every American at this historic moment take a fresh look at the parties and take a fresh look a these issues, to place principle over old habits, to place principle above partisanship," said Kamins, a key Bush fund raiser in the Washington area.
"And we believe that fresh look will result in vastly increased numbers from the Jewish community, and indeed all Americans, selecting conservative leaders, for one very simple reason: Conservative principles deliver better results for all Americans while maintaining more freedom for more Americans."
Frank Luntz, a top Republican pollster, believes that Bush is the Republicans' best presidential candidate to attract Jewish votes since Ronald Reagan.
Luntz, detailing at a session last week how Republicans can win more Jewish votes, said Bush could win as much as 30 percent.
Jewish supporters describe Bush as someone who is personable, practical rather than an ideologue, inclusive and genuinely concerned about helping the disadvantaged, an attribute his backers and political operatives say should appeal to Jews.
However, Luntz said Bush's failure to criticize Pat Buchanan's views on World War II until the conservative columnist left the Republican Party could hurt his chances among Jews. Buchanan, who has become a Reform Party candidate, questioned in a recent book whether it was necessary for the United States to enter the war.
The Republicans received the highest percentage of Jewish votes in recent memory in 1956, when 40 percent voted for Eisenhower. Ronald Reagan came close in 1980, when he won 39 percent. In that election, President Carter earned 45 percent and independent John Anderson won 15 percent.
Although Bush's father won more than 30 percent of Jewish voters in his 1988 victory over Michael Dukakis, he only received 12 percent in his 1992 re-election bid against Bill Clinton and Ross Perot. The decrease signaled a cooling of relations between the Jewish community and the Bush administration, particularly over its policy toward Israel.
Luntz believes that Jews agree with Republicans on a host of policy issues, but are primarily turned off by their style.
"Republicans show too much anger and not enough heart for the typical Jewish voter," Luntz writes in his introduction to a report detailing how GOP candidates should try to win the support of Jewish voters.
"Jews are drawn to intellectual, charitable personalities, yet too many Republicans appear dogmatic rather than compassionate."
While many Jewish voters are turned off by the influence of the Christian Coalition in the Republican Party and the anti-abortion rights plank of the party's platform, Luntz said, Republicans can win Jewish support by focusing on education, crime and taxes.
Luntz also concludes from his survey with thousands of Jewish voters that if pro-life Republicans use "less divisive language" on social issues such as abortion, they can win Jewish support if they are "vocally and unconditionally pro-Israel."
"Jews feel even more strongly about being pro-Israel than being pro-choice; it is a lifetime conviction that simply runs deeper," Luntz wrote in his report for the RJC.
Yet two of the Republicans he cited as doing well with Jews, particularly New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, both support abortion rights. Another Republican mentioned by Luntz, Sen. George Voinovich of Ohio, is pro-life.
Matthew Brooks, the RJC's executive director, said Luntz's message to Republican candidates is that "even if you are pro-life it doesn't automatically disqualify you" if the candidate can articulate effective positions on other issues, including Israel.
Although Brooks said Luntz's research has yet to be shared with any Republican candidates, Bush appeared to follow Luntz's thinking during his speech last week to Republican Jewish activists.
On Israel, Bush said "a safe and secure Israel is in our national strategic interests" and added that a final peace deal has to be negotiated between Israel and the Palestinians.
"A lasting peace will not happen if our government tries to make Israel conform to our vision of national security," Bush said, adding that a peace deal should not be pushed "just for standing in the polls."
He also spoke of his brand of "compassionate conservatism" -- not wanting people to feel left behind and rallying people of faith into "armies of compassion" to help those less fortunate -- and detailed his tax cut proposal.
Bush's proposal to give scholarships, or vouchers, to students in failing schools received a positive response from the crowd.
The issue in general is divisive in the Jewish community, with strong passions being voiced by both advocates and opponents.
However, Bush steered clear of the hot-button issues of abortion and school prayer. Bush opposes abortion except in the case of rape, incest and when the life of the mother is in danger.
However, he has said he would not make an anti-abortion constitutional amendment a priority and that he would not pick a judge to sit on the Supreme Court solely on the person's position on abortion.
On school prayer, he backs the rights of students to lead prayers before Texas high school football games.
Jewish Democrats argue that those are two important issues that will prevent Bush from doing well among Jews.
"American Jews have been rapidly learning that George W. Bush is clearly at odds with their strong support for reproductive rights and the separation between church and state," Ira Forman, the executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council said in a statement released before Bush's speech.
"Every time Mr. Bush opens his mouth, American Jews find one more reason to disagree with him and his priorities."
Forman, in an interview, added that predictions by Jewish Republicans that Jews will leave the Democratic Party and find a home among Republicans has yet to happen and is unlikely to occur this year.
"People do vote rationally," he said. "You're not going to fool them with just changing your rhetoric if your positions don't change."
However, Brooks said the research shows that Republicans don't have to change their positions but rather have to do a better job of "selling their ideas" to Jews "in a way that has the maximum kind of resonance."