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November 6, 2012

Four more years (of bickering)

http://www.jewishjournal.com/nation/article/four_more_years_of_bickering

U.S. President Barack Obama, who won a second term in office by defeating Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, waves as he addresses supporters during his election night victory rally in Chicago on Nov. 7. REUTERS/Jim Bourg

U.S. President Barack Obama, who won a second term in office by defeating Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, waves as he addresses supporters during his election night victory rally in Chicago on Nov. 7. REUTERS/Jim Bourg

So the Jewish vote didn’t make much difference after all. Not even in Florida. Had Romney taken Florida, had he won this election, we could have argued that the 31 percent of Jews he was able to win over in the Sunshine State played an important role in his razor-thin victory. But he lost the election, Jewish gains notwithstanding. Thus, the first lesson, then, for Jewish Republicans like Sheldon Adelson should be as follows: If you have resources to spend on campaigning, if you are truly committed to the cause, spend your time and money assisting your party in winning over the people without whom elections cannot be won: Latinos. 

Saying the 2012 elections were not as important as the candidates (and many of us) said they were is easy. The two candidates were uninspiring, as is clear from the fact that neither of them was able to attract many crossovers from the other camp. Obama was supported by Democratic voters and Romney by Republicans. They masqueraded a heated debate over issues of great significance when, in fact, they were battling over a technicality: Who’s the better man to fix the economy – an issue most well-trained voters told pollsters is the “most important” for them. 

Believing the answers voters give is as dangerous as believing the candidates’ promises. Obama and Romney painted their race in ways favorable to their main cause – getting elected. But the voters were just as unreliable: They know what they need to say; they know what is expected of them. These elections early on were defined as being about “the economy” – hence, voters’ tendency to put the economy on top. However, putting the economy on top and then saying that Romney is the better candidate on the economy, and then giving Obama the White House, is exactly what American voters did, according to the exit polls. Elections are never about one issue and are almost always about how comfortable the electorate feels with the candidates. 

That more Jews felt comfortable with President Obama is not such a big surprise. No one really expected it to go any other way. It was also quite obvious that Obama will not win as strongly with Jewish voters as he did four years ago. As this article is being written, on Tuesday night, we don’t yet have all the detailed poll data that is scheduled to be released on Wednesday by both the Jewish Republican Jewish Coalition and by J Street pollster Jim Gerstein. However, early exit polls have revealed that Obama’s standings with Jews have declined to 70 percent of the vote. Did the vigorous campaign to peal away Obama Jewish voters work at all? Romney got 30 percent of the vote. And one suspects that both Jewish Democrats and Republicans will find a way to spin these results without admitting failure. 

They will be able to do it, among other reasons, because there’s never been true agreement on the percentage of the Jewish vote that went for Obama in 2008. Hence, there will be no agreement on the percentage of Jewish voters who’ve moved away from him and into the Republican column. A recent study argued that Obama’s actual Jewish number of 2008 was 74 percent — while the 2008 exit polls gave Obama 78 percent of the Jewish vote. So the scale of the decline depends how much you believe the new research. 

Those responsible for the new research want you to believe that this is the more serious analysis of the Jewish vote. But Republican Jews want you to believe that this study is a spin aimed at making Obama look better as his 2012 numbers drop. And they did drop: 8 percent fewer Jews voted for him, compared to the 2008 exit poll. Four percent fewer compared to the recent study. Whatever the final count, there’s no denying that the climb in Jewish Republican votes appears to be a continuation of a trend. In my book about the Jewish vote, I described the drop in the Republican Jewish vote since 1992 – in fact, I described the last two decades as the decades of the-Republican-Party-is-no-longer-an-option for Jews. But the graph of the Jewish vote for the Republican Party since that big drop of the early ’90s shows a slow but steady climb back to the party being an option.

On the morning of Election Day, I spent a couple of hours harassing Jewish voters in Beachwood Ohio, not far from Cleveland. These are precincts that went 71 percent-28 percent for Obama in 2008, 65 percent-35 percent for Kerry in 2004, and 77 percent-22 percent for Gore in 2000. I can’t tell you what the numbers will be like this time, but based on the dozen or so interviews I had time to do, it is likely that Romney got numbers in these precincts closer to those of the 2004 Bush than to the 2008 McCain. Possibly even higher. 

The story of the 2012 Jewish vote, then, is a story of a growing gap between the conservative wing of the community, a large part of it Orthodox, and the rest of the community, who remain loyal to the Democratic Party. Earlier this week, in Columbus, I made a pact with a local rabbi: I could ask any question and quote any answer, as long as I didn’t give away his identity. Not a hint, not a clue. Is it not problematic for a Jew in America to have such fear of exposing one’s political beliefs? – I asked him. The rabbi laughed. “You realize”, he said, “that my so-called fear has nothing to do with non-Jews – it is the Jews that I fear.” He then asked if I’d read Roger Cohen’s article in The New York Times about “The Jews of Cuyahoga County,” which, of course, I had. The rabbi didn’t like Cohen’s use of the word “ugly” at the outset of his article (“Things are getting ugly among the Jews of Cuyahoga County, with family splits and dinner invitations declined”), but he also gave the impression that at times things are, well, becoming ugly. Not for all Jews in Cuyahoga or Columbus, not in all families. But in some cases, it does – hence, the rabbi’s obsession about not wanting to be exposed. “If I get into political issues, I’m definitely going to alienate some people from one side or the other, and more likely from both sides.” These are days of tension and bickering and highly partisan spirit. These are days in which “hardly anyone can see both sides’ arguments.”

Having met and interviewed many Ohioan Jews during my week here, I discovered that it was easy to find Obama voters (“Is there even an alternative?” one Cleveland resident asked me), and also not very hard to find Romney voters (the easiest way: look for the Orthodox shul and the kosher deli), and was more rare, but still possible, to find the 2008-Obama-disappointee. But, truly, it was easier to find people who claim to know people disappointed with Obama than to find those disappointed people in person. “Yes, I have some friends that voted for Obama in 2008 and are now voting for Romney,” Jerry Mayer told me. Stewart Ain of The Jewish Week got a better quote from a Bret Caller: “I’ve had dozens and dozens of Jewish friends who voted for Obama in ’08 say to me that they are on the fence and will make a decision in the voting booth.”

And, one must admit, many of the Ohio Jews I met in recent days tended to think about Obama and Romney in the same dichotomist manner. Romney will “ban all abortions,” a weary Bev (or was it Deb? Forgive my insensitive Israeli ears) Hart explained, knowingly. Obama is “an enemy of Israel,” an angry Rob Gold told me. No article on the 2012 Jewish race can be concluded without some discussion of the Israel issue.

My first 2012 story on the U.S. election was published on Jan. 1, reported and written in Iowa, where Mitt Romney began his long journey to win the Republican primary election and become the nominee. I had a catchy headline for it: “Witnessing European Menace Invading Des Moines.” The only real foreign reference made by Romney in the political rally I attended that week “was not about the Middle East or even China,” I wrote back then. “Romney – and some of the other candidates as well – have made Europe a topic of political conversation. As in: If we continue to have policies like we have now, we might risk “ending up being like Europe.” I was reminded of this event and of that post, as I was listening on Sunday to Romney’s running mate, Paul Ryan, in a well-kept medium-size hanger, where he made a short landing in Mansfield, Ohio. Ryan was at his very best at that event, sharp and amicable. But he had no intention of talking about anything but the U.S. economy. 

I was waiting to hear a word or two about foreign affairs. Two days before an American election, as the whole world was watching, one would have been justified to expect at least a pretense interest on the part of the American candidates in what’s happening beyond America’s borders. But no such words ever quite materialized. Obama, when I saw him last week, seemed to have little interest in talking about foreign affairs. In fact, Obama made it a habit to tell American voters that electing him is important because he’s the candidate that will do “some nation building here in America.” Obama, like Romney, is an internationalist. But both of them felt a political need to make the world disappear in the final stretch of the election.  

For Israel, a less involved America is a convenience on some matters – such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – but really it’s a curse. Israel needs the United States to be leading the coalition against Iran, and needs the United States to project confidence and have influence in a region that becomes more volatile by the hour – recent exchanges of fire on the Syrian border being the most recent manifestation. Obama is likely not to have much appetite to be more engaged in the region, and even less appetite to have to deal with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, but will have no choice but to do it. 

Interestingly, not since Eisenhower has Israel had to make do with a president with whom it doesn’t quite get along for two consecutive terms. Carter, Ford and the first Bush – the three presidents at the top of Israel’s list of unfavorable presidents – were all one termers, annoying to Israel’s government, but gone quickly. With Obama, it will be eight years of bickering and mistrust and miscommunication, unless one of three things happens: If Netanyahu is not re-elected; if Obama or Netanyahu determine to put an end to the sour state of relations; or if the U.S. disengages. Option No. 1 will be an important component of Israel’s coming election – a tool that Netanyahu’s rivals are going to use in hopes of convincing Israelis that the relations with Obama are reason enough for them to replace the prime minister. Option No. 2 is the preferable option – the grown-up option – and hence the less likely one. Option No. 3 is the most dangerous of them all. Better for Obama and Netanyahu to keep the bickering going – and with it the involvement of the United States in Israel-related affairs. 

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