February 8, 2001
Jewish Republicans hope to glean benefits of GOP control.
Talk to Jewish Republicans these days and you hear a palpable sense of coming out of the wilderness.
After an agonizing eight years -- with Bill Clinton in the White House and Jews snapping back to their traditional allegiance to the Democrats -- things may be changing, they believe.
Since the heady days of Ronald Reagan, Jewish Republicans have routinely predicted their party was on the verge of dramatic gains among Jewish voters, only to be disappointed at the polls. This time those predictions could have more credence -- but only if the party and their president don't blow it.
Here are some factors that will determine whether the new Bush administration boosts Jewish Republicans' fortunes -- or just leads to more frustration and disappointment.
President George W. Bush and Compassionate Conservatism
Bush is an attractive politician who talks the talk of moderation, inclusiveness and bipartisanship. His compassionate conservatism was an easily lampooned campaign slogan, but it could prove to be a compelling political asset for the Republicans -- if voters see it creatively and assertively implemented.
That means working hard to make sure the focus on faith-based and private-sector solutions to social ills aren't simply used as an excuse for cutting federal programs and casting recipients adrift.
Bush surprised many by suggesting a kind of school voucher clearly aimed at improving the education of those in the worst schools, not just giving government handouts to affluent private and parochial school parents. The Jewish community could be attracted to that kind of approach -- if it continues.
His nomination as attorney general was a major blow to the image of inclusiveness and compassion Bush has tried to project.
Ashcroft, through his willingness to play the race- and gay-baiting card for political gain, has infuriated African Americans and gays; his conservative views on church-state issues have worried many Jews.
Ashcroft has promised to enforce even laws he does not favor.
If he rigorously lives up to that promise and makes genuine and sustained efforts to reach out to the minorities who were offended by his nomination, his presence in the administration will not preclude growing Jewish support for the Republicans.
But if he plays mostly to his former colleagues on the congressional right, he will do the GOP cause enormous harm with minorities and the centrist swing voters who ultimately decide elections.
The new Bush administration has said the right things about support for Israel's security.
At the same time, it has indicated a determination not to become overinvolved, which will be welcome news to some pro-Israel forces.
A somewhat less involved, less intense president might be a relief after the hyperinvolved Bill Clinton; Bush, with his corporate CEO detachment, and Secretary of State Colin Powell, the competent military professional, might be just the ticket.
But American Jews are not likely to pat Bush on the back for simply walking away from the effort to bring peace to the Jewish state, an effort most still regard as vital.
And American Jews will judge him for the durability of his pro-Israel rhetoric when the next regional crisis comes along, and administration policymakers -- many of them holdovers from the last, unfriendly Bush administration -- are pulling in the opposite direction.
Administration advocates of inclusiveness and compassion will face stiff resistance from GOP congressional leaders who want to take advantage of their narrow control over both branches of government to push an ultra-conservative agenda on issues such as abortion, gun control, civil rights and school prayer.
If Bush cedes leadership to hardliners such as House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Tex.), he can kiss goodbye any Jewish shift to the GOP in 2002.
Attractive New Candidates
It's time for the Jewish Republicans to take advantage of some of the new blood in the party.
The party boasts some attractive younger politicians -- such as Rep. Eric Cantor, the new congressman from Richmond, Va. Cantor could serve as a prototype for new-style Jewish Republicans: unapologetically conservative on issues from gun control to homosexual rights, but also much better able to present those views without the bitterness and extremism Jews hear from the Christian right and their supporters in the party.
Style isn't a substitute for policies Jews like -- but without it as a launching pad, the Republicans have no chance at all.
There's no question the Republican party would like to expand its political base, and many see Bush as the ideal leader to drive that change.
But it's not clear if a Jewish community that has repeatedly spurned the Republicans figures into those plans.
Going after Hispanic or Asian American voters may be a much more attractive prospect to Republican leaders; both of these communities are less wedded to the Democratic party, and both may be turning more conservative as they become more prosperous.
And don't forget Arab American and Muslim voters, who swung in the GOP direction on Nov. 7. Their domestic conservatism is a natural fit with the Republican party, a fact GOP leaders are working hard to exploit.
Jewish money still matters to GOP candidates, but the party is getting that anyway; it's far from clear if the party has any serious intention of investing precious resources in reaching out to stubborn Jewish voters.