December 2, 1999
Snoozing Toward November 2000
This week, a bevy of presidential candidates paraded before the Republican Jewish Coalition to display their political wares. The RJC did its best to pitch the event as a watershed in Jewish politics, but that's a stretch; in reality, the first election year of the new millennium is shaping up as a yawner, from a Jewish perspective.
There are few pressing community concerns at play in the unfolding campaigns, few candidates who can unite Jews in outraged opposition, now that Pat Buchanan has joined Marxists, pro-wrestlers and Donald Trump in the comic-opera Reform party.
Inertia, not passion and a desire for change, will drive the Jewish vote next year. That's qualified good news for the Democrats, but not so good for the GOP.
The big-ticket issues that can stir Jewish voters are largely absent in 2000.
Mideast politics? Forget it; none of the major candidates have expressed more than a passing interest.
Vice President Al Gore, the shaky Democratic presidential front-runner, has the longest connection to the issue, and he may ultimately benefit from his association with a president who is regarded by many as the most pro-Israel ever.
But Gore has yet to light the spark of enthusiasm -- in the Jewish community and elsewhere. Mideast affairs will not have the prominent place that they had in his unsuccessful 1988 campaign, when he played the pro-Israel card in an attempt to block the nomination of Michael Dukakis.
Gore's Democratic rival, former Sen. Bill Bradley, is actively mining the Jewish electorate for support, and if the vice president's latest campaign overhaul isn't successful, he may get it.
But Bradley's appeal is mostly based on the fact that his name never appeared on Clinton-Gore bumper stickers.
On the Middle East, he seems perfectly comfortable with the policies of the current administration. In the Senate, he was never a leader on the issue, and he seems content to continue that tradition now that he's a presidential candidate.
If you're looking for sharply different views on the subject, don't look to the major Republican candidates, who want to talk about Bill Clinton's character, not the quicksand of foreign policy. And when international affairs surface, the subject is usually China and Russia, not the Middle East.
Texas Gov. George W. Bush, who failed a foreign policy pop quiz recently, is getting some remedial tutoring from a group of Reagan-Bush advisers.
In his first major foreign policy speech two weeks ago, he ranged across the world -- but gave the Middle East less than a sentence. Peace process critics and supporters alike will find little to cheer about in his campaign.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz) has won friends in the Jewish community because of his international outlook and longtime support for Israel. But as a candidate, the last thing he wants is to complicate things with clear Mideast positions.
In a recent speech to the Arab American Institute, McCain showed that he can throw around Mideast generalities with the best of them when he said that "resolution of the conflict between Arab and Jew represents to many the ultimate challenge. When the commitment is there, the goal is attainable."
He's unlikely to get more specific before November 2000.
Publisher Malcolm "Steve" Forbes has been more critical of the Clinton administration's Mideast efforts, but he is running a campaign in which foreign policy is the tiniest of footnotes, except for his indignant hostility to the United Nations.
As Israel and the Palestinians move into difficult final status negotiations, divisions within the Jewish community over the talks and the U.S. role will widen. But that's unlikely to play out in the presidential elections, where most candidates will pretend the Mideast is on some other planet.
On the domestic front, there's plenty of action -- but not the kind that's likely to unite the Jewish community in political action.
The Republican front-runner and his top rival -- Bush and McCain -- are trying to steer the party back into the domestic mainstream, an effort that will win praise if not a lot of votes from Jews.
Many of the hot-button social issues that galvanize Jewish voters, including school prayer and vouchers, have receded from the days when the Christian Coalition was on the rise; abortion isn't the overarching issue it once was, at least among the presidential front-runners.
Forbes, vying to become the religious right's top choice, is pressing these issues -- and his dismal polling numbers suggest voters aren't in a buying mood. Ditto for former Family Research Council director Gary Bauer, who would be scary to many Jewish voters if he wasn't mired at the bottom of the polls.
The conservative domestic agenda will be much more of a focus in congressional races.
But Jews will not be a significant factor in the contests that will determine the future of Rep. Tom DeLay and Rep. Dick Armey, both Texas Republicans, or any of a handful of other key GOP leaders who tangled with Jewish and pro-Israel groups during the just-completed congressional session.
In states and districts with sizable Jewish populations, the Bush-Gore model -- the shift to the center, with decreasing resonance for the agenda of the religious right and almost no mention of foreign policy -- will set the tone for 2000.