February 17, 2000
Stars, Bars and the Jewish Vote
A rabbi shares her experience consoling a family in the days following the Flight 261 disaster
Jewish Republican leaders are singing an optimistic song about their party's prospects in this year's presidential election.
But listen to voters, and you hear a different melody. Despite what many analysts see as a modest conservative shift in the Jewish electorate, even some Jewish GOP leaders say the party could be poised for yet another disaster when the Jewish votes are tallied in November.
While Jewish GOP enthusiasts continue their outreach efforts, the Republican contenders continue to do the things that have driven Jewish voters away in droves.
One example: The current controversy surrounding the Confederate flag flying over the statehouse in Columbia, S.C.
Frontrunner George W. Bush and his surprisingly strong rival, Sen. John McCain, have both refused to support the civil rights groups calling for the flag's removal. Both have suggested it's up to the voters of South Carolina -- who will vote on Feb. 19 in a presidential primary that now looms large in the wake of New Hampshire.
For Bush, it's one more in a series of overtures to the party's far-right flank that has badly undercut GOP Jewish outreach.
McCain's foreign policy experience and his reputation for independence could appeal to Jewish voters, political analysts say -- but he, too, is likely to be tripped up by the perception that his party is too eager to woo the bigots, Christian radicals and xenophobes skulking under the GOP umbrella.
The irony is this: Jewish voters, by and large, are less driven by party labels than ever before. And neither of the Democratic candidates has generated much excitement in the community.
But the GOP seems unlikely to capitalize on that vulnerability because shoring up its right flank is simply more important than reaching out to traditionally Democratic minorities -- with Jews and blacks at the top of the list.
The issue of symbols and their meanings is never easy. But it's hard to argue that certain symbols have become inextricably associated with indefensible causes.
Jewish defense organizations properly attack any individual or group which brandishes the swastika. African-Americans almost universally view the confederate flag with similar pain and anger.
But South Carolina continues to hoist the flag over the statehouse every day -- an affront to blacks that the Republican candidates have chosen to accept.
But that's just one example of the GOP's dilemma.
When Pat Buchanan published a book last year claiming that defeating Adolf Hitler wasn't in this country's interests, McCain won the respect of many Jews by calling for the columnist-candidate to leave the party.
But Bush refused, justifying his position on purely political grounds.
Bush recently gave a speech at Bob Jones University in Greenville, S.C., an outpost of the Christian right that still bans interracial dating and once lost its tax exemption because of racial discrimination.
Last week a gleeful National Jewish Democratic Council (NJDC) provided reporters with a list of the school's anti-pluralism sins, including gay bashing, anti-Catholic bias and regressive views on race.
Bush's campaign chair in Louisiana is Gov. Mike Foster, who was blasted by Jewish groups last year for refusing to join national Republican leaders in condemning David Duke, the ex-Klansman who was running as a Republican for a vacant congressional seat.
And did GOP leaders protest last week when Rep. Helen Chenoweth-Hage (R-Idaho), a leader of the Black Helicopter caucus in the House, scheduled a congressional briefing on the Panama Canal treaty featuring two "experts" -- one the president of the John Birch Society?
Not a chance.
At a presidential candidates forum sponsored by the Republican Jewish Coalition in December, GOP pollster Frank Luntz warned that even with generally attractive candidates such as Bush and McCain, the GOP is unlikely to significantly increase its take of the Jewish vote.
Bush's friendly overtures to Buchanan, he warned, could cut that total considerably.
McCain could do better, but even leading Jewish supporters say they're looking at 30 percent as a kind of holy grail.
Ronald Reagan won almost 40 percent of the Jewish vote in 1980 because he was seen as an antidote to a declining U.S. presence in the world and the cool attitude toward Israel of his predecessor, Jimmy Carter.
Presidentially, it's been downhill for the Republicans ever since -- not because of traditional conservative issues, such as taxation and economic policy. On those, there may be more Jewish interest than Jewish Democrats concede.
Instead, it's the willingness of major Republican candidates to cater to the far right and the religious right, groups that a clear majority of Jews still see as scary.
Bush wins applause when he talks about moving the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and he already has the backing of access-hungry big-money Jewish Republicans.
But that won't cut much ice with Jewish voters, who will look more at the company he keeps -- and the socially charged symbols he allows to become associated with his campaign.
McCain could do better, but not unless he creates some open space between himself and the party's fringe players -- including the South Carolinians who regard the Confederate flag as symbol of a proud heritage.