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October 26, 2000

Swing States of Mind

http://www.jewishjournal.com/articles/item/swing_states_of_mind_20001027

Finally good news has come for Al Gore.

The Arab American Political Action Committee this month endorsed George W. Bush. Last week, 20 other Michigan-based Arab organizations followed suit, including the Arab-American and Chaldean Leadership Council.

"Gore should take out billboards and announce what they've done," veteran political analyst Joe Cerrell told me.The Gore-Bush election has boiled down to a fight for every swing voter in every swing state. Joe Lieberman is destined to visit every senior citizens complex in Florida. But the first Jewish vice-presidential candidate can't be all things to all men (the gender most likely to vote for Bush). The focus this week is on Michigan, home to the nation's largest Arab population. The Bush endorsement by the Arab American Political Action Committee (an organization based on the American Israel Public Affairs Committee) is aimed at the nation's 3.6 million Arab voters.

That's not all. On Sunday, Green Party candidate Ralph Nader reached out to the Arab contingent. Nader, who is first-generation Lebanese and speaks fluent Arabic, bolstered his double-digit Arab support by telling campaigners at the University of California's Davis campus that Gore was not sufficiently neutral on Israel.

"If you want to really quell the violence, you say to the Israelis, 'Back off, these rocks are not reaching the Israeli borders,'" he said.

"Great news!" said Cerrell, who advised Hubert Humphrey while facing a third-party attack from Eugene McCarthy. "This should be made common knowledge to every Jewish voter for Nader."

Will these two Good News Bears be enough to raise the sleeping Gore? For that matter, will Gore understand that he's slipping even in the must-win state of California? Cerrell is not a silent man. He and other advisors have reached out to Gore. "We sent him a wake-up call," said Cerrell.

Will Gore get it? As it stands, Nader is a potential spoiler, pushing as many as eight states into the Bush column. Would Nader's opinion on Israel be enough to bring back liberal supporters who believe in the consumer advocate?

Only a few months ago, we were jubilant, weren't we? Scared, yes, but excited. Ready for the big time. The name "Lieberman" meant everything, promising to bring American Jews into the political center, with a White House room of our own. Talk about a shot in the arm for an American Jewish community experiencing a bout of complacency and political ennui! Having a vice-presidential candidate who worked in the civil rights movement, celebrates Shabbat and whose wife was a Holocaust survivor - what could be newer, better?

Now, faster than you can say Shemini Atzeret, the ebullience is gone. Much of the shadow comes from Israel. The prospect of a Sharon-Barak government casts the end of the Clinton era in a particular tragic pall. The rise of Arab American activists make it clear that never again will American support for Israel be so undiluted or unquestioned in our own country.

It's true that Jews will vote for Gore, many of them just to give Lieberman a hand. But the truth is, this election is not about us. Or at least not only about us. Even a few years ago, it was possible to define an election outcome by the behavior of Jewish swing voters. This year, Latinos, gays, Catholics, females, African Americans don't just swing, they wave. In the 2000 election, Jews are steadfast. Jews, fearful of pro-gun, school vouchers and the "no pray, no play" sentiment now sweeping up from the Texas governor's home state, don't swing at all.

The rise of an activist Arab American electorate is only the latest wake-up call to a Jewish community that took its activist status for granted. Cerrell reminded me that splinter group targeting is by now a venerable practice, dating back 50 years to the attempt to get Black voters to the polls. Discovering the concerns of voters is important, of course, and Jews, like many other groups, have gained a better view of themselves through the process. But if we have come to believe in ourselves as a repository of unique social values, we're about to be shaken awake, too.

What a time to wake up, when the liberal social agenda is ripped to shreds, and Israel needs us most of all. How awful it would be to find that we speak for no one else but ourselves.

The American electorate is splintering, each ethnicity and interest group helplessly self-defining. That's the danger, by the way, of the current fashionable talk by both candidates of allowing "faith-based institutions" to provide social services. Such policies would pit Jews, Catholics, Protestants and Muslims against each other for a bit of the federal/state pie.

That's also why this may be the last election in which presidential debates hold decisive interest for John Q. Voter. The illusion of common interests has gone literally gone down the tube. The three farcical presidential debates can be understood only as a response to a political system where fragmented group consciousness triumphs over national mission. Our candidates are intentionally bland in public, toadying behind the scenes.

The Israeli crisis is a high-stakes example of what a real debate about national destiny is like. Compared to Israel, our Nov. 7 election seem like Trivial Pursuit. While Israelis write to their American cousins about the perils of peace and war and the reemergence of terrorism, both Bush and Gore run away from controversy, trying to convince us that there's not a dime's worth of difference between them. Don't believe them.

The atmosphere at Gore-Lieberman headquarters in Encino is grim. Bush, unlike his father and Bob Dole, has decided California is up for grabs. Mr. Cerrell, please resend that wake-up call.

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