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Jewish Journal

Are Jewish Voters Really Leaning Away From the Left?

by Raphael J. Sonenshein

August 10, 2010 | 11:30 pm

Click here for Steven Windmueller’s response to Raphael J. Sonenshein.

Few people have a better grasp of the internal dynamics of the Jewish community than Steven Windmueller, so I take seriously his concerns about the angry Jewish voter. Something is clearly happening when the Anti-Defamation League opposes building a mosque near the Twin Towers. Whether this portends a turn to the right for the Jewish community, though, is another thing.

Jews voted in great numbers for Obama in 2008, despite widespread predictions that they would not. Many Jewish voters weighed concerns about the Rev. Jeremiah Wright and whether Obama was too close to advisers who might be critical of Israel. In other words, these are not new worries, and most Jewish voters weighed them and came down on Obama’s side.

Obama’s early approval rating among Jews was more than 80 percent. Obama’s popularity is down among Jews, but he is down among most voting groups.

It’s August of a midterm for a new president in bad economic times. Voters, Jewish and otherwise, are in a foul mood.

The difference between August and November is the difference between thinking about what you have and imagining replacing it with something else. Republicans want to vote (the “enthusiasm gap”) because they loathe the administration and would love to go in the opposite direction. This is an easy call for them, and they shout it from the rooftops. 

Those who are in the “out” party are always angrier and louder than those whose party is in power. And for the right in America, anger seems to be a nonstop occupation, magnified by Fox News and talk radio. That energy gives the impression of greater numbers than actually exist.  This is why small Tea Party rallies get huge media coverage.

Ronald Reagan, whose transformative abilities Obama admires, faced a comparable situation in 1982. Having passed his signature tax cuts, Reagan saw the economy worsen and his approval ratings drop. Democrats were extremely angry about his policies, while many Republicans felt he was not conservative enough. He ran his “stay the course” campaign and won enough support to hold down his expected congressional losses. From the vantage point of 1982, we would have missed the arc of political success that Reagan was on.

We can probably trace the rise of the right-wing “noise machine” to Bill Clinton’s election in 1992. By 1994, the right had worked itself into a state of perpetual rage against Clinton, leading to the big turnout that brought Republicans control of both houses of Congress. But Clinton had narrowed the gap by 1996 and, like Reagan, won easy re-election.

We would be prematurely writing off Barack Obama if we fail to understand that dynamic.

Some share of Jewish disaffection has to do with Israel. We can and should debate whether Obama has been supportive enough of Israel. Ironically, given domestic criticism of Obama, a recent Brookings Institution survey found a major negative shift in opinion in Arab populations worldwide toward Obama, based on the feeling that he has been far too supportive of Israel.

Among those who criticize Obama on Israel, there are at least five Jewish points of view. Some voted against Obama in the first place and are anxious to say “I told you so” as loudly as possible. Others are Republican moderates and independents who were drawn to Obama in 2008 but are critical of him on Israel. Then there are the Hillary Clinton Democrats, who still harbor a grudge against Obama for taking away her White House shot. And there are Jews who voted for Obama who are watching him like hawks to make sure that he does right by Israel. A fifth group is to Obama’s left, and they believe he has been too traditional in his support of Israel. A good number of Jews who are angry today are rebelling from the left on a number of issues, not from the right. They will surely come home to the Democrats in November, kvetching all the while.

Political choices are about comparisons. You can’t just turn away from one side; you have to turn to something. Take 1968 and 1972. For many pro-Israel Jewish voters and intellectuals, the Republican Party offered a viable alternative to the ascendant anti-war wing of the Democratic Party. Richard Nixon was an ideological centrist, a pragmatist in a party with many centrists in the Northeast, where Jews were concentrated, and in California, to which Jews were migrating. There was lots of room in that party for “defense intellectuals” (a job description for a whole crew of Jewish Democrats), who felt marginalized by the anti-war Democrats. Daniel P. Moynihan, later a Democratic senator from New York, went to work for Nixon on welfare policy. Jews had a bevy of moderate Republicans to vote for, some Jewish, some not.

In today’s Republican Party, there is effectively no Nixon wing. The Northeast has few Republican officeholders; California is blue, and Jewish voters can go for years without having a Republican for whom to vote. Almost every nationally elected official who is Jewish is a Democrat. Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia is the only Jewish Republican in either branch of Congress.

If Jewish voters were turning right, we would see movement among Jewish elected officials, who are strongly pro-Israel, to distance themselves from the president and from the party. For an analogy, consider when white Southerners began to abandon the Democrats in the 1960s. Democratic elected officials in the South began to abandon the party, and some even switched parties. But today the Democrats who are wavering are “blue dogs” from constituencies in the Midwest and South, where there are relatively few Jewish voters, not those who represent Jewish constituencies. Republicans who are pro-choice and pro-environment (e.g., Arnold Schwarzenegger, Richard Riordan) still do well with Jewish voters. But there are fewer of them from whom to choose. 

In any case, the election results in November will tell us whether this is another of those “Are Jews Going Right?” flashes in the pan, or something real. Generally speaking, Jews vote even more Democratic in congressional elections than in presidential elections. So we should look at national polls to see whether that changes. 

Then the next indicator will be 2012. Presidential elections tend to even out the anger index, as defenders of the party in power fight much harder to hold onto their policy gains, in this case the new health care law. Presidents rarely do well on “should he/she be re-elected?” at this middle stage. It’s an academic question until the election year, when there is an actual opponent to whom the incumbent can be compared.

Obama still has plenty of time to advance and explain his Middle East goals. But even the long history of Jewish support for Democratic candidates will not offer him a blank check. Jews of all stripes will continue to monitor events closely with a deep and powerful concern for the survival of the Jewish state. The internal debate on “how’s he doing?” will continue, ideally with all parts of the spectrum represented.

In any case, I am not worried about division within the Jewish community. It has always been there and always will be. It’s part of who we are, and our strength lies in the ability to forge unity on key issues out of that diversity.

I am more worried, based on Steven’s perceptive article, that our own debates will be too angry to be resolved or that some will feel unable to participate in the debate. Is it really impossible to find common ground on several principles — that Israel’s security does not depend on Israel’s popularity of the moment, that Iran is an existential threat to Israel, and that Israel and the United States are on the same side, despite occasional spats? We can be left or right, Democratic or Republican, Likud or Labor, and still pull our oars in the same general direction. I interpret Steven’s article as a call for mutual tolerance, wherever we are in the political spectrum, so that anger itself does not turn our diversity into our failure.

On that I could not agree more.

Raphael J. Sonenshein is chair of the Division of Politics, Administration and Justice at California State University, Fullerton.

Click here for Steven Windmueller’s response to Raphael J. Sonenshein.

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