July 24, 2003
GOP Missing Chance to Attract Jews
An Israeli diplomat once remarked famously that the Palestinians "never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity" to make peace. Much the same, it appears, is true in the efforts of the Republican Party, particularly here in California, to reach out to the Jewish community.
In the runup to the war in Iraq, the Republicans possessed a golden opportunity to break deeply into Jewish ranks. The president of the United States was now taking on one of the worst anti-Semitic dictators of modern times and a sworn blood enemy of Israel.
Equally important, Bush, unlike his father, was widely perceived to be constitutionally pro-Israel. His refusal to deal with the terrorist regime of Yasser Arafat and his support for the new regime at the Palestinian Authority gave hope to a wide range of Jewish opinion. And unlike Bill Clinton, Bush seemed comfortable with the ruling Likud Party and even with often-difficult Ariel Sharon.
Other factors, longer in gestation, favored a Republican breakthrough. The increasingly middle- and upper-class economic status of Jews made them susceptible to conservative fiscal policies. And the growth of new forces within the community -- including new immigrants from the Middle East and the former Soviet Union and the growth of the Orthodox factions -- seemed to put more of the Jewish electorate "in play" for the Republicans.
Now much of that progress appears deeply threatened. Some of this is a natural outgrowth of other things driving Bush's fortunes down -- the growing problems with the occupation in Iraq, the sense that the president and his advisers misled the public on the true causes of the war and a generally moribund economy.
However, there are also problems that are specifically difficult for Jews. In contrast to previous Republicans who appealed to significant Jewish constituencies, such as Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon, Bush has few Jews in his inner circle.
Reagan, a product of Hollywood and former Democrat, seemed genuinely comfortable around Jews; Nixon, with his intelligence and sense of history, appealed to the rising corps of Jewish neo-conservative intellectuals, most notably Henry Kissinger and William Safire.
In addition, both Reagan and Nixon sought -- and achieved -- electoral support of close to 60 percent. They sought out new constituencies to add to the traditional Republican base. It may not have been a "big tent" ideologically, but it was sociologically. In that big tent, Jews had a place, even an honored one.
Bush is something different. A man without a strong rhetorical appeal, he seems content to concentrate on maintaining a 52 percent majority.
Indeed, with the exception of occasional forays into the Latino community, he has made no concerted effort to reach out to traditionally Democratic constituencies. Rather than a coalition-builder, he appears very much instead a consolidator of the core Republican base of the corporate elite, social conservatives and nationalists.
This means Bush can count on support from core Jewish conservatives -- from the policy intellectuals to the more theocratically oriented -- but little else. None of his other initiatives, like the dividend tax cuts to his environmental policies, are likely to peel off many Jewish voters.
But Bush's biggest problem is not himself, but his party. One critical concern to Jewish voters, even those who supported the Iraq War and some of his other initiatives, lies in support for such things as a hard-right social agenda.
The announcement by Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) of support for a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriages smacks of the kind of intolerance, and desire to use the government to impose one set of norms, that normally offends Jews.
This is not to say that gay marriage is necessarily a good idea. Allowing homosexuals the privileges -- and the disadvantages -- of marriage or even civil union is a topic for debate in most communities. But last time this was on the ballot in California, Jews were one of the most sympathetic groups to the idea. To many of us, I would guess, only someone with a dubious sense of priorities, or an odd sexual fixation, thinks that is an issue worthy of a constitutionally amendment.
Ideological overkill is something Jews rightly naturally abhor, because they have so often been the victims. California Republicans may be doing the same with their shameful know-nothingism on the state budget and the attempted recall. Instead of acting like a principled opposition party, offering reasonable alternative, they have decided to act more like a lynch mob.
Nor has their choice of Congressman Darrell Issa (R-Vista) as leader of the recall been a stroke of genius, except perhaps for our hapless governor. Although Issa is simply a right-wing ideologue and only mildly pro-Arab, by the time Davis' team of professional character assassins finish with him, he is likely to appear to most Jews as a mix between Yasser Arafat and Osama bin Laden. Issa seems like an opponent from central casting sent to Davis by his Hollywood friends.
As a result, the real issues that might make Jews think about supporting Republicans -- such as the gross fiscal irresponsibility of the Democrats -- will be buried. Instead of feeling shame from their long-standing role in bankrolling and buttressing the utterly unprincipled, disastrous leadership of Gray Davis, they will now likely run willy-nilly into his camp without reflection.
Recent political circumstances have given Republicans an excellent chance to turn the tides and become competitive in the Jewish community. Now, unfortunately, leaders from Washington to Sacramento seem determined to blow their opportunity once again.
Joel Kotkin is a senior fellow at the Davenport Institute for Public Policy at Pepperdine University and is writing a book on the history of cities for Modern Library. He can be reached at JoelKotkin@Newgeography.com .