Jewish Journal

How will GOP fare with Jewish voters in ‘08?

by Raphael J. Sonenshein

Posted on May. 10, 2007 at 8:00 pm

With California's early primary bringing unusual recognition to the Golden State, the Republican candidates are heading out West. They met in debate at the Reagan Library in Simi Valley on May 3. Do these Republicans have a shot at winning Jewish voters over in 2008?

Under Bush, the Republicans essentially offered Jewish voters unbridled support of Israel. Jews were asked to return unbridled electoral support, despite almost total disagreement with Bush on virtually all other issues, from diplomacy to stem-cell research, to abortion, to gay rights. The plan worked at an elite level, bringing Bush close support from national Jewish organizations and giving Jewish Republicans something to talk about at community events.

But at the electoral level, the strategy failed miserably. More than three-quarters of Jews voted for Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) in 2004. Some exit polls found that in 2006, more than 85 percent of Jews supported Democratic congressional candidates.

So should Republicans pursue the same strategy and hope for a better result with Jewish voters? Republicans would probably be better off if they were to follow a three-word strategy: Listen to Arnold. Like former Los Angeles mayor Richard Riordan before him, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has now found the comfort zone that allows Jewish voters, most of whom are Democrats, to pull a different lever.

Having returned from his two-year, self-inflicted sojourn in the political wilderness, California's governor is now dispensing advice to his party about reaching out to the center of the political spectrum. He is talking up the battle against global warming and promoting stem-cell research.

He attended the debate in Simi Valley and is being heavily courted by all the leading candidates. At least two candidates in the field, Sen. John McCain of Arizona and Rudy Giuliani, should be naturally responsive to his call.

In his two election victories in partisan New York City, the socially liberal, tough-on-crime Giuliani showed great voting strength among the city's overwhelmingly Democratic Jewish voters. He carried more than 60 percent of Jewish voters in both 1993 and 1997.

While McCain does not have the same record of winning Jewish votes, his close ties to Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut and other centrist Democrats opened a lot of doors (much like the ones swinging open these days for California's governor). A third major candidate, Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, was elected governor in one of the most Democratic states in America, although his sarcastic attacks on his own state have begun to outrage Democrats there.

Schwarzenegger may be unable to move a much more resistant force than individual candidates: the Republican Party itself. Public focus has been so intense on Bush for the last six years (love him or hate him?) that the deep changes in the Republican Party have been less visible.

Bush and the Republican Party have become totally intertwined and isolated from the broader nation on issue after issue, beginning but not ending with the war in Iraq. The only place where it is safe among Republicans to disagree with Bush is on immigration, where the party base is more conservative than the president. Even the more pragmatic leaders of the Christian right, who say they would tolerate a socially liberal nominee in order to hold onto power, may not easily hold the base in line.

Bush has governed with a one-party model, ignoring Democrats and independents. He has pursued a narrow ideological agenda on the environment, foreign policy, economics and social issues. Even more important, his team has gone past the outer limits of presidential power in a manner that is looking more and more like a frontal assault on the Constitution and the rule of law. The authoritarian overtones of arbitrary detention, torture and marginalization of dissent are likely to disturb Jews, who comprise the heart of the civil liberties community.

As a result, potentially centrist Republican candidates may get caught in the newly named "Chafee effect." Too liberal for the party base and too stuck with the Republican label, Sen. Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island was a popular moderate Republican in a Democratic state, holding a 67 percent approval rating. But the stakes of party competition had been raised so high by the Bush approach that Democratic voters turned Chafee out of office in order to win a national party battle for Senate control.

Lieberman barely won re-election in Connecticut after losing the Democratic primary due to his affinity for Bush. If either McCain or Giuliani are the Republican nominees, will the same thing happen if Jewish Democrats, who might be inclined to support them, fear the continuation of the Republican machine under new management?

For a while, it seemed as if Giuliani would get a pass from the base on these issues, both because they think he can win a general election and because Republicans admire those they consider strong war leaders. But Giuliani is not taking any chances. He has now taken affirmative steps to abandon his pro-choice posture. He recently endorsed a controversial Supreme Court decision to allow the government to outlaw late-term abortions, regardless of the health of the mother.

Giuliani had previously taken the opposite position on late-term abortion and had even endorsed public funding for abortions. There is no group in America that is more pro-choice than Jews, particularly Jewish women, whose support of that position is nearly unanimous. Suddenly, Giuliani does not look like the mayor they thought they knew.

McCain, meanwhile, has abandoned his maverick stance of working with Democrats and occasionally challenging Bush to become the most loyal Bush supporter around. After first challenging Bush on torture, he signed on to an agreement that gave the president virtually unfettered authority.

He has tied his fate to Bush's unpopular Iraq War. This strategy reached the height of absurdity when he strode through a Baghdad market he had declared safe wearing a bulletproof vest, protected by our troops and guarded by helicopters.Democrats who remember their own party in the late 1960s and early 1970s can tell you what happens next. The party imposes its ideological will on its most centrist candidates. The centrist candidates buy peace by abandoning their previous views and once formidable politicians now appear to be "flip-floppers." The party base then abandons those candidates, because they are obviously not the genuine article they seek.

Polls show that many Republicans are unhappy with their current field of candidates and are actively searching for a real conservative, such as former Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee. Thompson is drawing big poll numbers without even being in the race. But it is hard to see how a law-and-order, pro-life, deeply conservative Southern Republican is going to bring Jewish voters to the table.

One of the most interesting features of Jewish political participation is that what it takes to win Jewish support is usually good for a political party and for the nation. The Democratic down cycle ended when Bill Clinton had his "Sister Souljah" moment and proved that he could challenge his own party's base supporters. Clinton's ability to break the hammerlock of knee-jerk interest groups redefined and strengthened the Democratic Party and helped the nation in the process.

A Republican Party that breaks the hold of its current owners and paddles away from authoritarian ideas and narrow social beliefs can save itself, win over many Jewish voters and help the nation at the same time. But it may take a few more electoral defeats for that lesson to sink in.

Raphael Sonenshein is a political scientist at Cal State Fullerton. He writes a monthly column for The Journal.

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