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Why the GOP Lacks Jews

by Jonathan S. Tobin

August 3, 2000 | 8:00 pm

For 20 years and more, political observers have been waiting for the day when American Jews will significantly shift their votes from the Democratic column to that of the Republicans.

They have waited in vain. Studies of electoral trends in the past two decades, polls and just plain political horse sense all point to yet another big win in the fall for the Democrats among Jewish voters in the presidential and congressional elections. Of course, that's a sour thought for those Jewish Republicans who gathered in Philadelphia this week for the GOP convention.

1980 was GOP'shigh tide

What makes this fairly predictable result interesting is that a lot of smart people thought this was going to change. The tide was supposed to have started to turn in 1980, when conservative Republican Ronald Reagan took 35 percent of the Jewish vote in his run for the presidency, a huge increase over the previous desultory GOP turnouts.

But Reagan had a lot going for him in 1980 besides his incredible personal appeal. President Jimmy Carter's clear tilt against Israel in the Middle East peace talks had alienated many American Jews. With the hard left at home and the Soviet bloc abroad being Israel's most virulent opponents, conservatives and Republicans sensed a chance to capitalize on American Jewish devotion to the Jewish state.

At the same time, conservatives also had social issues working for them. Affirmative action plans aimed at helping minorities gain jobs and college admissions seemed to be working at the expense of middle-class Jews who had always risen via the merit system. This issue seemed to symbolize the sea change that was expected to convert Jewish Democrats into Republicans.

Leading the way for this change was an influential group of thinkers and writers labeled "neo-conservatives" - Jewish ex-liberals who had been turned off by the excesses of the radical left and its liberal apologists. The neo-cons seemed to have traditional liberals on the run.

Pundits thought Reagan's win would be only the start for Jewish Republicans, but instead, the GOP would never again win that large a share of American Jewish votes.In 1984, Reagan's Jewish vote percentage declined. It went down even further for George Bush in 1988 and hit rock bottom when Bush ran for reelection in 1992. Bush's astonishing declaration that he was "one guy" standing up against "thousands" of Jewish lobbyists on the issue of voting loan guarantees for Israel in 1991 doomed him among Jewish voters.

Bob Dole, the GOP standard-bearer in 1996, did better than the elder Bush among Jews, but not by much. In addition, exit polls have shown that the Jewish vote for Democratic congressional candidates has remained steadily in the 80-percent range throughout the '90s. This means the Jewish vote in 2000 is probably something of a lost cause for the Republicans.

What happened?

For one thing, the only time Israel can work as an issue for either party is when an Israeli government is being pressured by Washington to do something it doesn't want to do, such as when George Bush was hammering Yitzhak Shamir or when Bill Clinton was bludgeoning Benjamin Netanyahu. But whenever Israel itself is rushing to make concessions instead of being pressured into them by an American president (as is the case at the moment with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak), Israel ceases to be a wedge issue for the American opposition party.

The decline in American Jewish interest in Israel also works against it as an issue. The Republicans have an excellent record on Israel (Bush senior was the exception), but few American Jews can any longer be considered one-issue voters when it comes to Israel. Domestic issues that conservatives thought would turn Jews off on the Democrats have also largely lost their appeal. Even though a strong case can still be made against affirmative-action quotas, the issue has ceased to interest Jewish voters, since few Jews appear to have suffered because of it.

Similarly, the tension between blacks and Jews over the statements of African-American leaders such as Jesse Jackson loomed as a problem for the Democrats for a while in the 1980s. Though the Democrats still toady to extremists such as racial huckster Al Sharpton, the Republicans are unable to capitalize on this because of their kowtowing to Christian conservatives.

On the other hand, some observers, such as scholar and American Jewish Committee official Murray Friedman, believe that despite the rotten national results, local elections show that the GOP still has a good shot at Jewish voters. Friedman pointed out in a recent article in Commentary magazine that in mayoral elections in New York City, Philadelphia and Los Angeles, Republican candidates did very well among Jewish voters, producing wins for GOP mayors Rudy Giuliani and Richard Riordan in New York and Los Angeles and a razor-thin loss for Sam Katz in Philadelphia.

These elections did show that Republicans can, with the right candidates, do well among Jews. But these results should not give George W. Bush, this year's Republican presidential candidate, much encouragement. In each case, a liberal Republican running on local issues against a weakened Democrat was able to win a lot of Jewish votes.This trend will not help a candidate like W., because the key social issues that motivate large numbers of Jews are the protection of abortion rights and increased gun control, not the control of local crime. Whether these are truly Jewish interests or not - and I would contend that they are not - their primacy guarantees that the Shrub will not win any more Jewish votes than Dole did four years ago.

The triumph ofLiberalism

Contrary to the expectations of the neo-conservatives, the continued triumph of Jewish liberalism is firmly linked to the secular, liberal cultural values that remain sacred to most American Jews.

George W. Bush may have no interest in a kulturkampf, but in the eyes of many, if not most, Jews, the national Republican Party remains tied to the Christian right. American Jews may fret over Israel, but Pat Robertson still scares them more than Yasser Arafat or any other Palestinian terrorist ever did.

Issues that are linked to such cultural prejudices as the advocacy of gun control and abortion rights will keep the overwhelming majority of Jews in the Democrats' pocket. As long as most Jewish voters feel this way, the GOP will have to win the White House without them.

Jonathan S. Tobin is executive editor of the Jewish Exponent in Philadelphia. He can be reached via e-mail at jtobin@jewishexponent.com

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