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Jewish Journal

Social Issues Still Divide Jews, GOP

by Ron Kampeas

September 2, 2004 | 8:00 pm

Call it the tale of two Mellmans.

Mark Mellman, one of John Kerry's top four advisers, launched a talk with Jewish Democrats in Boston last month with a drasha (short sermon) on the meaning of Tisha B'Av, the Jewish fast day that happened to fall during the party convention. Then, with nary a comment from the crowd, Mellman glided into the case for the Massachusetts senator.

Contrast that with the introduction this Sunday for Bush-Cheney campaign manager Ken Mehlman at a similar Jewish event.

"One of us, Ken Mehlman -- let me repeat that, one of us, Ken Mehlman -- is running the Bush-Cheney campaign," said Morris Offit, a Republican and the president of the New York federation, barely containing his grin as he emphasized Mehlman's Jewishness.

The contrast could not be starker between the run-of-the-mill references to Yiddishkeit in Boston and the frissons of glee in New York at the mere mention of a Jewish name. It illustrates how far Jews have come in the Republican Party since the 1970s -- yet how far they have to go to equal Jewish Democrats in number and influence.

For every gratified reference to the packed rooms Jews have filled at the Republican convention, for all the invariable "we couldn't fill a phone booth 20 years ago" jokes, there has been an acknowledgment that the status of Republican Jews in the party and the Jewish community is not anywhere near that of Jewish Democrats. The elephant in every Jewish ballroom at the convention is last month's survey showing that Jewish preferences for Democrats have hardly budged since 2000, when George Bush scored less than 20 percent in exit polls. The poll was commissioned by Democrats, and no one here was buying into it entirely. But they still were setting expectations lower than a few months ago, when they believed Bush's unprecedented closeness to Israel and his efforts against terrorism would win the Republicans levels of Jewish support seen only at the start of the Reagan era.

"Getting 30 percent of the Jewish vote would be an accomplishment," Republican pollster Frank Luntz said at an American Jewish Committee (AJC) panel Monday. Reagan won close to 40 percent of the Jewish vote in the 1980 election.

The stakes are high this year in an election so close that it could come down to a few thousand votes in swing states -- particularly in states like Florida, Pennsylvania and Ohio, where the Jewish vote could make the difference.

The problem, Republicans say, is the gulf between the GOP and the Jewish community on social issues.

"On issue after issue, on the economy and foreign policy, you are seeing more and more alignment between the Jewish community and the Republican Party -- with the huge caveat of a social agenda," Luntz said. "Until this point the Republican Party has been unable to communicate an acceptable social policy."

It won't help Republicans that this year's platform slams abortion repeatedly -- referring to late-term procedures as "brutal," "inhumane" and "violent" -- that it describes expanded stem-cell research as "the destruction of human embryos" or that it supports a federal amendment banning gay marriage.

Instead, Republicans repeatedly stressed Bush's record on Israel and against terrorism, so much so that New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his predecessor, Rudy Giuliani -- GOP stars and moderates who could have served as salves to the Jewish community on domestic issues -- instead advised Jewish audiences to simply forget about the social agenda for now.

"You're never going to find a candidate you agree with completely," Giuliani said Sunday at the event sponsored by AIPAC and the UJC. "You've got to figure out what's important."

In an extraordinary move for a mayor whose bread and butter is economic and social issues, Bloomberg advised Jews at the event to regard Israel as "the one issue that matters."

The few attempts to sell Bush's domestic policies ultimately underscored the social gap between the community and the administration.

David Frum, a contributing editor at National Review, suggested that presidents have little influence over social issues -- although, with an aging Supreme Court, the next two appointments to the bench could be crucial in determining the availability of abortion.

Daroff, the RJC's deputy executive director, said that Bush's school voucher program could help Jewish day schools. But that means little to the overwhelming majority of Jews who send their children to public schools.

The GOP's difficulty in appealing to Jewish social sensibilities was especially evident at the RJC's keynote Monday night gala. During a speech-fest by about 20 members of Congress, Coleman was the only one to mention domestic policy -- and then only in a half sentence about Jews and Republicans sharing concerns about education and prosperity.

Instead, speaker after speaker focused on Israel and terrorism, lauding Bush's record in isolating Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat and in rejecting a "right of return" for Palestinian refugees or a return to Israel's pre-1967 borders.

Moreover, the gloves were off in attacking Kerry's Israel record, despite assurances months ago from party leaders that the GOP would emphasize that while Kerry might be good on Israel, Bush was better.

"Our opponents in the coming election fail to grasp the importance of America's relationship with Israel," Sen. Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), the Senate majority leader, told the UJC-AIPAC event.

Mehlman, the campaign manager, assailed Kerry for calling Arafat a "model statesman," though the quote was ripped from its context -- in the very same sentence of his book, Kerry called Arafat a thug -- and made in 1997, when Arafat's international reputation was considerably better than today.

Yet, Mehlman's role as campaign manager was not the only sign of increased Jewish influence in the GOP.

The convention as a whole went out of its way to outdo Democrats in emphasizing the party's pro-Israel credentials, from two mentions in Giuliani's keynote speech Monday night to Vice President Dick Cheney's scheduled appearance at an RJC event Thursday, which the group called "indicative of this administration's commitment to reaching out and including the Jewish community."

Still, there was considerable anxiety at the failure to make greater strides, anxiety reflected at times in a hectoring tone from non-Jewish Republicans.

"Don't the Jewish people get where they stand with the U.N.? Do the Jewish American people take a lot of confidence in the support of Europe?" Sen. Gordon Smith (R.-Ore.) asked the AJC group, his voice tinged with impatience.

Sen. Rick Santorum (R-.Penn.) urged people at the RJC event to get out the vote for the Republicans.

"I will not be satisfied with 40 percent of the vote," he said. "George Bush deserves a majority of the Jewish American vote."

Such warnings had an effect.

"Show the Democratic party they do not own the Jewish vote," Michael David Epstein, vice chairman of the RJC's legislative unit, said Monday at the group's event. "If we do not, the next Republican president may not have in his heart what this president has in his heart."

All told, it may be a while before GOP leaders can comfortably discuss lesser Jewish holidays such as Tisha B'Av.

"We're not asking everyone to be a Republican," said the RJC's Daroff. "We're doing baby steps: Someone here will vote for the president this year, and in two years he'll see your roof won't fall down if you vote Republican in the House."

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