The American Debate: Again, false GOP hopes for Jewish support

Posted: July 17, 2011

Some things never change. Birds fly south for the winter, the sun rises in the morning, and conservatives persist in believing that Jewish voters will desert the Democratic Party and embrace the GOP.

Yeah, right. And the Beatles will reunite.

Republicans have predicted a mass Jewish Democratic exodus in every election cycle since the '90s, claiming every time that it's really going to happen. And I can understand why they would want it to happen. While Jews account for, at most, only 4 percent of the electorate, they are disproportionately concentrated in big swing states such as Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Florida.

Now the old Republican story line has been dusted off, yet again, in the wake of President Obama's May 19 suggestion that Israel's prewar 1967 lines should be the basis for peace talks with the Palestinians. Which means that this time, the long-anticipated exodus is really, really, really going to happen.

Supposedly, Jewish voters now realize that Obama is a threat to Israel, making the GOP their natural home. Mitt Romney stokes this notion by claiming that Obama "has thrown Israel under a bus." Michele Bachmann said Obama had "betrayed" Israel, and Tim Pawlenty said that "Obama's insistence on a return to the 1967 borders is a mistaken and very dangerous demand." Republicans have also excitedly circulated a news story, on the Politico website, that says "many" Jewish Democrats have reached "a tipping point" with Obama.

Gee. Where have I heard this kind of talk before?

In 1992, Republicans foresaw "an incremental shift" among Jews toward the GOP - but George H.W. Bush got only 11 percent of the Jewish vote. In 1996, Republicans said that Jews would desert Bill Clinton, that the GOP had "opportunities for realignment" - but Bob Dole got only 16 percent. In 2000, they said that the younger George Bush was "the perfect model of who the Jewish community is looking for" - but he got only 19 percent. In 2004, they predicted "a major shift in [Jewish] party alliances" - but Bush got only 22 percent. In 2008, they said Jews would never get comfortable with Obama - but Republican John McCain got only 21 percent.

Now we have a new Gallup poll, and, sure enough, the recent flap over Israel has barely nudged the needle; Jewish support for Obama is virtually the same as before. In the six weeks before his May 19 speech, he had a 65 percent approval among Jews; 29 percent felt otherwise. During the subsequent six weeks, the numbers were 62-30. Among Jewish Democrats specifically, 86 percent approved of Obama before his Israel speech; afterward, that percentage plummeted all the way to 85.

Basically, doctors will cure the common cold before most Jews vote GOP.

For starters, Republicans were wrong to believe they could get any traction from Obama's Israel remarks - because what he said was nothing new. When he suggested that "the borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines," he was restating the stance endorsed by Clinton and George W. Bush. The GOP's attempts to paint the remarks as radically anti-Israel bring to mind the advice often attributed to Mark Twain that it "is better to keep your mouth closed and let people think you are a fool than to open it and remove all doubt."

Certainly, some voters are hawkish on Israel and care primarily about that issue - but these are the Jews (roughly 20 percent) who typically tilt Republican already. For the overwhelming majority, Israel is just one issue in the mix. The mix is dominated by domestic concerns. Which is why Republicans don't have a prayer.

Broadly speaking, most Jews care fiercely about the safety net, the separation of church and state, and the welfare of the underdog. They are politically liberal and socially tolerant. Most Jews will never flock to a party that wants to slash government programs, inject more religiosity in public life, and protect the rich at the expense of those in the lower brackets.

There is also a cultural disconnect. When conservatives extol "real America" at the expense of the coastal "elites" and "academia," and when they make sweeping moral judgments against minority groups (Bachmann's husband has referred to gay people as "barbarians"), most Jews tend to interpret such rhetoric as less than welcoming.

As Steven Rabinowitz, a Jewish political strategist, told me back in 2004: "Every four years, my Republican friends say that this will be the election when the Jews go Republican. They're like the boy who cried wolf. You want to say: 'Little boy, there's no wolf! Enough already!' "

But it's never enough. Republicans are excited about a new poll that suggests only 43 percent of Jews will vote to reelect Obama. It turns out that the questions were skewed, by the cosponsoring Republican firm. To wit: "Considering what President Obama has proposed for Israel just over a year before his 2012 reelection campaign - a return to the 1967 borders, dividing Jerusalem, and allowing the right of return for Palestinian Arabs to Israel - how concerned would you be about President Obama's policies toward Israel if he were reelected and did not have to worry about another election?"

Actually, Obama has opposed a Palestinian "right of return" since 2008. The questioners simply switched his stance, in the hopes of ginning up that Jewish Republican trend. Keep trying, guys!

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