Washington Watch: The Republicans' Jewish problem

So long as Evangelicals, conservatives set agenda, Jews will vote Democrat.

mccain concedes 248.88 (photo credit: AP)
mccain concedes 248.88
(photo credit: AP)
The Republican Party has a Jewish problem. And a Hispanic problem. And an Asian problem. And a black problem. And a female problem. This week's hearings on Judge Sonia Sotomayor's nomination to the Supreme Court illustrated the party's growing minority dilemma. It lost the Hispanic and female vote in last year's election, and GOP senators aren't about to reverse that by harping on the nominee's 2001 statement about the value of a "wise Latina" on the bench. That could be a particular problem for someone like Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), who is running for reelection next year in a state with a large Hispanic population. That's the same McCain who was supposed to create a "sea change" in Jewish voting patterns last year by drawing a record number of Jewish voters into the Republican column. As the nation becomes more ethnically and racially diverse, the GOP is becoming more monochromatic - white, rural, Christian, conservative, male and angry. That's not the minority group it needs to take back the Congress or the White House. Even some of its own members are calling the party powerless, leaderless and rudderless. The most recognizable voices of the party are Rush Limbaugh, Dick Cheney, Newt Gingrich, Karl Rove and Sarah Palin. Even Joe the Plumber quit the GOP. Of course, the role of the opposition party is to oppose, but it also has to propose. It can't keep saying "No" without offering credible alternatives. George W. Bush came to office promising to downsize the government and upsize the party, and wound up doing just the opposite. Today, only one in five Americans identifies as a Republican. WHEN THE last Jewish Republican in the US Senate - Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania - crossed the aisle to join the Democrats, Limbaugh, et. al, cheered, "Good riddance." There is only one Jewish Republican in the 111th Congress, Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia, the minority whip. There are 30 Jewish Democrats in the House and 13 in the Senate, record numbers. For 20 years or so we've been hearing predictions by Jewish Republicans of a mass migration of Jewish voters from the Democratic party, but the GOP has never recovered from the damage done by George H.W. Bush's questioning the loyalty of American Jews and trying to block loan guarantees to Israel in 1991. The Jewish vote, which had been between 30 and 39 percent in 1980s, dropped to 11 percent in 1988; 20 years later it was up, but not to previous levels, at 22 percent. The 1994 Gingrich revolution that gave the GOP control of both chambers for the first time in 40 years, with support for Israel high on the party's agenda, was expected to reverse the decline in Jewish support. But it failed. The foundation of the new Republican majority was the staunchly conservative Evangelical movement, and its positions on issues like church-state separation, abortion, gay rights, civil liberties and other domestic topics important to the Jewish community overshadowed its enthusiasm for Israel. After years of resistance, Republicans began voting for foreign aid, the pro-Israel community's number one legislative agenda, in large numbers. It was at about that time that Israel peaked as the most important issue for Jewish voters. If Jews ever were single-issue voters, that was clearly changing in the 1990s. The reason wasn't a lack of interest but a feeling that both parties were good in their support for Israel, which allowed Jewish voters to focus more on other issues. That was bad news for Republicans, who were banking on outspoken support for Israel would overshadow Jewish concerns on their domestic agenda. By 2008, only 3 per cent of Jewish voters felt Israel was the issue they'd most like to hear candidates discuss, according to an American Jewish Committee survey. In another poll, Israel tied for seventh place with illegal immigration on a list of issues important to Jewish voters. Jewish votes are not attracted by defending torture and waterboarding, opposing gay marriage, banning abortion, cutting taxes for the wealthiest, trying to privatize Social Security and cutting Medicare, blocking universal health insurance and being identified, in the words of Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe (ME), as "the party of big business, big oil and the rich." WHAT CAN the GOP do about its Jewish problem? I asked a number of activists of various persuasions, and the most frequent answer I got was hope that the anger on the right toward Barack Obama's Mideast policies will spread across the Jewish community and finally give them a bigger chunk of the Jewish vote in 2012. Hoping the opposition fails is not a formula for success. The Republicans are doing much better when it comes to Jewish money; indeed, some party pragmatists say Jewish campaign dollars, not votes, are what GOP leaders are really after. Jews are disproportionately large contributors to both parties, especially among a number of very large Republican givers, a party operative said. There are fewer Jewish GOP donors, but the size of their donations is larger, he said. I believe it is in the interest of the Jewish community - in both foreign and domestic policy - to be well represented in both parties, but so long as the Evangelicals and social conservatives set the Republican agenda, Jews will keep voting overwhelmingly Democratic.