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Tuesday, April 16, 2024
The Eagle

Jewish vote might swing right

The Right Campus

Since the days of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Jewish voters have overwhelmingly voted Democratic in presidential elections. However, this upcoming contest could foreshadow a shift in Jewish political allegiances.

The historical record is daunting: no Republican candidate for president since 1932 has ever received 40 percent of the Jewish vote. Jews overwhelmingly voted for Al Gore in 2000. Bush did not appoint many Jews to his cabinet: Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz is the only high-level Jewish member in the Bush administration. However, the Bush administration believes the Jewish vote is up for grabs. Bush's strong leadership during 9-11 and his unequivocal support for Israel have put the Jewish vote in play for 2004.

It only took one important policy speech for Bush to show his pro-Israel bona fides. On June 24, 2002, Bush made a momentous Rose Garden speech, reflecting a shift in Middle East policy. Flanked by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld on his right and Secretary of State Colin Powell on his left, Bush called on "the Palestinian people to elect new leaders, leaders not compromised by terror." Bush said he would only support a Palestinian state if it was democratic and tolerant. This press conference offered a clear distinction from the Middle East policies of the Clinton administration. At another memorable Rose Garden press conference, Clinton said he was "very, very glad to have Chairman Arafat back here at the White House." Two years later, the Bush team visually and rhetorically distanced themselves from Arafat - speaking from the same location where the Palestinian premier was once welcomed.

Bush's speech was concise and forceful, and placed concrete preconditions on the Palestinian leadership before a state would be created. "Today, Palestinian authorities are encouraging, not opposing, terrorism. This is unacceptable. And the United States will not support the establishment of a Palestinian state until its leaders engage in a sustained fight against the terrorists and dismantle their infrastructure," Bush said. This speech marked the beginning of a more hard-line policy toward the Palestinian Authority and also sidelined Arafat, in America's eyes, as the leader of the Palestinians.

The Bush administration, while always adopting a pro-Israel agenda, was not always as publicly forthright in its staunch support for Israel. Bush was the first American president to announce support for a Palestinian state. Despite his consistent repudiation of Arafat, the desire to appear as an even-handed mediator on the Israel-Palestinian conflict was evident. Bush's policies have always been favorable to Israel, but his public pronouncements at times stressed equivalency. Perhaps this was to placate the State Department, or perhaps it was to prevent the alienation of Arab voters. Observers expected the long-delayed Bush speech in June to announce a date for a Palestinian state, and grant both sides equal responsibility in accomplishing the goal of peaceful co-existence. Instead Bush placed the onus squarely on the Palestinians, and condemned Arafat's leadership.

A Gallup poll in April 2002 showed that Bush's primary constituency strongly supported his new policy of unequivocal support for Israel. But his constituency is not the American Jewish population - 80 percent of them voted for Al Gore in 2000 - but self-identified Republicans. Sixty-seven percent of Republicans supported the Israelis; only 8 percent supported the Palestinians. The poll indicated a closer margin among Democrats: 45 percent of Democrats supported Israel, and 21 percent supported the Palestinians. But even though Jewish voters traditionally support Democratic candidates, there is anecdotal evidence that Bush's unabashedly pro-Israel policies may help him politically. A day after his speech, USA Today profiled Manhattan businessman Harvey Arfa, a lifelong Democrat who voted for Gore in 2000. But he pledged his support for Bush in 2004 because of his unwavering support for Israel.

This support of Bush from Jewish security-minded Democrats is no coincidence. Bush and his political staff have cultivated strong relationships with Jewish advocacy groups. In 2001, he spoke to the non-partisan American Jewish Committee, eliciting frequent laughter and applause with his honest and direct language. At the speech, he said, "Understanding my administration should not be difficult. We will speak up for our principles; we will stand up for our friends in the world. And one of the most important friends is the state of Israel." The president invited the United Jewish Communities' leadership to the White House in 2002 to discuss his faith-based initiative. Recently, the president invited a group of rabbis to commemorate the Jewish New Year - many of whom said he was "warm, engaging and had a grasp on the issues," according to a Matthew Berger article in Washington Jewish Week.

Bush's cultivation of the Jewish community through his speeches, individual meetings and policy declarations may yet play a large role in securing the Jewish vote.

The last Republican candidate to garner the majority of the Jewish vote was President Harding in 1920. Republicans have recently been security-minded and supportive of Israel, yet Democrats usually win the bulk of the Jewish vote. But a mere 10 percent shift in Jewish voting patterns - from Gore in 2000 to Bush in 2004 - would allow Bush to capture the highest proportion of the Jewish vote since Ronald Reagan in 1980. If this occurs, his strong, pro-Israel foreign policy would play a large role in his cultivation of the Jewish vote.


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