2016 election will be a game-changer


No one saw Donald Trump coming. Not the pundits, the party leaders, the political scientists and certainly not the traditional Republicans or Democrats running for president. His dominance of the Republican campaign has shattered conventional wisdom.

Trump was not 2015’s only surprise. There was the remarkably successful candidacy for the Democratic nomination of a Jewish socialist, Bernie Sanders, whose support in the polls within his faction is at least as large as Trump’s among Republicans. Add the inability of billionaires thus far to determine who will be the Republican Party nominee, and we have had a year in which American politics experienced the kind of unpredictability more commonly associated with sports. The great Yankee catcher Yogi Berra might have been describing politics in 2015 when he said: “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.”

Trump could actually become the Republican nominee for president, to the consternation of those in other countries who count on Americans having our bit of fun, then settling for a “normal” candidate. If Trump wins the Feb. 9 primary in New Hampshire, the firewall state for the establishment candidates, he will be much more difficult to stop than once supposed.

Yet we also cannot dismiss the prospect of a Trump defeat in the primaries, his total political collapse, and the nomination of Ted Cruz or of an establishment favorite such as Marco Rubio or, in a universe far, far away, Jeb Bush. (I can even imagine a scenario in which, at a deadlocked convention, the Republican Party turns to House Speaker Paul Ryan, who already played the reluctant party savior role in his ascent to the speakership, or tries to persuade Mitt Romney to run.)

The truth is we just don’t know.  

If Trump holds on, Republican leaders will have to choose between their obvious distaste for him and their ambition to win party control of the White House. For the “investor wing” of the Republican Party, the chance to get a new round of massive tax cuts for the wealthy and to relax federal regulation of Wall Street and other corporations has to be tempting. If polls show a close race — which, given partisan loyalties, seems very likely — we might see some leading Republicans swallow their terror about a Trump presidency and get on board. Fox News, a key player in Republican politics, has seen its profile rise even higher because of the Trump phenomenon, and the rest of the media know that a Trump candidacy would drive up their ratings.

Israel’s political leaders face a somewhat different set of dilemmas. If Trump wins the nomination, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Jewish supporters in the U.S. will be in a quandary. They lean Republican in presidential politics, and if an establishment figure such as Bush or Rubio is nominated, their preference will be much easier to discern. At the same time, Netanyahu clearly hopes to assuage some of the ill feelings within the Democratic Party leadership from his conflicts with President Barack Obama.

For Israel, Trump represents total uncertainty. Unlike the U.S., Israel lives in about the toughest and most hostile neighborhood on Earth. While bombast plays well in the U.S., words and symbols in the Middle East can light a match and set off a conflagration. An American president’s ill-timed words can crash the stock market or set off violent attacks and provoke all sorts of other consequences. Before Trump’s planned visit to Israel last month, Netanyahu criticized his call to block Muslims from entering the United States. Rumors that Trump would visit the Temple Mount set off alarm bells in Israel, as people quickly imagined how Trump’s bombast would play at Jerusalem’s most explosive site. To widespread relief, Trump cancelled his visit to Israel.

We can already envision some of the dimensions of a Hillary Clinton-Donald Trump faceoff and how it might look in the Jewish community. The same people who predicted Trump would collapse in 2015 are sure he will go down easily to Clinton in November. But in a two-person race with a closely divided electorate, anything could happen. (A recent Quinnipiac University Poll shows Trump and Clinton tied.) 

Trump and Clinton have large numbers of Jewish associates and allies — Trump from his years as a New York City real estate developer and Clinton from her decades in Democratic politics, including as a U.S. senator from New York. They would compete heavily for Jewish donors, of whom there are more on the Democratic side. Both have long ties to Wall Street. They also both have Jewish sons-in-law.

Among Republican donors, Sheldon Adelson is an important player in the U.S., but a bigger force in Israeli politics. Having just bought a top newspaper in swing-state Nevada, Adelson is clearly hoping not only to protect his economic interests in that state, but to replicate his success in Israel, where his control of a free-media outlet has been a boon to Netanyahu. So far, Adelson has indicated his preference for candidates more traditional than Trump, but that could change.

For Jewish voters, the lean is likely to be toward Clinton and the Democrats. In most issues, the majority of Jews are closer to the Democratic position, and that is likely to hold true even if Trump is not the nominee. A national Jewish Journal survey in summer 2015 under the direction of Steven M. Cohen

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