Scrambling for Access

Listen closely, and you can almost hear the sound of panic sweeping through the boardrooms of Jewish organizations around the country.

A new administration is taking over in Washington, and Jewish machers are faced with the loss of their most treasured political commodity: access.

That’s a primary reason that so many are muting their criticism of some controversial cabinet picks by President-elect George W. Bush — conservatives whose presence atop the pyramids of power would normally ignite fusillades of criticism from generally liberal Jewish organizations.

Some nominees, like former Joint Chiefs Chair Colin Powell as secretary of state and Donald Rumsfeld as defense chief, have won genuine praise from Jewish leaders across the political spectrum.

Others have had the impact of a good poke in the eye. Their selection, many Jewish leaders believe, refutes Bush’s promises of inclusiveness and “compassionate conservatism.”

But publicly, these same communal officials are generally holding their fire. The reason: access.

For the past eight years, they have played to a president and vice president who surrounded themselves with Jews and who felt comfortable speaking to Jewish groups and addressing Jewish issues.

Access was enhanced by a record number of Jewish cabinet secretaries and other top officials, providing numerous routes into the administration’s inner sanctums.

That era ends on Jan. 20, when Bill Clinton rides into the political sunset.

In the new Bush administration, there will be some Jews in high places — the new White House spokesman, political director and top policy adviser are all Jewish — but many fewer than in recent years, and not at the highest levels. There will be a significant drop in critical access points for Jewish organizational leaders.

That explains the muted reaction to Bush’s most controversial personnel picks.

Former Sen. John Ashcroft, a favorite of Christian right groups, faces ferocious opposition from civil liberties and pro-choice groups. But when a coalition of them held a news conference in Washington this week, only the National Council of Jewish Women and the Joint Action Committee for Political Affairs, a pro-Israel group that also takes strong positions on domestic issues, especially women’s issues, were represented.

A long list of other groups — traditional coalition partners of the anti-Ashcroft organizations — were noticeably absent.

Many Jewish groups support the environmental agenda, but they’ve been strangely silent about the appointment of Gale Norton, opposed by major environmental groups, as interior secretary.

Last week the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, arguably the most liberal of the major Jewish groups operating in Washington, issued a press release praising the Bush administration for “assembling the most diverse cabinet in our history.”

The group expressed concern about some of Ashcroft’s positions, but said only that the nomination should be “closely scrutinized.”

Several Jewish leaders who are privately appalled by the Ashcroft nomination on church-state grounds refused to criticize it publicly.

What this is all about is access — a problem facing interest groups with every change in administration, but a particular dilemma for Jewish groups as a new administration with limited connections to the Jewish community gets set to take over.

Jewish leaders fear — and not without reason — that they will be shuffled to the end of the line when they seek meetings with important administration officials.

Political sources suggest that the new Bush administration will work hard to expand the minority presence in the Republican Party but that the emphasis will be on groups that have shown more of a willingness to swing in the GOP direction.

There are two Hispanics and one Asian in the Bush cabinet — picked for their ideological compatibility with the new president, but also because they represent groups that offer the richest potential area for Republican outreach.

Former Sen. Spencer Abraham (R-Mich.) wasn’t appointed energy secretary because he is an Arab American. But the fact that there is one Arab American and no Jews in the Bush cabinet is not insignificant; Arab American and Muslim voters began a potentially big shift in the direction of the Republican party on Nov. 7, while the Jewish community continued to remain mostly wedded to the Democrats.

The plain fact is that the new Bush administration is less beholden to the Jews than its predecessor — and has less hope of winning a substantial number over to their side of the partisan divide.

“The new administration is not hostile to Jewish interests,” said a prominent Jewish Republican last week.

“But they don’t owe the Jewish leadership anything, and they don’t see them as likely political allies. It is only natural for them to focus on the groups that are most likely to support the administration’s initiatives.”
Refraining from criticizing controversial nominees, this source said, may help avert politically damaging clashes as the new administration begins changing the nation’s political course, but it is unlikely to go far in buying critical executive branch access in the weeks and months ahead.