Jews’ Support Spans Political Spectrum

Will Jewish Democrats line up behind Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), now that the veteran lawmaker’s campaign for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination has been resurrected by Monday’s blowout victory in the Iowa caucuses?

Perhaps, but Kerry would be wise not to start sending out the thank-you letters. By all accounts, Jews are doing what they usually do in primary battles: covering most of the mainstream political bases and in the process making sure the community is well represented in every campaign.

That’s not a cynical campaign ploy. It reflects a diverse community in flux. But it also points to a strategic concept promoted by pro-Israel forces for years — one that has been a big political plus for the tiny Jewish minority.

In recent weeks, each of the major Democratic contenders has been advertising his Jewish support. Kerry, whose margin of victory in Iowa surprised even his supporters, is getting advice from political consultant Mark Mellmann, a top name in Jewish political circles. In the week before the Iowa vote, there were reports that he was picking up substantial Jewish support.

Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, whose front-runner status hit a classic Iowa chill, may have his problems with hard-line pro-Israel leaders, but his campaign co-chair is the former president of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. The pro-Israel lobby, Steven Grossman and his fierce attacks on President Bush have been music to the ears of many Jewish liberals — not yet an endangered species, according to last week’s American Jewish Committee (AJC) poll.

Retired Gen. Wesley Clark, moving up in the polls in New Hampshire, is getting more and more Jewish campaign money. Rep. Richard Gephardt (D-Mo), who dropped out after his drubbing in Iowa, has a number of loyal, long-standing Jewish backers. Jewish politicos say Sen. John Edward’s (D-NC), while less known to the Jewish community, has a small base of support.

That reflects a community that has diverse interests and an endless variety of views on key issues, even within the Democratic fold. But it also reflects an unwritten law in Jewish politics: It’s important to have candidates in every camp or at least the camp of every mainstream candidate.

Many Jewish political donors, following that unofficial commandment, are giving to several or all of the major candidates. Others are sitting on the sidelines, waiting for the congested field to thin out before placing their bets.

The modest Jewish vote in Iowa was in play until the day of the caucuses. By most accounts, it is still in flux in New Hampshire, where early this week observers reported that there was no clear Jewish front-runner.

Trend spotters are having a hard time pointing to a Jewish favorite, but that’s exactly the point. Dean, Kerry and Clark all have cadres of passionate Jewish supporters, but there are many other Jews who are just as passionate about waiting until the political trends are clear before endorsing a candidate.

The Jewish Democratic vote may be murky today, but it probably won’t be on Nov. 2, when, according to last week’s AJC poll, any of the major Democratic candidates can expect to beat Bush by a 2-1 ratio.

That’s not as good a Democratic total as in 2000, but with the Sept. 11 attacks, the war on terror and the Bush administration’s close relations with the current Israeli government, nobody expected the incumbent president to repeat his miserable 19 percent performance with Jewish voters.

The operative theory for Jewish Democrats is that the community may be undecided today about the best Democratic candidate, but it will unite quickly behind whomever gets the nomination.

That state of Democratic flux might not cheer enthusiasts for the various candidates, but it represents a source of strength for the Jewish community. It means that Jewish interests will be well represented in the campaign of the eventual winner and that Jewish concerns will be heard.

The eventual front-runner, in turn, can expect most Jewish Democrats who supported other candidates to jump on the bandwagon once the path to the nomination is clear.

Years ago, pro-Israel leaders actively promoted the idea of spreading Jewish support around, and it has become a norm for politically active Jews.

Pro-Israel leaders aren’t orchestrating things — the Jewish community, despite legions of conspiracy theorists, is far too anarchic and diverse for that — but if they could, they’d do it this way, with Jewish support spread across the spectrum, and many Jews roaming the uncommitted center.

It’s not just a Jewish Democratic thing, either. A slowly growing Republican base in the Jewish community infuriates ardent Democrats, but it means that Jewish activists are involved in many GOP House and Senate campaigns, as well as Bush’s reelection effort. Increasingly, Jewish perspectives are heard across the Republican spectrum, because Jews are involved across the spectrum.

Politics is about relationships — and not just relationships with one party, or with today’s front-runners. The Jewish community’s successful implementation of that lesson will be a continuing source of political strength in these difficult times.