Power, Politics & People

Steven Grossman, chair of the Democratic National Committee, appeared at Tufts University in Boston recently to talk with students about his party’s future. It was, he reported later, one of the most enthusiastic audiences he has faced in awhile — 150 young people, eager to learn how they can get involved, asking whether the Democrats are ready to make room for people with more energy than cash.

The encounter, Grossman says, is emblematic of his determination to bring the Democrats back to their historic grass-roots base. Over the next two years, he plans a multimillion-dollar back-to-roots rebuilding program — by recruiting 65,000 precinct captains for the first time in a generation, by launching a 100,000-member women’s movement, by setting up leadership training schools nationwide. The goal is to reach new constituencies of the sort he met at Tufts.

Well, at Tufts Hillel, to be precise. All right, so these constituents weren’t exactly new. Still, he insists, they were eager.

In fact, the Tufts speech doesn’t really show Democratic outreach to new groups at all. It shows the party’s uneasy relationship with one of its oldest core groups, the Jews. Like the students at Hillel, Jewish Democrats nationwide are wondering aloud these days if the party can recover from its reverses — losing Congress in 1994, the 1996 fund-raising scandals, signing welfare reform — and show renewed vision.

And like Grossman, Democratic leaders are wondering who else is out there for them. Jews are loyal, but they’re 2.5 percent of the population.

No, the enduring marriage between the Democrats and the Jews is not in trouble. But under the surface, there are signs of fatigue.

Jews remain hugely faithful to the Democrats, as shown in repeated national voting results — nearly 80 percent, even in the 1994 Republican congressional sweep. And Democrats remain deeply dependent on the Jews. Jews are one of the largest sources of Democratic financing, donating or raising as much as half the party’s presidential campaign funds. Not coincidentally, both of Clinton’s Supreme Court appointments are Jews. Grossman himself became party head fresh from a term as president of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the pro-Israel lobbying group.

In a way, the intimacy is part of the problem. Jews and Democrats are becoming codependent. By one informed count, Jews made up 48 percent of big-money guests in the Lincoln Bedroom last year. Something seems off.

The fund-raising scandal lies at the heart of the malaise. Republicans have tried to cast the excesses as proof that liberals lack a moral core. The issue for Democrats is simpler: survival. With all their shady deals, Democrats in 1996 raised barely five-sixths as much as Republicans took in without breaking a sweat — $348 million to $410 million.

Why the disparity? Because, says Grossman, “Democrats are still seen as the party of the common folk.” In the popular mind, that means taxes, regulations and redistribution. Most moneyed individuals prefer the Republicans. In a political system ever more dependent on private money, the question is how the Democrats can hope to compete.

Since 1945, Democrats have relied largely on two crucial groups: unions and Jews. As unions declined, Democrats turned to selected industries — Hollywood, investment banking, trial lawyers — with historic connections to the party, a euphemism for large concentrations of Jews.

As we’re seeing on C-SPAN, it wasn’t enough. The snowballing cost of campaigning — mainly the growing role of television — overtaxed the Democrats’ base. Efforts during the 1980s and 1990s to recast itself as a business-friendly party barely boosted its appeal to the wealthy, yet alienated many core supporters. The end result was the 1996 fund-raising riot.

Democrats are deeply divided over what to do now, with the dividing line running across Capitol Hill. Senate Democrats are said to be disgusted with fund raising and eager for reform. Their House colleagues, needing less money per race, reportedly push reform largely to embarrass the Republicans, knowing it will lose.

In the Jewish community, the line runs between hard-core pro-Israel activists and lobbyists, who say that the current system protects Israel by ensuring Jewish influence, and the larger mass of Jewish liberals who counter that what’s best for Jews is what’s good for America.

“Jews are less secure in a country where people feel alienated from the political system, and that’s what we’re facing,” Rabbi David Saperstein, of the Washington Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, says.

By no accident, the main congressional voice of campaign finance reform is Sen. Russell Feingold, D-Wis., a self-described Jewish liberal. He first emerged as a foe of political money in January 1995, authoring a ban on lobbyists’ gifts, together with Sens. Carl Levin, D-Mich., and Paul Wellstone, D-Minn. The bill turned bipartisan a few weeks later, when Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., offered to be its first Republican (and first non-Jewish) sponsor. After the gifts ban became law, Feingold and McCain moved on to campaign finance reform. All 10 Jewish senators back it, including Arlen Specter, R-Pa.

The lead strategist of the opposition is Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., a longtime foe of campaign reform and one of the Republicans’ prominent links to the Jewish community, through his chairmanship of the Senate’s foreign aid subcommittee and his friendship with Alabama businessman Mayer “Bubba” Mitchell, a top GOP donor and former AIPAC president.

Jews have faced this dilemma before. The 1974 post-Watergate reforms spread panic among Jewish lobbyists, since the previous system had ensured Jewish influence and Israeli security. Somehow, things worked out.

“The Jewish community, because it votes disproportionately, volunteers disproportionately, donates disproportionately and runs for office disproportionately, will do well in any system,” says Saperstein.

The crucial unasked question in the finance debate is not whether Jewish influence can survive reform. It’s this: How long should the Jewish community be expected to bear the burden of maintaining a two-party system in this country?

J.J. Goldberg is author of “Jewish Power: Inside the American Jewish Establishment.” He writes regularly for The Jewish Journal.