Democratic Races Poses Hard Choices

Jewish voters are an important constituency in national elections, concentrated in such electoral vote-rich states as California, New York, Florida and Illinois. However, they are even more important in the struggle for the Democratic presidential nomination, comprising an important share of the vote in key Democratic primaries. For Jewish Democrats, the 2004 nomination race is providing some very difficult choices.

While a majority of Jewish voters are Democrats, they are not always pleased with the most liberal choice on the menu. That dynamic is multiplied when Jewish voters question the commitment of the candidate to core Jewish concerns: opposition to anti-Semitism and support for Israel.

If the Democrats nominate a presidential candidate who is a strong supporter of core Jewish issues, the Democrats should be able to count on Jewish voters against President Bush, a very conservative Republican incumbent. On most issues, Bush offers almost nothing to Jewish voters. He is pro-life on abortion and extremely conservative on just about everything else.

But Bush has worked hard to woo the most pro-Israel elements in the Jewish community with his largely uncritical support of the Likud Party’s approach to diplomacy and with his vision of remaking the map of the Middle East. For that reason alone, Democrats cannot take Jewish voters for granted in 2004.

Jewish voters view national security issues through a special lens. To Jews, an America strong in world affairs is a critical element in Israel’s survival. A guilty, cautious America is not good for Israel.

While Jews are unlikely to be impressed by Bush’s swaggering, unilateralist foreign policy, Jewish voters will not be comfortable with a weak United States that equivocates in its support of Israel. If America as bully is the only strong America being offered, it may be a reluctant but appealing choice.

In both 1972 and 1980, Jewish voters strayed from their historic loyalty to Democratic presidential candidates. In 1972, George McGovern was seen as weak on foreign policy. By contrast, Richard Nixon’s strong support of Israel pulled some Jewish voters away from the Democrats.

In 1980, Jimmy Carter, despite his great success in the Camp David peace agreement between Israel and Egypt, was seen by many Jewish voters as trying too hard for "balance" in the Middle East. He lost a bloc of Jewish voters to a more pro-Israel candidate, Ronald Reagan.

With Bill Clinton and Al Gore in 1992 and 1996, the Democrats restored Jewish support to nearly FDR levels. Both were centrists, with strong records of support for Israel.

President George H.W. Bush had unnerved Jews by portraying himself as the victim of a pro-Israel lobby, and anti-Jewish comments attributed to presidential adviser James Baker added to the negative impression.

Unlike his father, the current president will leave no daylight between himself and Israel’s government. Therefore, Democrats have to be particularly sure to hew to the Clinton-Gore approach that begins with strong support for Israel but a more nuanced, diplomatic approach to Middle East politics than Bush offers. Let Bush have the far right on Israel, and let the Democrats hold the center and the left.

For this reason, the surge of Howard Dean to the leadership of the Democratic field is disturbing to some Democratic activists. Dean is a genuine phenomenon, born of the reluctance of Democratic leaders in Washington, D.C., to aggressively challenge Bush after he took power in 2001.

A steaming, boiling well of grass-roots rage at Bush has been left to stew for three years, without a voice in the nation’s capitol. Dean was the only candidate to grab hold of that feeling, and he is riding its power into a nearly commanding position in the nominating race.

Dean’s comment that the United States "ought not to take sides" in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict may have been meant as a contrast with Bush’s hard-line approach, but to many Jewish voters, it will smack of McGovern and Carter. Dean’s comments earned him an unusual rebuke from 34 members of Congress. If he is going to avoid taking the party to another landslide defeat, Dean will have to more fully develop these early views and to understand how words like "balanced" resonate with Jewish voters.

The rest of the field has plenty of choices with whom Jewish voters will be comfortable: Sen. Joseph Lieberman, Rep. Dick Gephardt, Sen. John Kerry and retired Gen. Wesley Clark. It seems quite trendy this year to have Jewish relatives: Kerry’s grandfather, Clark’s father, Dean’s wife and of course Lieberman’s whole family.

But right now there are too many candidates to effectively block Dean. If one alternative to Dean emerges once the primaries are under way, then Jewish voters may become pivotal in determining the nomination.

In Florida, Clinton dispatched Paul Tsongas in 1992 by letting elderly Jewish voters know about his opponent’s views on Social Security and Medicare. The Medicare issue may also hurt Dean, but he is much stronger than Tsongas, and there is no Clinton in the race.

Any alternative to Dean, however, must be able to energize the Democratic grass roots as powerfully as Dean has, by a scathing attack on the Bush administration, while maintaining the Clinton-Gore center-left stance on foreign policy and the Mideast. Electability, alone. will not be enough and has surely been insufficient for Lieberman.

Even if Dean wins the nomination, it is not too late for him to avoid being tarred with the brush of McGovernism. He can work hard to reassure Jewish voters — and, in fact, all voters — of his stance on foreign policy and the Mideast. A strong America, but not a bullying unilateralist America, is still an appealing vision that a Democrat can run on.

While Jewish votes are not enough to hand the presidency to a Democrat, no Democrat will even be competitive if Jewish voters are lukewarm or worse. How the Democratic candidates deal with the Jewish community will tell us a lot about whether they are ready to take power from the Republicans in 2004.

Raphael J. Sonenshein is a political science professor at California State University, Fullerton.