Rob Eshman: Good Leaders

If Republicans want a primer on how to keep losing the Jewish vote, all they have to do is look at what happened in Washington this past week.

The go-to assumption of many people on the right is that American Jews follow a single, unthinking, liberal party line. This became clear to me when my son invited a friend of his to go target shooting with us last weekend.

“Shooting?” the friend said. “I thought you guys were Democrats.”

Most Jews, myself included, are neither knee-jerk liberals nor reactionary conservatives. But many people will try to assert otherwise. How else to explain the June 2011 Gallup poll that showed President Barack Obama’s approval rating among U.S. Jews at 60 percent? The poll revealed that Jews approved of the president’s performance at an average of 14 percentage points above the general public.

The reason you’ll most often hear Republicans offer for this phenomenon is that Jews are locked naively into their parents’ or even grandparents’ voting traditions, as if they haven’t read a newspaper since Franklin Delano Roosevelt died.

It’s true that since 1945 Jews have voted for the Democratic presidential candidate by percentages of up to 90 percent.

But if you poke at the numbers, you’ll find that the Republican candidate who received the largest percentage of the Jewish vote — Dwight D. Eisenhower (40 percent) — was the model Republican moderate.

And if you drill down to state and local races, you’ll find that Jewish voters often vote for moderate Republicans, such as former L.A. Mayor Richard Riordan (50 percent in 1993 and 71 percent in 1997) and former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (48 percent).

In other words, Jews are not liberal zombies. The record shows that they use their votes to reward candidates or parties they believe adhere not to certain labels, but to certain values.

The debate and vote over the debt ceiling, still dragging on as I write this, provides a step-by-step guide on how to alienate these voters.

Step 1: Let Ideology Trump Common Sense

Moderates, as New York Times columnist Tom Friedman pointed out, would debate the federal deficit in a thoughtful and deliberate fashion, exactly the way a business would take the time to review its budget. Extremists hold the nation’s credit rating hostage to a hurried, gun-to-the-head negotiation in order to get what they want. Linking the approval of an increased debt ceiling — which serves past commitments — to debate over future spending just defies logic.

Step 2: Assume We’re Stupid

Jewish voters are impassioned and informed. Is it a coincidence we are over-represented among the Pundit Class, left, right and center: Brooks, Friedman, Krugman, Krauthammer, Stephens, Podhoretz, Stewart, etc.? The Republicans who try to paint Obama as the progenitor of all our economic problems, ignoring the tax cuts, wars and deficits started by the previous administrations, sound like shills, not statesmen.

Step 3: Don’t Compromise

On CNN, Sen. Rand Paul (R- Ky.) told Anderson Cooper that his side had done all the compromising it could by allowing the nation to avoid default. That sounds just a tad extreme. Even the conservative editorial page of The Wall Street Journal took issue with the way the Republican center seemed to slouch fringeward.

“The same supposedly conservative Republicans and their talk radio minders may denounce this deal as a sellout,” The Wall Street Journal wrote on Aug. 1, “but we’ll be charitable and assume they’ve climbed so far out on the political ledge they don’t know how to climb back without admitting they were wrong. …

“The debt ceiling is a political hostage the GOP could never afford to shoot, and this deal is about the best Republicans could have hoped for given that the limit had to be raised. … Sooner or later the GOP had to give up the hostage.”

Hint: If your strategy involves the words “hostage” and “ledge,” you will probably alienate Jewish voters.

Step 4: Avoid Nuance

Jews understand that black and white is for cookies, not politics. Things aren’t so simple — paradox and unresolved questions are at the heart of the universe.  

It’s not guns versus butter, but balancing guns and butter, balancing the need for jobs with the need to contain spending, fine tuning the effectiveness of the free market and the rights of the individual with the needs of the larger society.

Step 5: Attack Government Itself

The anti-government meme that infuses so much of the Tea Party rhetoric is off-putting to people who have thrived and prospered under a strong federal government. If it’s not perfect, you improve it, you don’t shut it down.

“After the debt crisis ends, the democracy crisis must be tackled,” wrote Jacob S. Hacker and Oona A. Hathaway in The New York Times. “Nobody wins when our constitutional system falters: not the president, who gains unilateral power but loses a governing partner; not Congress, which gets to blame the president but risks irrelevance; and certainly not the American people, who have to bear the resulting dysfunction.”

You can certainly win elections without the Jewish vote. But the money and activism Jews bring to the table is helpful, especially in state and local elections, and in the primaries.

If Republicans want the kind of landslide Jewish numbers Democrats rack up, find candidates who promote strong, effective and fiscally sound government that provides security for the nation, opportunity to the entrepreneur and help to the needy.

If you think that’s impossible, read about FDR.