The forced retirement of Gov. Gray Davis, and the shattering of the Democratic one-party government in California, marks a major turning point in the political evolution of the state’s Jews. For the first time in a decade, the state’s liberal Jewish elite finds itself widely outside the corridors of power.
In a sense, Davis represented the ultimate deal for the state’s Jewish establishment. A consummate insider, Davis understood the cynical use of money and power while continuing to mouth the favored liberal mantras that allow rich liberals to enjoy their wealth without guilt. Jews could feel that they not only could "buy" into Davis’ "pay-to-play" system, but, at the same time, pay homage to the old leftish traditions of the community.
Arnold Schwarzenegger represents a total shock to this cozy arrangement. Although he comes out of a heavily Jewish-dominated Hollywood, he himself has few ties to the institutional elites. His Jewish supporters, like those of another former actor, Ronald Reagan, are largely industry friends and co-workers. Like Reagan, a strong supporter of Israel and the cause of Holocaust remembrance, he is not the kind of bar mitzvah regular epitomized by the former governor.
Yet, unlike Reagan, Schwarzenegger comes to power in different times. Reagan, for all his pro-Jewish and pro-Israel sentiments, could not count on many Jewish votes. In contrast, the new governor emerges in an era when a larger share of the Jewish polity itself is shifting away from predictable liberal politics. Unlike African Americans who have, I believe, to their own detriment remained dutifully Democratic at all times, Jews have been wandering off the plantation with increasing rapidity.
In Los Angeles this was most evident in the strong majorities won by former Mayor Richard Riordan against Democratic opponents. It also was true in New York, the other great American center of Jewish life, where many Jews supported Republican Rudy Giuliani with considerable enthusiasm.
Schwarzenegger, as an Austrian son of a Nazi father, faced greater barriers then either of them, particularly after a seemingly gratuitous series of hits in the generally pro-Democratic Times, both the New York and Los Angeles varieties. Had Riordan, the affable Irishman, not Schwarzenegger, been on the ballot, it is entirely possible that upward of 50 percent of Jews might have supported him against establishment favorite Davis.
But even with these negatives, Schwarzenegger — and the far more conservative Tom McClintock — won roughly two in five Jewish votes. This is a far larger percentage than was enjoyed three years ago by George Bush, a candidate who never connected with a large number of Jewish voters, and the last GOP candidate, conservative ideologue Bill Simon.
Can Schwarzenegger build on his success and expand the GOP opening among Jews, and other traditional Democratic groups, most notably Latinos? This may prove one of the key political tests of his administration. There is reason for him to do well, at least with the monied elite, many of whom have historically backed Davis but may be more comfortable with the pro-business approach advocated by the actor.
Some, such as the ubiquitous Eli Broad, have already landed on the new governor’s transition team. Rich people can often not only buy power and influence, but are themselves easily lured by political power. After all, if they have agendas, they need someone in office who can help carry them out. Davis is now as useful as yesterday’s paper towels; Schwarzenegger now has the power to make things happen, or not.
But more important than the wooing of the elites will be the progress the Republicans may be making among the rank-and-file. Bill Leonard, former minority leader, and David Fleming, a prominent attorney and Schwarzenegger backer, see in the new election the emergence of a new constituency, largely young to middle age, middle class, with socially moderate and economically conservative views.
This new constituency, they believe, backed Schwarzenegger in ways that belie traditional politics. These voters included many who may be considered "post-ethnic," that is, Jews or Latinos who favored their own independent streak of politics as opposed to any more traditional, ethnically shaped point of view. They have rejected the politics of their parents — the shtetl or barrio model — for something that makes more sense to their own lives.
Right now, such voters represent a small, but growing minority among Jews. This kind of Jewish voter is also more concentrated in less affluent, more middle-class areas, where Jews are now moving. For example, while heavily traditional Jewish Beverly Hills went three to two against the recall, similar to both the city and the Westside, the more middle-class Jewish enclaves in the Valley split their vote fairly evenly. Westlake Village, where many Jews are also settling, went two to one for the recall.
These voters, Jewish and otherwise, may represent the true swing voters of the future. Middle-class, home-owning, child-raising, but not wedded to the dogmas of left or right, they were only "rented," as Fleming suggests, by the GOP this year. They could stay with Republicans, it appears, if they adopt moderate views on social issues, maintain a pro-choice stance and appear concerned with public education.
Similar, for the Democrats, they can also win over this electorate. Their challenge will be to stay away from the kind of "progressive" agenda adopted by much of the legislature. The radical "progressive" Democrat — in contrast to more traditional Pat Brown or Hubert Humphrey liberalism — revels in victimization politics and often opposes middle-class values, whether in terms of drivers licenses for illegal immigrants, state advocacy for an aggressively pro-gay agenda or radical redistribution of wealth.
Due to their adherence to this left-wing agenda, the Democrats have lost the governorship and been humiliated. If they learn their lessons and return to the sensible center, they likely will recapture much of the vote that got away, particularly in the Jewish community. If not, the Jewish vote, like much of the multiracial middle-class, will continue to seek other alternatives, particularly if the Republicans can make them at least passably acceptable.
Joel Kotkin is a senior fellow at the Davenport
Institute for Public Policy at Pepperdine University. He is writing a history of
cities for Modern Library. He can be reach at email@example.com