Fighting over every percentile: Arguing about the Jewish vote and exit polls

President Obama’s Jewish numbers are down, but by how much and why?

Get ready for four more years of tussling between the Jewish community’s Republicans and Democrats about the meaning of Obama’s dip from 78 percent Jewish support cited in 2008 exit polls to 69 percent this year in the national exit polls run by a media consortium.

Is it a result of Obama’s fractious relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu? Or is it a natural fall-off in an election that was closer across the board than it was four years ago? Does it reflect a significant shift in Jewish voting patterns toward the Republicans?

A separate national exit poll released Wednesday by Jim Gerstein, a pollster affiliated with the dovish Israel policy group J Street, had similar numbers: 70 percent of respondents said they voted for Obama, while 30 percent — the same figure as in the media consortium's Jewish sample — said they voted for Mitt Romney.

Matt Brooks, who directs the Republican Jewish Coalition, said the $6.5 million his group spent and the $1.5 million an affiliated political action committee spent wooing Jewish voters was “well worth it.”

“We’ve increased our share of the Jewish vote by almost 50 percent,” he said, noting that Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the 2008 Republican nominee, got 22 percent in that year’s exit polls to Romney’s 30 percent this year.

Brooks said that his group’s hard-hitting ads, which attacked Obam on his handling of both Israel and the economy, helped move the needle. “There’s no question we got significant return on our investment,” he said.

Democrats insisted that the needle didn’t wiggle so much, saying the more reliable 2008 number for Obama's shae of the Jewish vote was 74 percent, a figure that is based on a subsequent review of data by The Solomon Project, a nonprofit group affiliated with the National Jewish Democratic Council.

“Right now 69 or 70 is the best number we have for this cycle, and 74 percent is the best number we have for four years ago,” said Steve Rabinowitz, a consultant to Jewish and Democratic groups, including the NJDC. “You can intentionally use a number you know has been corrected just for the purposes of comparison, or you can use the data.”

The 2008 numbers, like this year’s, are based on the 2 percent of respondents identifying as Jewish in the major exit poll run by a consortium of news agencies — altogether, between 400-500 Jews, out of a total of over 25,000 respondents. The Solomon Project review, by examining a range of exit polls taken in different states as well as the national consortium, used data garnered from close to a thousand Jewish voters, a number that reduces the margin of error from about 6 points to 3 points.

Whether the 2008 percentage was 74 or 78 — or some other number entirely given the margins of errror — both Republicans and Democrats agreed that Obama’s share of the Jewish vote had declined. Rabinowitz conceded that the Republican expenditure, which dwarfed spending on the Democratic side, might have had an impact.

“What yichus is there in the possibility of having picked up a handful of Jewish votes having spent so many millions of dollars?” Rabinowitz asked, using the Yiddish word connoting status.

Gerstein said his findings suggested that the Republican blitz of Jewish communities in swing states like Ohio and Florida had little effect; separate polls he ran in those states showed virtually the same results as his national poll of Jewish voters. Gerstein’s national poll of 800 Jewish voters has a margin of error of 3.5 percent; his separate polls of Jewish voters in Ohio and Florida canvassed 600 in each state, with a margin of error of 4 percentage points.

He also noted that there were similar drop-offs in Obama’s overall take — from 53 percent of the popular vote in 2008 to 49 percent this year — as well as among an array of sub groups, including whites, independents, Catholics, those with no religion, those under 30. The only uptick for the president in the media consortium’s exit polls was seen among Hispanic voters, likely turned off by Romney’s tough line on illegal immigration.

“You see a lot of things that are tracking between the Jewish constituency and other constituencies when you look at the shift in Obama’s vote between 2008 and now, “ he said.

The NJDC president, David Harris, attributed what shift there was to the economy.

“American Jews are first and foremost Americans, and like all Americans it’s a difficult time for them,” he said. “The Democratic vote performance has decreased somewhat.”

Gerstein said that the mistake Republicans continued to make was to presume that Israel was an issue that could move the Jewish vote.

“They’ve got to do something very different if they’re going to appeal to Jews,” he said. “The hard-line hawkish appeal to Israel isn’t working.”

He cited an ad run in September in Florida by an anti-Obama group called Secure America Now that featured footage from a press conference in which Netanyahu excoriated those who he said had failed to set red lines for Iran, which was seen as a jab at Obama. Gerstein said that of the 45 percent of his Florida respondents who saw the ad, 56 percent said they were not moved by it, 27 percent said it made them more determined to vote for Obama and only 16 percent said i made them more determined to vote for Romney.

Israel did not feature high among priorities in Gerstein’s polling, a finding that conformed with polling done over the years by the American Jewish Committee. Asked their top issue in voting, 53 percent of Gerstein’s respondents in his national poll cited the economy and 32 percent health care. Israel tied for third with abortion and terrorism at 10 percent.

Gerstein’s national poll showed Obama getting strong overall approval ratings of 67 percent of his respondents, with strong showings on domestic issues like entitlements — where he scored 65 percent — and majority approval of his handling of relations with Israel (53 percent) and the Iranian nuclear issue (58 percent.).

But the RJC's Brooks said he was confident Republicans would continue to accrue gains, saying that with the exception of Obama’s strong showing in 2008, his party has steadily increased its proportion of the Jewish vote since George H. W. Bush got 11 percent in 1992.

“Our investment is not in the outcome of a single election,” he said. “It’s ultimately about broadening the base of the Republican Party in the Jewish community.”

A response to stiff-necked playwright David Mamet

This piece is a response to “A note to stiff-necked people” by David Mamet which first appeared on on Nov. 1.

David Mamet recently asked the following questions of “Jews planning to vote for Obama.”  Herewith, my responses.

Are you prepared to explain to your children not the principles upon which your vote is cast, but its probable effects upon them? 

Yes.   My children will be struggling with climate change for their entire lives, which is one major reason I am voting for Obama.  I live in New York, and I do not want to see a Hurricane Sandy every year.

Irrespective of your endorsement of liberal sentiments, of fairness and “more equal distribution,” will you explain to your children that top-down economic policies will increasingly limit their ability to find challenging and well-paid work, and that the diminution in employment and income will decrease their opportunity to marry and raise children?

I would explain that, if there were any evidence of it.  I’m not sure what “top-down economic policies” you are referring to.  The “trickle down economics” of the last Republican administrations have widened the wealth gap, caused middle-class wages and savings to fall, and led to the financial crisis by aggregating risk at the top.  Moreover, the Republican refusal to invest seriously in education means that China is going to kick my children’s collective butts in the coming century.  For these reasons, the best vote for my children is a vote for Obama.

Will you explain (as you have observed) that a large part of their incomes will be used to fund programs that they may find immoral, wasteful and/or indeed absurd? And that the bulk of their taxes go to no programs at all, but merely service the debt you entailed on them? 

I will.  The largest shares of the federal budget are the military (spending which Romney wants to increase), Medicare, and Social Security.  All the rest is window-dressing.  As for the debt, Romney’s absurd additional tax cuts for the wealthiest 1% — including you, Mr. Mamet – cannot be paid for and will increase the burden on my children.

Will you tell your children that a liberal government will increasingly marginalize, dismiss and weaken the support for and the safety of the Jewish state?

If I told them that, why would they believe me instead of the Israeli generals who said that the Obama administration is the most pro-Israel in American history?   Really, what’s causing the marginalization of the Jewish state is the right/far-right alliance in the Israeli government which is undermining Israeli democratic ideals.  I will tell my children how I lived in Israel for three years, and how I continue to care about the state now – which is why I support the majority of Israelis who want peace, not more confrontation.

Will you tell them that, in a state-run economy, hard work may still be applauded, but that it will no longer be rewarded?

Yes.  Fortunately, only conspiracy loons on the far-right believe that the U.S. economy is state-run. 

Will you explain that whatever their personal beliefs, tax-funded institutions will require them to imbibe and repeat the slogans of the left, and that, should they differ, they cannot have a career in education, medicine or television unless they keep their mouths shut?

No, since this is demonstrably untrue.  Please provide a single example.

Will you explain to them that it is impossible to make a budget, and that the basic arithmetic we all use at the kitchen table is not practiced at the federal and state level, and to suggest that it should be is “selfishness?”

No, since this also is untrue.  First, as economists (rather than playwrights) understand, the  federal government is not a household.  Household debt is very bad; government debt is sometimes bad, sometimes good.  What is “selfishness” is to increase that debt so that the wealthiest 1% of Americans can enjoy a tax cut, can pay no taxes whatsoever on overseas income, and pay no taxes upon inheriting millions of dollars.

Most importantly, will you teach them never to question the pronouncements of those in power, for to do so is to risk ostracism?

Of course I will not teach that.  I personally have been ostracized from parts of the Jewish community for my support of a moderate Zionist organization, J Street.  However, I would rather be ostracized than abandon my love of Israel and the Jewish values on which I grew up.

Are you prepared to sit your children down and talk them through your vote on the future you are choosing for them?

Of course.  As a gay man married to my partner, I will explain how Mitt Romney wants to destroy their family and make it impossible for them to be the legal children of their two fathers.  I will explain how a small handful of neo-conservatives are making a ‘deal with the devil’ with fundamentalist religious know-nothings who believe that rape is sometimes a good thing and that evolution is a “lie straight from hell.”

Please remember that we have the secret ballot and, should you, on reflection, vote in secret for a candidate you would not endorse in public, you will not be alone.

Fortunately, I am not a hypocrite.  I do not do one thing in private and another in public.  For the sake of my children, my country, my Jewish people, and the world in which I live, I am proud to be voting Obama.

Down to the wire, Romney resurrects moderate posture that attracted Jewish support

Mitt Romney’s record as a moderate Republican governor would seem to have made him ideally suited to peel off Jewish votes from President Obama. The problem is that he spent much of the past half decade running from that past.

Now, however, as the campaign draws to a close, Romney is ditching his “severely conservative” primary persona, as he famously described himself, and trying to remind voters about the centrist Republican who once governed Massachusetts. Given his recent rise in the polls, the strategy appears to be paying off.

In addition to enhancing the Republican nominee’s appeal to undecided and swing voters, the shift also could help Romney with a subset of Jewish voters disillusioned with Obama over the economy and the Middle East but who do not necessarily subscribe to conservative positions on domestic and social issues.

While Democrats continue to portray Romney as beholden to the right, his Jewish surrogates have embraced his move to the middle and argue that, if elected, Romney will govern more from the center than his critics suggest.

“It's no different for any politician of any stripe or ilk,” said Fred Zeidman, a Houston businessman and former chairman of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council who is a leading Romney fundraiser. “You look at anybody running, you look at President Obama, he tacks left when he’s campaigning.”

On social issues, Romney's emphasis during the primaries was on the narrative that led him, as governor, to evolve from a supporter of abortion rights to an opponent. But since getting the nomination, he has looked to highlight his differences with more ardent abortion foes, saying in an October interview that abortion legislation is not part of his agenda. On health policy, Romney’s pledge to repeal “Obamacare” now includes a promise to work to preserve aspects of the health care reform that are popular, such as requiring insurance companies to cover people with preexisting conditions.

On Middle East policy — an area seen by his supporters as one of his major selling points to Jewish voters — Romney has also softened some of his tough talk of late. In the candidates’ foreign policy debate, Romney accompanied his longstanding criticism of Obama’s policies on Iran with a reassurace that he would exhaust all options before considering a direct military confrontation.

Romney’s expression of pessimism at a May fundraiser about prospects for Israeli-Palestinian peace — an appearance that was secretly recorded and included his now infamous remark about foregoing trying to win over the 47 percent of Americans dependent on government — has been followed by promises to pursue a two-state solution. Speaking at the Virginia Military Institute, Romney vowed to “recommit America to the goal of a democratic, prosperous Palestinian state living side by side in peace and security with the Jewish state of Israel.”

Romney’s nods toward the middle have not stopped Democrats from trying to paint him and his running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.), as bearers of a ultra-conservative agenda, with critics lashing the Republican ticket’s positions on Medicare, tax policy and social issues.

“‘Severely conservative’ Romney has pledged to be a ‘pro-life president,’ and when he's tried to give some semblance of moderation, his staunchest anti-choice supporters jump in to knock down any notion that he is anything but solidly in their camp,” David Harris, the National Jewish Democratic Council’s president, wrote recently in the Washington Jewish Week.

Some Jewish supporters, however, counter that Romney’s stance on abortion is not the paramount issue that his critics make it out to be.

“They continue to miss opportunities by harping on the issue of abortion,” Matt Brooks, the Republican Jewish Coalition’s executive director, said in an interview during the Republican convention. “This is something they have been trying to scare people with for decades, and yet access to abortion in this country continues despite having incredibly conservative presidents and a conservative court.”

The RJC has focused much of its effort to woo Jewish voters on Middle East policy, although it also has emphasized the struggling economy. On Israel, Romney has tried to distinguish himself from the president by arguing that he would have a closer and more harmonious relationship with Israel and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who faces an election contest Jan. 22.

“I will make clear that America’s commitment to Israel’s security and survival as a Jewish state is absolute, and will demonstrate that commitment to the world by making Jerusalem the destination of my first foreign trip,” Romney wrote in reply to an American Jewish Committee questionnaire. “Unlike President Obama, I understand that distancing the U.S. from Israel doesn't earn us credibility in the Arab world or bring peace closer.”

Romney’s Israel stance was prominently displayed at the Republican convention with a video highlighting the nominee’s July trip to Israel. He has also promised that as president he would not allow disagreements with Israel to be aired in public.

Many of Romney's advisers on both foreign and domestic policy are Jewish. They include Dan Senor, a former spokesman for the Coalition Provisional Authority after the U.S. invasion of Iraq and co-author of “Start-up Nation: The Story of Israel's Economic Miracle,” who has risen to prominence as one of the campaign’s most visible foreign policy voices; Eliot Cohen, an international relations scholar and former State Department counselor; Michael Chertoff, President George W. Bush’s second Homeland Security secretary; Dov Zakheim, a former Pentagon comptroller who has a reputation as a foreign policy realist; and Tevi Troy, a former deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services who also served as Jewish liaison for the George W. Bush’s White House.

By the time he made his second run for president, Romney already had built good relationships with Jewish Republicans from his first term as governor and his first presidential run. Romney’s record of moderation made him a natural fit with the party’s Jews, Zeidman said.

“A lot of people in Boston and on Wall Street knew him and respected him,” Zeidman said of the period in 2005-2006 when Romney started exploring his first presidential run. “But he had yet to be in a position where he addressed the Jewish community at large. Now we know what kind of problem solver he is, we know his integrity, his ability to get things done and that as Jews we never have to be concerned about his commitment to the security of the State of Israel.”

Ann Romney has said that she and her husband, as Mormons, feel a kinship with Jews. “Mitt and I can appreciate coming from another heritage,” she told the RJC last year. When he was starting his business career in consulting, Romney reportedly would joke with Jewish colleagues about being fellow outsiders.

For his first job after graduating from Harvard Business School, Romney joined Boston Consulting Group, where he first met a young Benjamin Netanyahu who was employed there at the time. Today, Romney speaks of his strong bond with the Israeli prime minister.

Romney often repeats to Jewish and non-Jewish audiences his favorite Netanyahu story, in which the Israeli leader describes an Israeli soldier in basic training who is told to run a course with an overweight soldier on his shoulder. The punch line: “Government is the guy on your shoulders.”

Amid roasted pigs, country music and rabbinical blessings, Romney seeks to define himself

Whole barbecued pigs, cheerleaders and elegies to skinny-dipping farmers’ daughters.

That was the organized noise Sunday night at the opening bash of the Republican National Convention at Tropicana Field, the home of Major League Baseball’s Tampa Bay Rays in St. Petersburg.

For those seeking Jewish content, a noted rabbi was set to kick off the formal proceedings on Tuesday, and scattered through the rain-drenched towns of Tampa Bay were a number of events addressing the pro-Israel community’s foreign policy concerns.

At the opening party, delegates availed themselves of free wine and dug into the roasted pigs, a Cuban delicacy, while watching cheerleaders grind to Rodney Atkins singing “Farmer‘s Daughter“ and “What I Love About the South” (“Hot women skinny swimming, barely belly button deep”).

Other noises reverberating across Tampa Bay: There were the winds roiling the waters that lap the bridge that links Tampa with St. Petersburg, echoes of Tropical Storm Isaac, heading west toward New Orleans. The storm mostly missed the Tampa region, but its threat was potent enough to shut down the convention’s first formal day on Monday.

And there was political noise, too: Tea Partiers met at rallies in the region to protest what they depicted as an attempt by Mitt Romney, the presumptive presidential candidate, to marginalize the hard-line conservatives as he attempts to steer the party toward the center ahead of November’s elections.

“This is what the Tea Party is not: We are not an unwanted second-class political party,” U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), a leader of the movement, was quoted by the Tampa Bay Times as telling a packed church hall on Sunday.

There were reports that small groups of delegates in state delegations would protest either by not voting at the convention or by switching votes to libertarian Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), the only contender from the primaries who has not formally relinquished his nomination fight.

Followers of Paul unleashed their anger with the party’s establishment—and particularly its advocacy for a robust U.S. posture overseas—at a packed rally on the University of South Florida campus.

Paul, to cheers, blamed recent wars on “powerful special interests behind a foreign policy of intervention and the military industrial complex” and said “neocons” are “all over the place, and they’re not in one place, they’re in all of the parties.”

The rally was structured as a passing of the torch from Paul, 76, to his son, U.S. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), 49. When Rand Paul appeared, the crowd, estimated at 7,000, began chanting “16!”—underscoring the expectation that he would be a contender for the GOP nomination in four years.

The younger Paul has avoided the associations with bigots and the outright hostility to Israel that have frustrated his father’s multiple bids for the presidency. He has, however, embraced Ron Paul’s isolationism, opposing foreign assistance, including to Israel. And at the Sunday rally he posited a new challenge—an audit of the Pentagon—to a Romney campaign that has pledged increased defense spending, in part to make it clear to Iran that it was not reducing its profile in the Middle East.

“Republicans need to acknowledge that not every dollar is sacred or well spent in the military,” Rand Paul said.

There also were remnants of the moderate Republican Party nipping at the edges of the convention. Events were planned for the Log Cabin Republicans, an umbrella for gays in the party, and Republicans for Choice, an abortion rights group.

The convention schedule, constantly shifting because of the weather, was a template of Romney’s struggle to define himself and to accommodate the party’s multiple strands. Organizers pointed reporters particularly to the primetime 10-11 p.m. slot on Tuesday that featured Romney’s wife, Ann, and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.

Both choices were aimed squarely at attempts by Democrats and the Obama campaign to depict Romney as a flip-flopper beholden to ultra-conservatives. Ann Romney, seen as his most appealing surrogate, would once and for all humanize him, and Christie would show how a moderate Republican could prevail in a Democratic state, as Romney had done when he governed Massachusetts from 2003 to 2007.

The party’s conservative wing also will be present, with speeches by Rick Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator who was Romney’s most pronounced social conservative challenger during the campaign, and Rand Paul. There also will be a video tribute to Ron Paul, an event that Jewish Democrats have derided.

Notably absent as speakers were any remnant of the past decade’s GOP bids for the presidency. Former President George W. Bush is not present or speaking, nor is his vice president, Dick Cheney. Missing also is the 2008 ticket, Sen. John McCain of Arizona and Sarah Palin, the former Alaska governor.

Romney has, however, surrounded himself with foreign policy advisers from past presidents. Most notably for the pro-Israel community, his top Middle East adviser is Den Senor, who has close ties with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and was the U.S. spokesman in Iraq in the period following the war that ousted Saddam Hussein.

AIPAC, as it has at past conventions, was running a number of closed events with top campaign advisers in the Tampa area during the convention, and is planning to do the same next week in Charlotte, N.C., when the Democrats meet. On the pro-Israel lobby’s agenda in Tampa is a bid to understand how Romney would distinguish himself from President Obama in confronting Iran and a broader Middle East roiled by change—the principal source of tension between the president and the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

One signal of consistency with the Obama presidency emerged last week during platform debate when Romney surrogates, led by Sen. Jim Talent (R-Mo.), pushed back against bids to remove a commitment to eventual Palestinian statehood from the platform. Talent noted at the time that two states remains the official Israeli government position.

Jewish officials, committed to building bipartisan consensus on Israel and other issues, expressed concerns about navigating a polarized Washington. At an American Jewish Committee event on energy policy, Richard Foltin, the AJC’s director of legislative affairs, acknowledged the difficulties of making the case for an AJC energy security policy that strives for a middle ground between exploiting U.S. natural resources, which Republicans favor, and alternatives to fossil fuels, the choice of Democrats.

“It’s our role as advocates to say we are not free to desist, even though we are dealing in a polarized and difficult time to move those agendas,” Foltin said.

The convention schedule also underscored Romney’s bid to make more diverse a party that has become increasingly identified with white Christians. Delivering Tuesday’s opening invocation is Rabbi Meir Soloveichik, the scion of a distinguished rabbinic family who has opined on (small c) conservative issues. He also is the director of the Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought at Yeshiva University and associate rabbi at Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.

Also delivering blessings are Hispanic evangelical leader Sammy Rodriguez; Ishwar Singh, a leader in Central Florida’s Sikh community (who approached convention organizers about delivering an invocation in the wake of the recent massacre at the Sikh temple in Wisconsin); Archbishop Demetrios, the primate of the Greek Orthodox Church in America; Ken and Priscilla Hutchins, the president and matron of the Mormon temple in Romney’s home base of Boston; and Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the head of New York’s Roman Catholic Archdiocese and the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Where’s the tough love for Obama?

When it comes to criticizing Israel, liberal supporters of Israel routinely quote the Jewish value of self-criticism. Try telling a pro-Israel critic the following:

“Israel is already being criticized beyond all proportion by much of the world community; it is being demonized and boycotted by a global movement trying to eradicate the Zionist project; it is surrounded by enemies sworn to its destruction; and it already has plenty of criticism and dissent within its own country. Should we, as Diaspora Jews, pile on the criticism and join the feeding frenzy — or should we push back against these exaggerated attacks and make Israel’s case to the world? Why give our enemies more ammunition to hurt us?”

The typical answer you’ll get is: “Because self-criticism is one of the highest Jewish values! It’s not just a right to criticize Israel, it’s an obligation! That’s how we improve. Israel needs our public criticism. It’s the highest and deepest expression of our love for the Jewish state.”

I understand that sentiment: We can’t grow in life without getting some tough love.

But what I don’t understand is this: Why won’t liberal critics of Israel use the same argument for President Obama? If self-criticism is such a noble value, why won’t they show the same kind of “tough love” for the president and criticize him as loudly as they do Israel?

I can’t tell you how often I’ve seen liberal supporters of Israel get all aggressive when criticizing Israel’s policies, but then, as soon as the subject turns to Obama’s policies, they suddenly get all defensive.

Apparently, not all self-criticism is created equal.

This is a shame, because the president could use a lot more criticism from liberals, especially on issues that liberals care deeply about.

In a recent post on the Atlantic Web site titled “Why do Liberals Keep Sanitizing the Obama Story?” Conor Friedersdorf pleads with liberals to “stop ignoring President Obama’s failures on civil liberties, foreign policy, and the separation of powers, treating them as if they [don’t] even merit a mention.”

Friedersdorf takes to task several prominent liberal writers, among them Jonathan Chait, whom he calls “the latest to write about the president as if his civil liberties abuses and executive power excesses never happened.”

Referring to a long assessment of Obama by Chait in New York Magazine, Friedersdorf writes:

“Apparently it isn’t even worthy of mention that Obama’s actions in Libya violated the War Powers Resolution … and the legal advice provided to him by the Office of Legal Counsel.

“Perhaps most egregiously, Chait doesn’t even allude to Obama’s practice of putting American citizens on a secret kill list without any due process.

“Nor does he grapple with warrantless spying on American citizens, Obama’s escalation of the war on whistleblowers, his serial invocation of the state secrets privilege, the Orwellian turn airport security has taken [and] the record-breaking number of deportations over which Obama presided.”

Seriously, how often do we see prominent liberal writers publicly criticize the president for some of these vexing actions, which certainly can’t be blamed on the previous president?

“Why is all this ignored?” Friedersdorf asks. “Telling the story of Obama’s first term without including any of it is a shocking failure of liberalism.

“What does ‘better than the Republicans’ get you if it means that executive privilege keeps expanding, the drones keep killing innocents and inflaming radicals … the Pentagon budget keeps growing, civil liberties keep being eroded, wars are waged without Congressional permission, and every future president knows he or she can do the same because at this point it doesn’t even provoke a significant backlash from the left?”

Friedersdorf says it just won’t cut it “for smart writers and prestigious publications to keep writing big think pieces about Obama’s tenure that read as if some of its most significant, uncomfortable moments never happened.

“Civil liberties and executive power and war-making aren’t fringe concerns. … They’re central to the Obama narrative, and the American narrative, as the president himself would’ve affirmed back when he was articulating lofty standards that he has repeatedly failed to meet.”

So, given all these liberal failures, why are Obama’s liberal supporters “sanitizing” his story? Even before this election season, why have so many of them been reluctant to publicly criticize their president and give him the kind of “tough love” he needs?

Well, here’s one possibility. It’s not that they think Obama is perfect and can do no wrong. Rather, it’s that they see how Obama is already being criticized beyond all proportion by much of the conservative community, and they say to themselves:

“Why should we pile on the criticism and join the feeding frenzy? Better to push back against these exaggerated attacks and make a strong case for our side. Our opponents are so much worse than we are — why give them more ammunition to hurt us?”

Why? For the same reason you criticize Israel — because self-criticism is one of the highest Jewish values! Because self-criticism is not just a right, it’s an obligation!

Because if your beloved Israel deserves your tough love, then so does your beloved president.

David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at

Ryan hailed by Jewish GOPers, organizations see him as a face of budget confrontations

Anointing Paul Ryan as his running mate, Mitt Romney attached a name and face to his fiscal policy.

Jewish Republicans, including the House majority leader, say they are thrilled with Wisconsin’s Ryan emerging as the ticket’s fresh face, hailing the lawmaker as a thoughtful and creative budget guru bent on taming out-of-control federal spending.

Ryan’s name is well known to Jewish community leaders who have been grappling with the Republicans’ chief budget shaper since the party retook the majority in the U.S. House of Representatives in 2010.

It’s just not one they’re happy pronouncing.

The Washington groups that deal with budget policy have had many interactions with Ryan, who as chairman of the House Budget Committee authors Congress’ proposed budget.

They have not been happy ones, although speaking on background, the first thing Ryan’s Jewish and Democratic interlocutors emphasize is that he is as affable and gracious one on one as he appears to be in public. But Jewish groups see Ryan’s plan threatening Medicare and Medicaid, programs that are cornerstones of care for the Jewish elderly—a population growing faster than among most other religious and ethnic groups.

“The Republicans can write off Florida, or at least its Jewish vote,” said one organizational insider who has a strong working relationship with both parties.

Jewish Democrats made it clear that they were ready to seize the moment.

“Ryan’s signature budget plan drew the profound concern and even ire of many in the American Jewish community because of its plans to end Medicare as we know it, slash vital social safety net programs, and increase the burden on seniors, the middle class and the poor—yet Romney today proudly hitched his horse to Ryan’s dangerous plan,” the National Jewish Democratic Council said Saturday after Romney, the presumptive GOP presidential candidate, announced his pick.

Ryan and his defenders argue that his proposals will drive down costs by spurring competitive pricing and save popular entitlement programs from eventual bankruptcy.

“Paul Ryan has challenged both party leaderships in Washington to face up to growing fiscal problems that threaten to blight our nation’s future.,” the Republican Jewish Coalition said in its statement welcoming Romney’s announcement on Saturday.  “And while congressional Republicans have responded to the challenge, Democrats have ducked responsibility.”

Outside of his leaderdship on budget issues, Ryan, 42, has not been preeminent in many of the areas that traditionally have attracted Jewish organizational interest.
Elected in 1998, he visited Israel in 2005 on a trip organized by the American Israel Education Foundation, an affiliate of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

Along with Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), he has joined Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), the House majority leader, as the “young guns” heralding a more robustly conservative Republican Party, one that appeals more to the Tea Party insurgents who fueled the Republican takeover of the House in 2010.

Cantor has often pointed out the diversity embodied by the trio—Cantor is a Southeastern observant Jew, Ryan is a Midwestern Roman Catholic and McCarthy is a Western Protestant.

“Having worked closely with Paul, I’ve seen firsthand the energy and commitment he brings to pursuing the kind of pro-growth economic policies we need to create jobs and reduce our massive debt,” Cantor said in a statement. “Quite simply, Mitt Romney could not have made a finer choice for the future direction of our country.”

Ryan has followed Cantor’s lead on foreign policy, co-sponsoring signature pieces of legislation that the majority leader initiated, most recently one that enhances security cooperation between the United States and Israel.

“America has no better friend in the Middle East than the nation of Israel. Not only is Israel the region’s only fully functioning democracy, with a government based on popular consent and the rule of law, but it is also a valuable ally against Islamic extremism and terrorism,” Ryan says on his congressional page.

Ryan has not interacted extensively with the small Jewish community in Wisconsin, but those who have met him say he’s an eager student of the Middle East.

“He’s thought a lot about those issues, although he might not be an expert like he is on the nitty gritty of the budget,” said Nat Sattler, who has been active in Wisconsin Republican politics and who has met Ryan at Republican and pro-Israel events. “Knowing his ability to suck up information, I’m sure he is becoming an expert.”

Ryan has backed cuts to the overall foreign assistance budget, although he favors funding at current levels for Israel. AIPAC and other pro-Israel groups generally are committed to maintaining foreign assistance funding overall, and not just for Israel.

It is in the area of domestic spending that the clashes between Ryan and the Jewish organizational community have been evident.

On the record, however, organizational criticism often does not often name Ryan because such groups do not want to make enemies or to seem partisan. But even absent names and party affiliation it can be scathing.

In 2011, the Jewish Federations of North America and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs – the two leading policy umbrellas addressing economic issues – were blunt in a joint letter to Congress members slamming plans that originated with Ryan that would transition parts of Medicare, the medical program for the elderly, to a Medicare Exchange in which a variety of private plans would be made available.

The plan also would convey funds for Medicaid, government-funded insurance for the poor, in block grants to the states. JFNA and JCPA objected to the loosening of federal controls over how such money is spent.

“We recognize that this country’s very significant budget deficit threatens the long-term prosperity of our nation,” it said. “We also believe that the major entitlement programs protect the health and economic security of our most vulnerable citizens.”

It continued: “Within the current framework of Medicaid and Medicare, we believe that it is possible to restrain growth and rein in costs,” read the April 2011 letter.  “We are capable of strengthening their long-term viability without a fundamental restructuring that turns Medicaid into a block grant or Medicare into a voucher program.”

As the budget debate has become more rancorous this year, the JFNA has opted out, although among other Jewish groups the criticism has become more pointed.

Also featuring in the Jewish criticism of Ryan’s plans are his proposals to slash spending on assistance for the poor, including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, formerly known as food stamps.

The Reform movement’s Religious Action Center has taken to naming Ryan in its broadsides against his budget.

“By ending the entitlement status of Medicaid and Medicare, fundamentally altering the tax system, and slashing spending for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, and education programs, the Ryan plan would turn our backs on our obligation to care for all Americans,” said a statement in March from the RAC. “We are commanded in Deuteronomy, ‘Do not harden your heart and shut your hand against your needy kinsman.’ ”

Ryan’s defenders note that much of his plan was shaped in coordination with Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), who happens to be Jewish—although Wyden now disavows much of the claim. Wyden notes that he joined Ryan in shaping the plan in part based on the understanding that it would keep intact President Obama’s Affordable Care Act, which Romney and Ryan have pledged to repeal.

“If you repeal the Affordable Care Act, what Mr. Romney is saying is, he just wishes for the best,” Wyden told the Oregonian.

Jewish community officials say that privatization of entitlement programs is more likely to drive up costs for individuals than it is to keep overall costs down.

“A competition approach is not appropriate for people who are higher risk,” said Rachel Goldberg, the director of senior advocacy for B’nai B’rith International. Ryan’s plan, she said, would lure younger and healthier Medicare-eligible Americans into cheaper plans, which in turn would drive up costs for older and less healthy citizens.

Ryan’s defenders note that Obama’s plan also incorporates cuts to Medicare. They argue that Ryan’s plan, broadening options for recipients, is the more efficient and the likelier to prevent further cuts.

“Everyone acknowledges the program is the foremost driver of our long-term debt,” Rich Lowry wrote in National Review Online. “Both Ryan and the president use the same formula of roughly GDP growth plus inflation for setting Medicare’s global budget. The difference is that the president wants a bureaucratic board to get the savings through arbitrary limits on prices that ultimately will limit access to care, while Ryan wants to get the savings through competition and choice.”

Which Republican candidate has the Jewish vote?

When Jewish Republicans around the country enter the voting booth for 10 primaries and caucuses on March 6 for “Super Tuesday,” they will see three candidates who still have a puncher’s chance at securing the GOP presidential nomination.

In this unpredictable race that has seen multiple twists, turns, and momentum shifts, one thing is clear: nobody is backing down just yet.

“This is going to be a dogfight, I don’t think anybody is dropping out,” Richard Baehr, chief political correspondent for American Thinker, told JointMedia News Service. “I think the candidates will be well-funded enough to make it through for a while.”

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich have all expressed pro-Israel sentiments in public debates, leaving Jewish Republicans with the task of distinguishing them from each other to arrive at their candidate of choice.

Mitt Romney

Romney—the longtime frontrunner until surges first by Gingrich, and more recently Santorum—has used every opportunity to name his support of Israel as a Jewish State, and has been firm with the Palestinian leadership and Iran. He has expressed the desire to put pressure on the former to recognize Israel as the Jewish state, and to cease violence by Hamas and other terrorist groups in the region.

On Iran, Romney supports keeping the military option “on the table,” and imposing a fifth round of sanctions that would target the Revolutionary Guard Corps, the Central Bank, and other financial institutions. He has also stated multiple times that there should be no preconditions on the Jewish state, and that it should be allowed to make decisions independently.

“The right course for us is not to try and negotiate for Israel,” Romney said at the Fox News/Google Debate in September 2011.

“[It is] to stand behind our friends, to listen to them and to let the entire world know that we will stay with them, and that we will support them and defend them,” he said.

Romney has also strongly criticized Obama and his administration for their behavior and policy toward Israel. He claimed that Obama “threw Israel under the bus,” for insisting that it should go back to the ’67 borders.

Tevi Troy—a Senior Fellow at the Hudson Institute, the former Deputy Secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, a former liaison to the Jewish community under the Bush administration, and a special and unpaid advisor to the Romney campaign—told JointMedia News Service that he sees a “significant contrast between [Romney’s] strong pro-Israel position and what we’ve seen as a consistent coldness in the Obama administration [on the issue of Israel].”

Troy specifically referred to “a number of unpleasant dustups between the Obama and Netanyahu administrations.” During Netanyahu’s visit to the White House last march, Obama controversially skipped a photo op with the Israeli President, and did not extend an invitation to dinner. Both are common practice during a presidential visit. Obama was also famously overheard blasting Netanyahu with French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

“There were a number of these incidents that were not only unpleasant but discomforting to Jewish voters,” Troy said.

Romney has insisted that any such disagreements with any ally should be voiced behind closed doors.

“If you’ve got an issue with Bibi Netanyahu then sit down in private and hammer it out, but then come out, hold arms together and say ‘we’re together,’” Romney said in an interview with Fox News. “Because ultimately, if you don’t do that, then the foes of America, or of our allies around the world, they take courage from what they think is a split between us.”

Massachusetts U.S. Senator Scott Brown also named Romney’s skill in the economic sector as one of his great strengths. In an interview with JointMedia News Service, Brown touted Romney as “one of the nicest, honest, hard working men I’ve ever met.” He continued that when it comes to the economic issues “there’s no one who can handle them like him.”

According to Troy, Romney is the “total package.”

“[He is] the best option for Israel and a strong contrast to Obama in the fall,” Troy concluded.

Rick Santorum

A social and fiscal conservative known for his steady focus on U.S. policy towards Iran, Santorum has called the “theocracy in Iran” a “real existential threat to the state of Israel.”

Santorum, who introduced sanctions on Iran’s nuclear program back in 2004, said America needs to make it clear that it “will stop Iran getting a nuclear weapon. Period.” Santorum has also described the power of oil, saying that it “has given the capability of the radical Islamists to re-tool and re-arm, and to have capabilities increasingly equal to our own.”

Chris DeSanctis, an adjunct professor in the Department of Government and Politics at Sacred Heart University in Connecticut, said Santorum, out of the three viable candidates, has been the most “consistent as far as his viewpoint and worldview on government.”

“He’s supported conservative causes from social issues to fiscal issues to his support for Israel unwaveringly throughout the years,” DeSanctis, a supporter of Santorum in his personal rather than professional life, told JointMedia News Service.

DeSanctis said “you can trust Santorum a lot more than you can the other two candidates,” calling him the only candidate in the field who is forcefully “talking about the external threat to Israel in regards to terrorism.”

Newt Gingrich

The former Speaker set a tone as perhaps the most outspoken pro-Israel candidate in this race by calling the Palestinians an “invented” people in an interview with The Jewish Channel. Though “there’s always a little bit of pandering” during election season, Gingrich’s statement was historically accurate and “he can defend pretty much everything he says,” according to Baehr.

“He does know the history, and I think he’s taken it seriously,” Baehr said, adding that Gingrich “made support for Israel a prime issue for Republicans in Congress, and when they took control of the Senate and the House in 1994, it became high on their agenda.”

Gingrich also has the support of noted Jewish philanthropist and casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, who has already contributed $11 million to Gingrich’s super PAC. Adelson is expected to donate at least $10 million more, recently telling Forbes “I might give $10 million or $100 million to Gingrich.” 

Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) President Morton Klein told the Associated Press that Gingrich has been known as “one of the few politicians who has had the courage to tell the truth about Israel,” identifying that as the reason for Gingrich’s relationship with Adelson.

Who has the Jewish vote?

According to Dr. Ira Sheskin, director of the Jewish Demography Project of the Sue and Leonard Miller Center for Contemporary Jewish Studies at the University of Miami, Romney’s appeal to Jewish voters extends beyond his stance on Israel and Iran. Of the three likely Republican candidates, Romney will most likely capture the most Jewish votes, he says.

“Everyone knows he is kind of a moderate on a lot of things and consequently he could do a lot better than the other two,” Sheskin said in a phone interview with JointMedia News Service. Santorum, Sheskin continued, has the worst chance of the Republican candidates to win Jewish votes due to his conservative views on social issues.

“If [he] gets the Republican nomination, they’re going to do as badly as the Democrats did when they nominated George McGovern. He will do miserably in the general election, but even more so in the Jewish vote.”

Gingrich is somewhere between the two, Sheskin concluded, as he is conservative but known for his ability to compromise.

Baehr noted that there are many Jewish Republicans “who are more moderate on social issues, which kind of reflects the [Jewish] community in general, both Democrats and Republicans,” which works against Santorum’s chances.

Though Gingrich “has the most emotional level of [Jewish Republican] support” because he’s been more outspoken than the other two candidates, Romney remains the “slight favorite” to be nominated, according to Baehr.

“[Romney] is probably the second favorite among Jewish Republicans, but probably the favorite among Jews who might consider voting for a Republican who are not typically Republican,” Baehr concluded, “and I think Santorum comes in third in part just because he wears his social conservatism on his sleeve, and that makes a lot of moderates on social issues or liberals on social issues in the Jewish community nervous.”

Surging Santorum has Jewish GOPers shrugging, shvitzing and kvelling

If Rick Santorum secures the Republican nomination, expect to hear this mantra from his Jewish supporters: In times of crisis, social issues don’t matter.

The former Pennsylvania senator, who is leading in national polls in the race for the GOP presidential nod, is fiercely anti-abortion and believes that states have the right to ban birth control—stances that are at odds with the views of most American Jews.

Not a problem, says Matt Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition.

“Jobs and the economy and international affairs, these macro issues are front and center,” he said. “If the micro issues, abortion and contraceptives, become predominant, then you’ve got a problem. But this is a big picture, big issue, high-stakes election.”

But the prospect of Santorum winning the Republican nomination excites Jewish Democrats, as they believe he will be an easier opponent for President Obama in November.

Among Jewish Republicans, the bulk of the party’s Jewish donors and advisers have signed with Mitt Romney. The former Massachusetts governor’s relative moderation was seen as a natural fit for a GOP Jewish constituency that is hawkish on Israel and often fiscally conservative but averse to extremes on social issues.

“We know he’s a great friend of Israel,” Fred Zeidman, a Houston lawyer who is one of Romney’s leading fundraisers, said of Santorum. “I do fear his social views will be anathema to a great deal of our Jewish community.”

Romney Republicans like Zeidman have counted on Romney’s moderation to carry swing states where substantial Jewish populations could make a difference—for instance, in Florida, Pennsylvania and Nevada.

In recent interviews, several top Jewish Democratic activists have launched conversations, unsolicited, with a reporter with “What about Rick Santorum?” followed by hearty, relieved laughter.

“He will clearly be a nonstarter with the Jewish community,” said David Harris, president of the National Jewish Democratic Council. “I wish him the best of luck in the primaries.”

Such blasts are bound to increase now that Santorum is leading in polls for the Feb. 28 Michigan primary. Winning in Michigan would likely cripple the campaign of Romney, who until now (although with some difficulty) had claimed front-runner status: It is the state in which Romney grew up and where his father had been a popular governor. Arizona also votes the same day; polls show Romney in the lead there.

Liberal websites have compiled “greatest of” lists of Santorum’s hard-line stances on social issues.

“During his 99-county tour of Iowa, Santorum frequently compared same-sex relationships to inanimate objects like trees, basketballs, beer, and paper towels,” Think Progress said Jan. 4 after Santorum’s first surprise showing—a virtual tie with Romney in the state’s caucuses.

Lonny Kaplan, a New Jersey businessman who is leading Santorum’s fundraising in the Jewish community, says his candidate can overcome his Jewish problem by making his election about the economy and backing Israel as its tensions with Iran increase.

“My sense is that those issues, while they’re important to him, are not what his campaign is about,” Kaplan said. “Obviously it’s a challenge. It doesn’t hurt him during primaries. In the general [election] they’ll raise it again and again, so he counters it by saying what his rationale is for running.”

There is a precedent: Ronald Reagan campaigned well to the right of his GOP rivals and predecessors, yet won nearly 40 percent of the Jewish vote in 1980. It was a year, like this one, when the U.S. was tangling with a recalcitrant, unpredictable Iran and a sagging economy. That’s a bigger chunk of the Jewish vote than any Republican had won in decades. No Republican presidential candidate since has matched that level of Jewish support.

Kaplan says 2012 is similar, given the jobs crisis and the tensions with Iran. Santorum has been the most hawkish of the candidates on Iran, going beyond years of “no options are off the table” language to explicitly say that he would order a U.S. strike if necessary to keep Iran from having a nuclear weapon.

“Israel is severely challenged today, and all of us are very comfortable with Rick’s stand on Israel,” said Kaplan, a former president of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. “And while the economy is showing signs of improvement, it’s been bad for four years.”

Harris of the NJDC said that was wishful thinking, dismissing any efforts to compare Santorum to Reagan or to George W. Bush. While those candidates embraced socially conservative stances, Santorum has been defined by them, he said.

“It’s not that he takes a principled stand re: abortion,” he said. “It’s that he’s long prided himself on being the most far-right social issues candidate.”

Alan Steinberg, a New Jersey political commentator who has been advocating for a more conservative alternative to Romney, suggested that whatever support Santorum would lose among more moderate Jews he would make up in support among Jewish conservatives.

“His stance on social issues will be a plus, particularly in the Orthodox community,” he said. “He will have the Orthodox,  Jewish conservatives and the pro-Israel community that is pro-Netanyahu and pro-Likud.”

Florida primary is first big showdown for the Jewish vote

With Newt Gingrich gaining ground on frontrunner Mitt Romney, the stage is set for a crucial Jan. 31 Republican presidential primary in Florida. By playing a significant role in that day’s outcome, the state’s large Jewish population might set the tone for the rest of the GOP race.

About 638,000 Jews call Florida home, according to the December 2011 figures from the Jewish Virtual Library—in stark contrast to the relatively small Jewish communities in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, states that have held primaries and caucuses so far.

Up until 2004, Florida held its presidential primaries in March. Now, with an earlier contest—open only to Republican voters—an active Jewish electorate should wield significant influence, said Dr. Terri Susan Fine, a political science professor at the University of Central Florida.

If a primary is early in the calendar, Fine explained in an interview with JointMedia News Service, that means voters still have a choice of candidates—which is the case in Florida despite the dropouts of Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann, Jon Huntsman and Herman Cain. Fine said voters in early primaries “end up impacting the choice for the rest of the nation, because if [a candidate] drops out because they don’t do well in your state, or if they do very well in your state … the media presents you as if you’re the winner.” With a later primary in previous election years, some names on the Florida ballot were those of candidates who had already dropped out, meaning “the whole tenor of the campaign changed by the time it got to Florida,” Fine said.

The fact that Florida’s primary is closed to voters outside the Republican party means a low voter turnout is likely, which Fine said magnifies the importance of the Jewish population.

“High-turnout groups within a low-turnout electoral environment are going to be very impactful, and Jews demonstrate not only the highest voter turnout compared with any other religion, but at the same time you’re also talking about the fact that the candidates’ recognize this,” Fine said. “So, we see some ways in which the candidates are differentiating themselves from one another, and also distinguishing themselves from President Obama in order to secure that vote from among Jewish voters, particularly in Florida.”

Herb Swarzman, vice president of Tampa Jewish Federation and area chairman for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), told JointMedia News Service that there is a “great deal” of local interest in Florida regarding the presidential election “because of a general feeling amongst those who do contribute to political campaigns that Israel has not been treated well by this administration.” Jews for whom Israel is an important issue “want to participate to whatever extent they can in the Republican primaries so that they can defeat Barack Obama.”

Swarzman added that “there also is great concern amongst those who are actively involved, for those who read about the issues every day, for those who really care about the possible terrorist threat both in Israel and America, that the United States government is not dealing properly with Iran … and they are looking for a candidate who will be much more aggressive towards the Iranian attempts to create nuclear power.”

However, besides for voters concerned with Obama’s Israel policies, Rabbi David Steinhardt—leader of B’nai Torah Congregation in Boca Raton and Jewish Community Relations Council chair for the Jewish Federation of South Palm Beach County—told JointMedia News Service that he sees a “growing realization among many in the Jewish community that the early portrayal of President Obama not being a friend of Israel has been changing.”

Following Gingrich’s surprise 12-point victory over Romney in South Carolina, a new Rasmussen Report poll shows the former Speaker of the House garnering 41 percent support among likely Florida GOP primary voters, with 32 percent backing Romney, the former Massachusetts governor and winner of the New Hampshire primary. Former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, who edged Romney in the Iowa caucus, and Texas congressman Ron Paul also remain in the race.

Swarzman said he is supporting Gingrich because he “was the most pro-Israel Speaker in the history of this country and I think that he will declare Jerusalem as the undivided capitol of Israel no matter what the State Department or the Arab countries say, if he becomes the president.”

Steinhardt said his “subjective reading” of the perception of the Republican primary in Florida “is one of disappointment.”

“By in large, I sense that the community feels that the Republican candidates don’t reflect the stature or the vision that they’re looking for in a president of the United States,” he said.

Steinhardt also believes “that the press has sold the Jewish community short, in that the Jewish community is not just a one-issue voting bloc anymore, and I don’t know if it ever was, but maybe we tend to think of it that way.”

“Jews are very concerned about healthcare, and very concerned about social policy, and very concerned about issues of war and peace and national defense and Israel,” he said. “Those are all on the agenda of engaged Jews who are politically aware and somewhat active in the process—certainly active in the conversation.”

With the highest percentage of elderly residents compared to any other state, issues such as Medicare, Social Security and healthcare are critical for Jewish voters in Florida, Swarzman and Steinhardt agreed.

The older nature of Florida’s Jewish voter base has another political impact, according to Fine. She said scholars have found that members of Congress born after 1950 take a different position on Israel than those born before 1950. This is attributed to memories of the Holocaust and World War II, and memories relating to the formation of the state of Israel, Fine explained.

“So, if you didn’t have that experience in your lifetime, or if you had the experience but don’t remember it, then that has an impact on your overall political socialization and that impacts how you function in Congress,” Fine said. “We found, for example, that older members of Congress had to be far more for one state of Israel, pro-Israel, but the other members of Congress are more likely to be more liberal when it comes to the notion of Palestinian rights and the right or return of Palestinians and those kinds of things.”

Looking ahead to the general election, one can easily remember 2000, when George W. Bush’s historically narrow victory over Al Gore in Florida—amid a recount of the vote and a Supreme Court ruling in his favor—essentially decided the presidency. Fine said Florida could have an even greater impact on the 2012 election because the state’s number of electoral votes has increased from 27 to 29, exceeding 10 percent of the total electoral votes a candidate needs to win.

With Florida’s “winner take all” system within the Electoral College, all a candidate needs is one more vote than the closest competitor to gain all 29 electoral votes—and that’s why the Jewish vote matters, said Dr. Ira Sheskin, director of the Jewish Demography Project of the Sue and Leonard Miller Center for Contemporary Jewish Studies at the University of Miami.

In close presidential elections, which are usually won by a margin of about 52 percent to 48 percent, candidates are fighting for small percentages and need to appeal to every vote they can get, Sheskin told JointMedia News Service. Although Florida’s Jews amount to 3.7 percent of the state’s total population, well over 90 percent of Jews are registered to vote—meaning they represent a more statistically significant 6-8 percent of Florida’s electorate, Sheskin said, adding that Jews are more likely to vote than other groups.

“[Florida is] very significant because the Jewish population is large here, and Florida is a significant state because of the Electoral College,” said Steinhardt, “so obviously there’s great importance to the Jewish vote here.”

Jewish vote in play for 2012

Will the Jewish vote, normally overwhelmingly Democratic, be up for grabs in 2012? That question became a subject of intense debate when a Republican was elected recently to the House of Representatives from New York’s 9th Congressional District for the first time in 90 years.

The district, which encompasses parts of Brooklyn and Queens and is about one-third Jewish, had been predictably Democratic and liberal. But in the blink of an eye it gave the non-Jewish Republican candidate an 8-point victory over the Democrat, an Orthodox Jew.

Public rabbinical endorsements in the district and extensive reportage in local Jewish papers indicated substantial Jewish defections from the Democrats, particularly among Orthodox Jews, estimated to make up about a third of the Jewish electorate there. Since the election, Republican presidential candidates have been ramping up their pro-Israel rhetoric on the assumption that Jews are disappointed with the administration’s Middle East policy, while Democrats are organizing special outreach initiatives in the hope of holding on to their Jewish support.

The just-released AJC Survey of American Jewish Opinion indicates a definite falloff of Jewish support for Obama, although it is not clear that the Republican candidate for president next year can count on a significant shift in the Jewish vote.

Jewish support for Obama began at a far higher threshold than in the electorate at large: In 2008 he received an estimated 78 percent of the Jewish vote while polling 53 percent nationally. Three years later his national approval rating stands at 39 percent, a 14-point drop, while his approval rating among Jews—according to the AJC survey—is 45 percent, a decline of 23 percent but still 6 points higher than among Americans as a whole. Among Orthodox Jews, who made up 9 percent of the sample, disapproval is much higher, 72 percent.

The AJC poll indicates that the president has retained the support of American Jews on certain issues. A solid 68 percent approve of the way he has handled national security, for example. Yet there has been a striking reversal in Jewish attitudes toward the president’s handling of U.S.-Israel relations. In the fall of 2009, toward the end of the administration’s first year, the AJC survey showed Jewish approval outstripping disapproval by 54 to 32 percent. Now, two years later, disapprovers outnumber approvers by 53 to 40 percent. Among the Orthodox Jews, 81 percent disapprove.

But Jewish disaffection from the president is not confined to Israel policy; Jews share the broader American unhappiness with recent economic trends. In March 2010, an AJC survey had Jewish approval of the president’s economic policies at 55 percent as compared to 45 percent in the general population. Today the Jewish approval rating on the economy is down to 37 percent, about the same as among Americans as a whole.

The latest AJC survey indicates some falloff in Jewish identification with the Democratic Party, which stood at 53 percent in 2009 and is now at 45 percent. However, this has not translated into gains for the Republicans, which stands steady at 16 percent. Rather, the number of Jewish political independents rose in that time period from 30 percent to 38 percent. In the Orthodox sample, Republicans now outnumber Democrats by 35 to 21 percent, with 41 percent identifying as independents.

Looking forward to the 2012 election, the AJC survey matched up Obama with a number of potential Republican candidates and asked respondents to indicate for whom they would vote. Mitt Romney did best in the hypothetical contest, garnering 32 percent to Obama’s 51; Rick Perry garnered 26 percent to Obama’s 54; and Michele Bachmann received 21 percent against 59 percent for Obama.

Since 1928, Democratic candidates for president almost always have received at least 60 percent of the Jewish vote, with many doing far better. Only Jimmy Carter in his 1980 re-election bid did worse, winning a plurality of 45 percent in a three-candidate race.

Do Obama’s numbers in the AJC matchups, all in the 51-59 percent range, portend trouble for him? Not necessarily. Approximately 20 percent of the respondents said they were undecided or unsure about whether to vote for Obama or for any of the named Republicans. To be sure, there is still a year to go before the next presidential election. Much could happen to change the electoral calculus both in the Jewish community and outside it, whether on the domestic economic front, in the Middle East or elsewhere. Also, other candidates could conceivably enter the race.

Clearly the president faces challenges in attracting Jewish voters, especially the Orthodox. Some are identical to those confronting him with regard to all voters, others specific to the Jewish community.

It is far too early to tell if 2012 will be the year that Republicans finally fulfill their long-held aspiration to draw a large chunk of the Jewish vote or if, despite serious misgivings, the tradition of overwhelming Jewish allegiance to the Democrats continues.

Lawrence Grossman is the American Jewish Committee’s director of publications and former editor of the American Jewish Year Book.

Latest poll bad news for Jewish Republicans

The Republican Party continues to lavish money on Jewish voters, arguing that only their candidates are reliable on critical questions like support for Israel and terrorism. Jewish Democrats are firing back, blasting their GOP counterparts for undermining the longstanding bipartisanship of the pro-Israel coalition by tainting the entire Democratic Party for the sins of a few.

That’s producing a lot of noise as Nov. 7 approaches — and a nice revenue stream for the Jewish newspapers that run their broadsides as advertising.

But a new poll suggests no signs of a seismic partisan shift in the Jewish community. There are openings for the Republicans, but so far their candidates have been unable to take full advantage of them.

This week the American Jewish Committee (AJCommittee) released its annual Survey of Jewish Public Opinion, based on interviews conducted between Sept. 25 and Oct. 16. For all the talk about partisan shifts, the survey shows a community that has remained remarkably stable in terms of its politics as the nation goes through a whirlwind of political change.

On questions of party identification, 54 percent identify with the Democratic Party, 16 percent with the GOP, close to last year’s figures. Jewish Republicans point out that their figures have climbed sharply from the 2000 level, about 9 percent; Jewish Democrats tout a six-point increase in Democratic identification since the last midterm election in 2002.

About 29 percent identify as independents; once again, the Republicans hope they can pull in some of them with the argument that President Bush has been Israel’s best friend in the White House. But the poll responses on specific issues suggest that the GOP strategy has not penetrated much beyond its own Jewish core.

Despite aggressive advertising on the issue, only 28 percent of the Jewish respondents believe the Republicans are “more likely to make the right decision when it comes to dealing with terrorism.” 51 percent say they trust the Democrats more on the terror issue.

Nor are many Jews buying the GOP argument, featured in major newspaper ads including in The Jewish Journal, that opposition to the Iraq war is linked to leftist anti-Israel sentiment. 65 percent of the Jewish respondents said the United States should have stayed out of Iraq, with only 29 percent saying the country did “the right thing.” Only 22 percent say they think the Republican Party is more likely to “make the right decision about the war in Iraq.”

The Republican administration fares a little better on the issue of Iran — but not much. 33 percent approved of the Bush administration’s handling of the confrontation over Teheran’s nuclear program; 54 percent disapproved. Interestingly the same majority — 54 percent — say they oppose U.S. military action against Teheran.

The same pattern holds on the few domestic issues surveyed by the AJCommittee. Only 27 percent say they believe the Republicans are more likely to “ensure a strong economy,” with 60 percent saying the Democrats will.

The survey shows that the largest bloc of Jews — 32 percent — identify as “moderate, middle of the road.” But it also shows a slight increase in those identifying as “liberal,” a number that seems to have come at the expense of the category “slightly liberal.” That suggests a slight shift to the left, although the shift is close to the three percent margin of error.

The National Jewish Democratic Council (NJDC) was quick to tout the AJCommittee poll as confirmation that efforts by the Republicans to “switch the political affiliations of Jewish voters has floundered,” according to a statement by the group.

Maybe. But it also shows that the Republicans aren’t without hope. The 29 percent of Jewish voters who identify as independents represent a significant opportunity for the GOP. In recent elections selected Republican candidates, including former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and Maryland Gov. Bob Ehrlich, have done well with Jewish independents and even with some Democrats.

The Republicans who have drawn significant Jewish support have been relative moderates who have focused on close-to-home issues in their appeals to Jewish voters, not Mideast bombast, and conducted extensive, on-the-ground outreach in the Jewish community.

The Republican strategy of “all Israel, all the time” may appeal to those already inclined to vote for their candidates, but it seems to be having little impact with the majority of Jewish voters who steadfastly reject single-issue politics.

And Republicans who do well with Jewish voters are rarely those most associated with the Christian right, a faction that many political scientists say is the most important reason why so much Jewish-GOP outreach has been ineffective.

Single-interest, pro-Israel politics is a proven nonstarter with the Jewish center; the religious right remains a deal breaker for many Jews who might otherwise be inclined to vote for Republicans.

Once again, this year’s AJCommittee poll points to a Jewish community that is resoundingly centrist, but with a stubborn streak of liberalism that years worth of aggressive GOP outreach and concern about Israel have not really dented.

Mayoral Candidates Battle for Jewish Vote


“He’s a soul mate in terms of environmental sensitivity and good government,” said Dave Freeman, about mayoral candidate Antonio Villaraigosa. Freeman, former head of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (DWP), paused for just a moment, then continued in his Southern accent, “I just think he has the ability to advance an agenda more focused on what I consider Jewish values.”

There you have it: A Tennessee environmentalist from an Orthodox family endorsing a Latino mayoral candidate for displaying Jewish values in Los Angeles. This city, with its rich history of strong political-ethnic alliances, may be in a state of reorientation — at least as far as the Jewish community is concerned.

With five candidates in the running, there is no consensus on who will garner the majority of Jewish votes, but all the candidates are making overtures and it’s easy to understand why. With roughly 30 percent of the electorate still undecided in recent polls, and with no candidate reaching 30 percent support so far, the politically active Jewish community could make a big difference.

In recent weeks, Villaraigosa has been leading most polls, and Freeman counts himself among the most ardent backers of Antonio. “When he was the speaker of the state Assembly, he planted trees with me without getting any fanfare or publicity out of it,” Freeman said of Villaraigosa. “As speaker, he brought the Republicans and Democrats together for bond measures, for parks, for schools — he can get people of different points of view to work together.”

Freeman, who was running the DWP when Mayor James Hahn was city attorney, had less flattering comments about the incumbent’s executive abilities.

“I remember clearly how [Hahn] would leave at 4:45 p.m. every day,” he said. “I mean, I respect the fact he wants to be with his family, but [being] mayor is not a 9-to-5 job.”

Hahn, however, can count on his own base of committed Jewish support.

“I’ve known Jim Hahn since he was city attorney, and I’ve basically supported him ever since,” said Hope Warschaw, former national commissioner for the Anti-Defamation League.

Warschaw emphasized Hahn’s two major achievements during his term: Defeating Valley secession and hiring Police Chief Bill Bratton.

“While other politicians were absolute cowards during the secession fight, he stepped up to the plate and had to raise millions of dollars to keep the city together,” Warschaw said. “And he took an incredibly unpopular position and hired Bill Bratton, which I think everyone agrees was a brilliant stroke.”

Warschaw credits Hahn for having no fear of being overshadowed by other competent professionals, an attitude some mistake for noninvolvement.

“Most politicians would not want to hire a Bill Bratton, because he would get a lot of publicity,” Warschaw said.

Hahn’s friend, Patty Glaser, agreed: “I’d rather have a mayor that’s doing a good job than one who is talking about doing a good job.”

But what about Hahn’s personality? He has often been accused of being absent or dull.

“He’s got a great sense of humor; he’s an extremely dedicated father,” Warschaw said. “People who have known him, love him.”

Then, of course, there is Bob Hertzberg, the Jewish candidate in the election who introduced himself to much of the city in a television ad as the 100-foot man recently seen gingerly sidestepping buildings around the city.

“I feel about the candidates that Bob Hertzberg is far and away the most talented [candidate],” said Marcia Volpert, former president of Jewish Family Service, former chair of the Jewish Political Action Committee and the first woman to chair the Jewish Community Relations Committee (JCRC).

Another former Assembly speaker, Hertzberg’s mayoral candidacy has been marked both by big ideas and big hugs. But while there’s no question about his friendliness, putting his policy theories into practice — from breaking up the Los Angeles Unified School District to enacting a commuter’s bill of rights — could prove more difficult.

Volpert, who has faith that Hertzberg can pull it off, said, “He has had the leadership experience, and when he was in the [state Assembly] he was able to pull differing points of view together and get legislation passed. I think that bodes well for the city.”

Hertzberg, like Villaraigosa, has been accused by Hahn of being a consummate Sacramento politician, removed from the needs of the city. Volpert sees a bright side to that equation.

“[Hertzberg] is being supported by [California Secretary of Education and former L.A. Mayor] Richard Riordan, and he has worked with Gov. Schwarzenegger,” she said. “We have to work with the people who have clout to get money to make a difference in this town.”

Volpert said Hertzberg’s natural charm and charisma can’t be discounted, qualities that enable him to build good relationships with colleagues, where other politicians face conflict.

“You can’t be mayor by yourself,” she said.

That’s especially true in a city like Los Angeles, where weak mayoral powers put a premium on coalition-building abilities, force of personality or both.

There’s also some Jewish support to be found behind two other challengers, state Sen. Richard Alarcon (D-Van Nuys) and former Police Chief and current City Councilman Bernard Parks.

“All of them have tried to be friendly,” said Scott Svonkin, chairman of the B’nai B’rith Southern California Public Policy Center. “But Richard Alarcon has created programs to work with the Jewish community.”

Svonkin specifically cited the Fiesta Shalom festival, one of the first joint Jewish-Latino cultural events in Los Angeles.

On policy issues, Alarcon’s ongoing tenure in the state Senate has allowed him to prove his dedication to helping the underprivileged.

“He’s helped create more opportunities for affordable housing than just about any other elected official,” Svonkin said. “Nobody else can say they’ve created as much housing as Richard has.”

“I knew him as a city councilman, and he has always come to Jewish community events. When I was chair of the JCRC or working with B’nai B’rith, Richard has always been a friend,” said Svonkin, who also praised on Villaraigosa for his involvement with the community.

The bulk of Parks’ support is among black voters in South Los Angeles, and he has not been able to recreate anything like the Tom Bradley coalition that made the combination of Jews and African Americans a potent political force. But Parks’ law-enforcement credentials and his pro-business stance have potentially strong appeal for some Jewish voters. Parks insisted that his reception has been encouragingly positive as he’s brought his message to Jewish venues. At least one prominent Los Angeles Jewish activist, Vidal Sassoon, has donated to his campaign.

“You can’t count on the Jewish vote going to ‘X,'” Hertzberg supporter Volpert said. “I think it will be all over the place this time.”

Observers may interpret that phenomenon as a cultural or political maturity, a sign of dissolving ethnic coalitions, or simply a five-way free-for-all.


Examining the Jewish Vote

Like many Jews, Paul Kujawsky is a vociferous supporter of Sen. John Kerry. But at Shaarey Zedek Congregation in the Valley, he stands out as such an anomaly that his rabbi refers to him as “the one Democrat in the shul.”

The reason? Kujawsky is Orthodox. According to a recent poll by the American Jewish Committee, 60 percent of the Orthodox vote is going to President Bush. Orthodox Jews tend to be more sympathetic with the Republican Party’s positions on gay marriage, abortion and school vouchers, and they also see Bush as the strongest supporter that Israel has ever had in the White House.

According to the poll, while Kerry commands 69 percent of the overall Jewish vote, his support in the Orthodox community is just 26 percent.

Jay Footlik, senior adviser for Middle East and Jewish Affairs for the Kerry/Edwards campaign, told The Journal the campaign had been reaching out to Orthodox groups, and has met with representatives from the Orthodox Union, the Agudah, and the National Council of Young Israel.

Janna Sidley, the Democratic National Committee’s political director and community liaison for California and Jewish community liaison for Kerry-Edwards, said that the campaign had “overall community support” in the Jewish community. However, she could not give any figures on how many Orthodox Jews in Los Angeles supported Kerry, because the campaign did not track support across denominational lines. However, Kerry supporters in the L.A. Orthodox community believe they are few and far between.

“I get a lot of teasing for supporting Kerry,” said Kujawsky who is president of Democrats for Israel Los Angeles. “In my [Orthodox] synagogue most of the people are Bush supporters, even though they remain Democrats. I haven’t counted [how many Orthodox Kerry supporters I know], but if I had to, I could probably round up a minyan.”

“We put a Kerry sticker in our living room window in Pico-Robertson, and we got a lot of comments from people,” said Daria Hoffman, a member of B’nai David Judea who, along with her husband, Yechiel, will be voting for Kerry this election. “A friend who goes to Anshei Emes said, ‘What’s the deal with the Kerry bumper sticker?'”

Kerry’s Orthodox supporters say that his stand on Israel is as strong as Bush’s, and that Bush’s support is more hype than deed. Further, they say the Orthodox position on abortion, which permits it if the mother’s health is endangered, is more in line with left-wing, pro-choice views than right-wing ones.

Footlik also said that Orthodox Jews should support Kerry because, if he is elected, they will receive more governmental assistance for their large families.

“I think that Bush’s support for Israel is one of the biggest myths that the community has propagated,” Hoffman said. “I don’t think Bush has done that much for Israel over the past four years. I mean, he made a few speeches, but nothing much has been accomplished.”

“I don’t believe that there is anything in the Torah that tells you which political party to support,” Kujawsky said. “There is nothing in Orthodoxy that demands you be a Republican, and it’s a misunderstanding that all Orthodox Jews are politically conservative.”

“While it is true that Orthodox Jews tend to be Republican,” he continued, “obviously when you have someone like Sen. Joe Lieberman, who is obviously Orthodox and a Democrat, plainly there is a long tradition of Orthodox Jews supporting democrats.”

Key Congress Races Hold Great Import

Perhaps it makes sense that Allyson Schwartz’s campaign headquarters sits above a Russian Jewish market on a small strip mall — after all, Schwartz is considered to have the best chance of any candidate to join the Jewish caucus in Congress.

The Democratic Pennsylvania state senator is running to replace Democratic Rep. Joe Hoeffel who is trying to win a Senate seat. Schwartz has received support from Jewish Democratic donors but is in one of the most competitive open seats in the country, running against Republican ophthalmologist Melissa Brown in the state’s 13th District. The two have been attacking each other with negative advertising.

Brown accuses Schwartz of having “radical views,” such as opposing the death penalty in all cases and supporting tax increases. Schwartz countercharges that Brown committed insurance fraud with her husband, when they founded a doctor-owned HMO. The race also has focused on health care and the Iraq War.

A Keystone poll taken late last month had Schwartz leading Brown 45 percent to 32 percent.

Schwartz’s race is one of the few congressional contests the U.S. Jewish community is watching intently this year. While 2002 elections saw Jews support challengers to incumbents seen as anti-Israel, this year, the community is focused more on aiding vulnerable incumbents and picking sides in a number of open Senate races.

By and large, however, attention is focused more on the tight presidential race than on the battles for the House and Senate. Yet analysts say this year’s congressional races are vitally important.

Democrats have a chance to take control of the Senate, which could help funnel through a lot of social policy programs backed by Jewish groups that have stalled in the Republican-controlled Congress. The House is likely to stay Republican, but Democratic gains there also could help the Jewish social agenda, analysts say.

The majority party has the ability to introduce legislation and chair the committees that process and mark up bills.

There always is interest in increasing the number of Jews in the Capitol. Currently, there are 26 Jewish representatives, most of whom do not face serious challenges for re-election, and 11 Jewish senators, five of whom are up for re-election this year.

Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) do not face strong challenges this year. However, Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.) and Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) are in tough races.

The most closely watched race in the Jewish community involves Rep. Martin Frost (D-Texas), the second-longest serving Jewish Democrat in the House, who is up against GOP Rep. Pete Sessions in a redrawn district that heavily favors Sessions.

Jewish Democrats from across the country have been aiding Frost. Sheldon Cohen, a former IRS commissioner, hosted a fundraiser for Frost in the Washington area that attracted more than 30 people at 7:30 on a weekday morning.

“He’s been a leader of a lot of good things, certainly everything the Jewish community could want,” Cohen said of Frost who declined to state how much money was raised.

The race has been tense, with both candidates accusing the other of stealing yard signs. A recent Dallas Morning News poll showed Frost trailing Sessions by 6 percentage points.

Jewish Democrats say the former minority whip holds influence in the chamber from his role on the House Democratic Steering Committee and as the senior Democrat on the Rules Committee. He also has been a vocal advocate for Israel.

The only Jewish House member not seeking re-election this year is Rep. Peter Deutsch (D-Fla.) who unsuccessfully ran for the Democratic nomination for an open Senate seat. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who also is Jewish, is seen as Deutsch’s likely successor in a heavily Democratic district.

David Ashe’s chances in Virginia have risen since GOP Rep. Ed Schrock got out of the race amid an Internet-based rumor campaign. Ashe, a veteran of the 2003 Iraq War who is Jewish, is up against Thelma Drake, a member of Virginia’s House of Delegates.

Democrats also are looking at two other challengers. Jan Schneider faces an uphill battle to unseat Rep. Katherine Harris (R-Fla.). Harris beat Schneider in 2002. The other challenger, attorney Paul Hodes, is seeking to oust Rep. Charles Bass (R-N.H.).

In the Senate, eyes are focused on Specter who seems likely to defeat Hoeffel to win his fifth term. Specter is leading in the polls by almost 20 points. He has focused his campaign on support for the Iraq War, as well as steel tariffs, an important issue in Pennsylvania. Hoeffel has countered by discussing the Republican-backed tax cuts and his record on the environment and abortion.

Specter was able to fend off a primary challenge from the right by GOP Rep. Pat Toomey, thanks largely to support from President Bush and Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.). But while he needed to project his conservative credentials during the primary, he now is moving back to the center to pick up undecided voters.

Many Jews in the state have crossed party lines to back Specter in the past, though Hoeffel is expected to get some Jewish support. But some female Jewish voters say they’re still angry at Specter, because of his treatment of Anita Hill during Clarence Thomas’ Supreme Court confirmation hearings in 1991.

The Jewish community also is watching the South Carolina race in which Inez Tenenbaum, the state’s superintendent of education, is taking on GOP Rep. Jim DeMint for a seat now being held by a Democrat.

Tenenbaum’s husband is a pro-Israel activist on the board of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). In her campaign advertisements, however, she has stressed that her parents were church elders, and she has touted conservative issues, such as the constitutional amendment against gay marriages. Tenenbaum’s election would be considered a boon for the pro-Israel community, though some polls show her 10 points behind DeMint.

Not all races of interest to the Jewish community involve Jewish candidates: One of the most closely watched Senate contests this year involves a candidate who beat out a Jewish challenger in the primary. Betty Castor, a former Florida state education commissioner, won her Democratic primary despite being attacked by Deutsch, who suggested that Castor allowed an Islamic jihad ally to operate a front for the terrorist group at the University of South Florida when Castor was the school’s president.

Jewish Democrats now are trying to restore Castor’s image in the community as polls show a dead-even race. Castor has reached out to the AIPAC and other Jewish groups. Supporters say she expects to win a large portion of Florida’s Jewish vote.

A Democratic Senate staffer who follows Florida politics said many of the Jews backing Castor’s opponent, Mel Martinez, a former U.S. secretary of housing and urban development, also are supporting Bush.

The staffer went on to say that Castor would have been vulnerable on the Islamic jihad issue even if she hadn’t faced Deutsch’s accusations in the primary.

Jews also are watching Senate races in Oklahoma and Colorado. Democrats believe those states may be the best places to pick up Senate seats currently in Republican hands, and Israel activists from both sides of the aisle are looking for candidates that will support Israel.

In Oklahoma, pro-Israel activists have been supporting Democratic Rep. Brad Carson against physician Tom Coburn, a former congressman. The race is considered close, with recent polls divided as to who is ahead.

“We’ve helped him,” Morris Amitay, treasurer of the Washington Political Action Committee, said of Carson. “He has a good record.”

Some Jewish leaders are concerned about Coburn’s pro-life platform. Coburn also has been plagued by charges that he sterilized a woman without her consent and for recent comments suggesting lesbianism is rampant in state schools.

In Colorado, concerns about conservative positions from beer magnate and Republican candidate Pete Coors have led Jews to support Democratic candidate Ken Salazar, the state attorney general. The race has focused on national issues, such as the Iraq War and the Patriot Act. Polls show Salazar with a small lead.

Republican Jews have been focusing their attention on unseating Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) and have been giving money to his challenger, former Rep. John Thune, in a tight race. Recent polls are divided as to who is ahead.

Daschle has been a strong proponent of Israel and Jewish domestic policy concerns. Thune also is considered strong on Israel. The race has focused primarily on Social Security and health care, as well as Daschle’s record opposing Republican initiatives in the Senate.

Republicans also are backing North Carolina Rep. Richard Burr who is running against former White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles for an open Senate seat. Polls show the race has tightened in recent weeks, with Bowles’ lead down to only one to two percentage points.

The race has focused on national security issues, with Burr accusing Bowles of being weak on terrorism, when he served in the Clinton administration. Hugh Shelton, a former chairman of the military’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, has defended Bowles.

Republicans and pro-Israel activists have aided Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), who was appointed to the Senate two years ago by her father, when he became governor. Murkowski has developed a solid pro-Israel record, Amitay said, but she faces a strong challenge from Tony Knowles, a former governor, who is up 3 percentage points in the polls. The hot issue in the state is drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Some are also watching Wisconsin, where Feingold holds a solid lead over Republican challenger Tim Michels. But as a liberal lawmaker in a state that is growing more conservative — and which is considered a tossup in the presidential race — Feingold will have to work hard right up until election day, Jewish advocates say. The latest poll shows Feingold, the only senator to oppose the Patriot Act, more than 20 points ahead of Michels.

There also is disappointment in the Jewish community that Rep. Cynthia McKinney almost certainly will return to Congress. McKinney was unseated by Rep. Denise Majette (D-Ga.) in 2002, with the American Jewish community heavily backing Majette, because of McKinney’s strong anti-Israel positions.

Majette shocked many earlier this year, giving up her House position to run for an open Senate seat that many assume will go Republican next month.

McKinney won a primary for her old seat and does not face a strong challenge in the predominantly Democratic district. Yet, Jewish leaders suggest McKinney may curtail her anti-Israel rhetoric if she returns to the Capitol in January, a hope shared by House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.).

“Frankly I have not had any discussions with Cynthia for some period of time, so I don’t know whether she has modified her views,” Hoyer said last month. “But they are not shared by anybody I know of that is in the Democratic Caucus today.”

No Boxer Rebellion

The latest Field Poll shows U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer coasting toward re-election to a third term. She leads her Republican challenger, former California Secretary of State Bill Jones 48 to 32 percent.

The race will probably get closer, but it is hard to see how Jones can catch up as long as Boxer maintains the stranglehold on Democratic voters she has maintained since her first election in 1992. In each of her elections, she has dominated the Democratic electorate (including Jewish voters), run up big totals in Los Angeles County and the Bay Area, painted her Republican opponents as out-of-the-mainstream conservatives and won rather easily. Jones seems to be about to become the latest victim of the Boxer train.

Once buoyed by the 2003 recall and the election of GOP Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Republicans must feel that they are on the verge of missing yet another chance to knock Boxer out. There were reasons to think Boxer would have a particularly hard time this year. Last year, President Bush was quite popular in California. Schwarzenegger had taken over California politics and endorsed her opponent, Jones.

With greater Republican interest in statewide politics due to the recall, there might be a high turnout of Republican voters, just as there had been in October 2003. Most of all, the percentage of voters who thought Boxer should be re-elected hasn’t been over 50 percent in the Field Poll for more than year, a serious warning sign for an incumbent.

Yet here she is. Bush’s popularity is falling in California and Democrats are energized. The Senate race is moving into a zone of disinterest, overshadowed by the presidential election and statewide ballot measures.

The worst news for Jones has to be the low level of interest in the Senate race. According to the Field Poll, 9 percent of voters were following the Senate campaign very closely in August; now it is only 8 percent.

By contrast, historic numbers of U.S. voters are playing close attention to the presidential election. Without much media attention — the challenger’s oxygen against an incumbent — it may be hard for Jones to catch up.

Boxer may not be the sort of moderate candidate that, as a whole, California voters love, compared to, say, Sen. Dianne Feinstein. But she can raise tons of money, she is hugely energetic and she maintains her political base in the Democratic Party.

She is also surprisingly careful. In the 2003 recall, she distanced herself from the doomed Gray Davis by joining with Loretta Sanchez to float the idea of Feinstein running as a replacement candidate. She was rather judicious in what she said about Schwarzenegger, a man who keeps a close tally of friends and enemies.

Even as a liberal activist, Boxer stays below the radar and does not become a lightning rod for her political enemies. She is no Hillary Clinton, keeping the radical right up at night boiling with rage. She manages to be a liberal icon without stirring up a hornet’s nest.

Boxer’s biggest problem would not have been Jones, but Schwarzenegger. Had the governor thrown everything he had at Boxer, he might have disrupted her winning formula.

Fortunately for Boxer, the governor has other fish to fry. He is trying to block some gambling ballot measures and hoping to win some state legislative seats for his party.

He needs friends in Washington of both parties to win benefits for California and would be unlikely to expend a lot of energy trying to drive an incumbent senator out of office. Some even think that he has his eye on Feinstein’s Senate seat in 2006, should she step down.

If so, he would need to keep refining his bipartisan approach for a Republican in a Democratic state. His support among California Democrats has been dropping since he spoke at the Republican convention.

What is most surprising about Boxer’s impending re-election is that we no longer notice that California has two Jewish women senators. When they came on board together in 1992, this was a true phenomenon. Now there are 11 Jewish senators and numerous members of the House of Representatives, governors and even a vice presidential nominee in 2000. Some are Democrats, others are Republicans.

It is hard to imagine that a generation ago, Jews debated whether prominent Jewish officeholders would excite anti-Semitism. Now, political candidates brag about their long-lost Jewish relatives, Jews hold office in great numbers and the result has not been an upsurge of anti-Semitism.

While Jewish elected officials do not vote as a bloc, it is a sea change to have so many people in Washington, D.C., who directly understand the core issues of Jewish voters. And Boxer seems to show that with the right combination of moxie and luck, even a Jewish liberal can survive and thrive in high office.

Bush Says Magic Word: Israel

What’s in a word?

President Bush one-upped John Kerry by uttering the word "Israel" in his speech Sept. 2 accepting the Republican presidential nomination, but it’s unclear whether the simple mention of the Jewish state will have any effect on Jewish voters.

"Palestinians will hear the message that democracy and reform are within their reach, and so is peace with our good friend Israel," Bush said to loud applause from delegates at Madison Square Garden in New York City.

Speculation was rampant for weeks that Bush would speak of Israel, largely because Sen. Kerry (D-Mass.) did not when he accepted the Democratic nomination in July.

There also was talk that Bush would speak about international anti-Semitism to catch the attention of undecided Jewish voters.

But in the end Bush said nothing more than Kerry’s running mate, Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.), did in his Boston convention speech, when Edwards suggested that a change of president would bring the world to America’s side and ensure "a safe and secure Israel."

As the campaigns move toward the final stretch, each believes it has the stronger message to the Jewish community and anticipates making a thorough effort to reach what is considered an important voting bloc.

Republicans have been touting inroads into the Jewish community this election season, and the buzz at the Republican convention focused on how larger numbers of Jews are likely to back Bush for four more years. By making only a perfunctory reference to the Jewish state in his speech, some say, Bush may have missed an opportunity to woo Jewish voters.

Nonetheless, Republican Jews were gratified by Bush’s comment, suggesting that the mere mention of Israel — in an address where every word is carefully considered — was important.

"The silence of John Kerry in his acceptance speech says a lot to the Jewish community," said Matt Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC). Brooks said presidential candidates’ speeches are closely analyzed, while speeches by vice presidential candidates such as Edwards are of secondary importance.

Jewish Republicans said Bush’s comments had to be seen in the larger framework of the convention, which included formal Jewish outreach events by the campaign, an appearance by Vice President Dick Cheney at an RJC event and significant comments about Israel and Jews in former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s convention speech.

Giuliani was the key conduit to the Jewish community, using his Aug. 30 speech to attack Kerry’s record in the Middle East.

"In October of 2003 he told an Arab-American Institute in Detroit that a security barrier separating Israel from the Palestinian Territories was a ‘barrier to peace,’ " Giuliani said. "OK. Then a few months later, he took exactly the opposite position. In an interview with the Jerusalem Post he said, ‘Israel’s security fence is a legitimate act of self-defense.’"

Giuliani also referred to the 1972 terrorist attack on Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics and the 1985 hijacking of the Achille Lauro cruise ship, in which a paralyzed Jewish American passenger was thrown into the sea.

Democrats downplayed Bush’s Israel reference.

"It’s window dressing," said Jay Footlik, the Kerry campaign’s senior adviser on Middle East and Jewish affairs. "If I were the Republicans, I would be talking up Israel as well in an attempt to draw support from our community."

Footlik said he felt voters weren’t counting who had said the word "Israel" more, but were taking a more sophisticated look at the candidates’ policies.

The battle for the Jewish vote likely will resemble a football game for the next two months, as Republicans work on offense to raise Jewish support and the Democrats play defense to maintain levels of Jewish support they traditionally have enjoyed.

Based on recent polls, Democratic operatives appear confident that the shift of Jewish voters to Bush is not as profound as Republicans have suggested. After Labor Day, they believe, the conversation will shift back to domestic policy, where Kerry has an advantage in the Jewish community.

They also note that they have had only several months to showcase Kerry to a national Jewish audience, while Bush has had almost four years.

But some advisers in the Democratic camp are urging Kerry and Edwards to say more about Israel and the Middle East, believing Kerry’s speech to the Anti-Defamation League in May did not do enough to prove his understanding of Israel. The Kerry campaign reportedly is receptive to calls from the community for Kerry or Edwards to do more outreach out to Jews.

Republicans acknowledge that they have had an easier argument to make to the Jewish community this election cycle, preaching "conversion" rather than working to prevent "converts." They also seem to have the support of the upper echelons of the campaign, including campaign manager Ken Mehlman, who is Jewish, as they tout issues of concern to the community at high-profile events.

Both sides say grass-roots efforts in key battleground states with significant Jewish populations — such as Florida, Ohio and Michigan — will be the focus for the rest of the campaign. Advertisements geared toward the Jewish community, and spending efforts from advocates for both candidates, are expected to start soon.

Prager Mulls Run for Senate in 2004

Prominent nationally syndicated radio talk show host Dennis
Prager may run for the U.S. Senate, challenging incumbent Democratic Sen.
Barbara Boxer, Prager told the Journal this week.

“I’m still only in the thinking and talking stage,” said the
outspoken Republican. “No exploratory committee has been formed. I won’t
announce that until I am close to being certain. I don’t want to disappoint
people who have invested hopes.”

Prager said he’s off to Washington next month to feel out
senators, in order to help him make his decision. Already, he said he has “good
responses” from conservative columnists Jack Kemp and Bill Bennett as well as
his listeners.

When Prager first broached the subject on his show in early
February, his listeners expressed support. “I also have commitments for the
serious kind of money it takes to mount a campaign,” he said.

“The Dennis Prager Show,” broadcast live weekdays 9 a.m. to
noon on KRLA 870AM, reaches 45 cities and is heard worldwide over the Web.
Despite an 18-year history with KABC, Prager jumped ship in 2000 after losing
his syndication deal with Jones Radio Network and signed with KIEV, which later
changed its call letters to KRLA.

Prager covers a wide range of topics on his show and speaks
often about relationships, religion, morality and international relations. An
ardent supporter of Israel, Prager had broadcast live from Jerusalem in the
spring of 2002 and shot a documentary, “Israel in a Time of Terror.”

When it comes to foreign policy, Prager is no isolationist.
“The United States is morally obligated to use force for good,” he proclaims.

Prager maintains that he is a “centrist –Â even a liberal,
in the JFK mold.” He was a Democrat until 1992 and considered running for
Congress, as a Democrat, some 20 years ago.

Prager eschews a descriptive label, and said he is neither a
conservative nor a moderate Republican. “I prefer to ask not ‘what is left and
what is right,’ but ‘what is wrong and what is right.'”

For Prager, one of his motivations in running is to garner a
larger audience — even though he would have to give up the show and his
syndicated column if he won the race. “In the Senate, I would be in an
influential position; people would pay attention to what I have to say,” he
said. “Also, if a Republican can win in a Democratic state like California, he
would have to be taken seriously as a contender for national office, such as
vice president.”

Prager also believes he could be a role model, for Jewish
and non-Jewish Republicans. “I would serve as an example of a politician who
does not have to compromise his principles. And finally, as someone who would
step down from office voluntarily; I do not believe in being a career politician.”

Prager, who endorsed Bill Simon’s bid for governor in 2002,
is targeting Boxer because he and other Republicans feel she is vulnerable.
“Unlike Diane Feinstein, Boxer has not made an impact, except for real
leftists,” he said.

Boxer campaign spokesman Roy Behr told The Journal, “A lot
of ex-candidates have said the same things, all of whom ultimately went on to
lose to Barbara Boxer. The reason is that she represents California’s
mainstream voters. She has stood up for California’s mainstream for 12 years in
the Senate, and this is the only reason that she has been elected and
re-elected by convincing margins.”

Boxer won her second Senate term in 1998 with 53 percent of
the vote.

Prager is also buoyed by political strategist and author
Arnold Steinberg’s contention that he is the one who can beat Boxer.

Jerry Parsky, who ran George W. Bush’s campaign in
California, and Lionel Chetwynd, the White House Hollywood liaison, are also
reportedly backing Prager, according to Dave Berg in The Washington Times on
Feb. 19.

Prager discounts any notion that Jewish voting patterns,
which favor Democratic candidates for national office, might mitigate against
his candidacy. “First of all, I don’t know if there is such a thing as a Jewish
voting pattern in California,” he said. “But if there were, now it would be
different. We are in a new world. There is greater receptivity on the part of
Jews to vote Republican.

“Moreover, I would be an exception to the norm. I have a
record of a lifetime of devotion to Jewish causes, and Israel.”

Prager may be right about shifting voter trends. In 2000,
the Republican ticket received 20 percent of the Jewish vote — more than Dole
won in 1996, and double that of George H.W. Bush in 1992. Perhaps surprisingly,
that 20 percent came despite Jewish excitement about Joe Lieberman’s nomination
as the first Jew on a major party ticket.

Republican Jewish Coalition Executive Director Matthew
Brooks said that a survey conducted by his organization shows that 48 percent
of Jews responding indicated they would consider voting for President Bush for
re-election in 2004. More significantly for Prager, the poll also revealed that
27 percent were more likely to vote for Republicans for other offices.

According to political consultant Allan Hoffenblum, “Prager
would likely give Boxer a run for her money. He would take away Jewish voters
who are concerned about the situation of Israel in the Middle East. And he is
not a typical right-winger; he is more of a libertarian than a hard-core

Prager would first have to win the battle for the Republican
nomination. Rep. Doug Ose (R-Sacramento), a moderate, is the only candidate so
far to announce the formation of an exploratory committee. Also expected to
toss their hats into the ring are Rep. Daryl Issa (R-Vista) and current U.S.
Treasurer Rosario Marin.

Prager told The Journal he’d run only “If I feel I have a
reasonable chance of winning — in the primaries as well as the general

He insists that in the end, his decision will be swayed by
his belief in not “whether I can win — since there is never that certainty —
but where I can do the most good.

“In the end, it will boil down to answering these two
questions: Am I cut out for this kind of life? And, can a politician run as a man
of his own conscience and not be forced into unacceptable compromises by
running?” Â