Is there any hope for increasing the participation of Jews in the Republican Party? Should there be?
The Pew Research Study on American Jews released this week presents a stark view of the spiritual lives of our community today. The intermarriage rate is up to 58% and secularism is rampant – all worthy of attention in its time. Politically, 70% of Jews are or lean to the Democrats, while 22% of Jews are or lean to the Republicans. That is completely out of sync with the rest of America, which favors Democrats 49-36%, although other studies show a much closer tally. The Pew findings mirror the election results from 2012, in which Jews favored Obama over Romney by 69-30%.
The gap is enormous.
At a Republican Jewish Coalition forum I moderated last night, two Republicans of note – Ari Fleischer (former Press Secretary to President Bush) and Matt Brooks (longtime head of the RJC) shared their views on the past and future of the Republican Party and its search for support in the Jewish community. Both are seasoned, articulate political professionals, and both defy the media stereotype of Republicans as greedy, heartless oligarchs.
The Jewish vote has not been in play for Republicans for almost a century. Abraham Lincoln was greatly admired by Jews; many actually called him Father Abraham, and some assumed he was Jewish. His greatness and decency steered Jewish votes to his Republican Party. For a half-century after Lincoln’s assassination, the Jewish vote was evenly split, similar to other ethnic groups. That changed abruptly.
The last Republican president who won a majority of the Jewish vote was Warren Gamaliel Harding in the election of 1920. (Actually, a plurality; Harding won 43% of the Jewish vote, to the Democrat James Davis’ 19%. The balance went to the Socialist Eugene V. Debs, who garnered 38% of the Jewish vote while running his campaign from a prison cell.) Debs’ success augured a seismic shift to the far left in Jewish political attitudes and voting patterns. Since then, the Jewish vote for the Democratic candidate has never fallen below 60% and has reached as high as 90%, averaging 79%, with the one outlier the Reagan defeat of Carter in 1980. Even then, Carter received 45% of the Jewish vote to Reagan’s 39%.
The other outlier in the Pew data is the Orthodox support of the Republican Party. Orthodox Jews are or lean to the Republicans over the Democrats by 57-36% (!), signifying not only a greater identification with the ideas and values of the GOP but also an ever-growing chasm between the Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jewish communities in lifestyle, attitudes and Jewish identification. As the Orthodox proportion of the Jewish population increases (both through natural growth and through the attrition wrought by the assimilation and intermarriage of the non-Orthodox), the best hope for Republican growth lies in the ongoing secularization of the Jewish people that is robbing the Jewish world of thinking, breathing, practicing and committed Jews. Sadly, what is good for the Republicans is a catastrophe for the Jewish world as a whole.
That point was not raised at last night’s forum, which focused on an analysis of past and future trends as well as current events. Both men decried the inability of the recent Republican nominees to connect with people, real people. Policies that work well in the abstract have to be presented in a way in which real people understand how they will benefit (e.g., from a job rather than a handout), just like failed policies have to be exposed because of their harmful effects to real people and not just as violations of the theories of the Austrian School of Economics. As interesting as those are – all due respect to Friedrich von Hayek and Ludwig von Mises – most people don’t relate to it, but they do relate to the stories about real people.
That failing is on display now – and one other, see below – in the showdown in DC. The Democrats and mainstream media are skilled at portraying the hardships caused to people by the partial shutdown of the government. Offices closed, workers unemployed and tourists inconvenienced at the national parks and monuments are the staples of news coverage. Interestingly, I polled last night’s audience of hundreds and asked how many of them are affected by the government shutdown? Five hands went up. Certainly, we grieve for anyone out of work even temporarily, although that effect will be ameliorated, as in the past, when the workers return to their offices and are reimbursed with all their back pay. Even temporary unemployment is unsettling, as is the need to access some legitimate function of government and to be turned away. It was shocking, though, how few people in that audience felt any effect at all from the government shutdown, ample testimony to the virtues of limited government and the vices of a bloated bureaucracy. Alas, in the Pew survey, Jews prefer a bigger government with more services over a smaller government with fewer services by 54-38%.
Both men emphasized the traditional American values that have always been embraced by the Republicans, and some that have dissipated that must be revived if the Republican Party will continue to be viable. The values of hard work, self-help and personal responsibility have taken a hit in recent years. By the same token, Republicans have to shed the label of being anti-immigrant, an accusation with which they have been bludgeoned for years, and in part of the party, with some justification. Romney’s missteps in this area cost him; the fact that Democrats tarred him unfairly with being a ruthless tycoon who relishes firing people, murdered a woman with cancer, and throws elderly women over cliffs, didn’t help his cause either.
Both recognized that the past emphasis on social issues served more to alienate potential supporters than to attract them, especially among young people. The unresolved problem is that a good segment of the party is motivated by the social issues, and tends to sit out elections rather than vote for a less-than perfect nominee, even though that is a foolish, counterproductive and self-defeating strategy.
Not unexpectedly, the audience was largely disappointed with the Obama presidency, and not only for its failures of policy. The President does not know how to lead – only to criticize and to decree. He feels that he was elected dictator, not president, and so need not negotiate with Republicans on anything. “I won,” period, oblivious to the reality that the Republicans in the House also won, and with a greater share of the vote that Obama received. And the poor messaging of the Republicans fails to educate the public, as in the inability to counter the President’s repeated assertion that the debt ceiling must be raised so “we can pay our bills,” as if borrowing money to pay bills is actually paying bills.
Ronald Reagan negotiated and compromised with Tip O’Neill like Bill Clinton negotiated and compromised with Newt Gingrich in a way that Obama refuses to with John Boehner. In effect, he has drawn a red line; fortunately, Obama’s red lines have been known to fade in the past.
Asked by an audience member about Obama’s attitudes towards Israel, Ari Fleischer replied, incisively, that in contrast to President Bush, Obama does not perceive Israel “as a friend to be supported but as a problem to be managed.” That is why the body language, the earlier iciness, the bad optics and the policies have tended to the negative –and why the fears in Israel are growing of a bogus US-Iran agreement that echoes the failed agreements between the US and North Korea that simply bought time for the North Koreans to complete their nuclear program.
Is there a path to victory for the Republican Party, and a mechanism to increase Jewish support? Parties out of power tend to look more fractious and unruly. It was Will Rogers who said, back when the Democrats were on the presidential outs, “I belong to no organized political party. I am a Democrat.”
Today’s Republicans can relate. The cacophony of voices, disparate ideas and solutions, and the multiplicity of wings and factions make the party seem as ungovernable as the nation. But that rowdiness can also be a sign of vitality and vigorous debate. A core remains that should appeal to traditional Jews: personal responsibility, individual liberty, limited government, public assistance not as an entitlement for all eternity but to help the needy become independent and self-sufficient, and a strong, respected America across the globe.