Bush Vote: Boom or Bust?

Current Affairs

By Ami Eden

Published January 14, 2005, issue of January 14, 2005.
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As President Bush waged his campaign for a second term, Jewish Republicans looked to 2004 as their banner year.

After seven decades of Democratic domination, these GOP activists were promising significant gains in the Jewish vote. During much of the year leading up to the election, they insisted that President George W. Bush’s support among American Jews was surging, and their heady predictions triggered a slew of sympathetic newspaper articles based on the premise that Bush’s support for Israel, along with John Kerry’s missteps, was driving Jewish Democrats to the Republican column.

Then came Election Day. Though Bush won the presidency, according to exit polls, he secured only 24% of the Jewish vote.

Democratic activists were quick, even in defeat, to gloat about Bush’s poor showing among American Jews. Only a GOP spin or wishful thinking, some liberals argued, could explain how Bush backers or members of the media ever believed that an anti-choice pro-gun favorite of Christian conservatives could have broken the Democratic Party’s grip on Jewish voters. All was copacetic.

Not so fast.

Though Bush failed to live up to the overly optimistic predictions of some Republican activists, he made some undeniable inroads: A year ago, polls suggested that the president, who secured only 19% of the Jewish vote in 2000, was poised to break the 30% barrier; though he didn’t manage that, he did raise his showing this time around by five percentage points — no meager accomplishment. More importantly, perhaps, Bush appeared to win the trust of top Jewish communal leaders and broke Republican ground by winning what polls found to be a majority of Orthodox votes.

Bush might have failed to close the deal with American Jews, but, like a great salesman, he deserves credit for getting his foot in what was assumed to be a tightly locked door.

As the nation, and the particularly GOP faithful, gear up for next week’s inaugural celebrations, it seems as good a time as any for a relationship check: Just what is going on with Bush and the Jews?

Back during the 2000 presidential campaign, even among the neoconservatives who would later hail him for deposing Saddam Hussein and working to isolate Yasser Arafat, Bush was seen as a risky political commodity, less attractive than other GOP hopefuls, including Senator John McCain and publishing mogul Steve Forbes. And Bush certainly seemed an unlikely candidate to dissuade many pro-Israel activists — who still remembered their bitter feud with his father over

West Bank settlements — from thinking of his family name as a four-letter political profanity.

As former Bush speechwriter David Frum argued in his White House memoir: “It would be almost impossible to invent a candidate less likely to appeal to Jewish voters than George W. Bush. His personality seemed to fuse together in one body the three personality types most calculated to frighten and annoy Jews: the redneck, the Bible-thumper, and the upper-class frat boy.”

Not only did Bush share his father’s interest in Texas oil and his penchant for benefiting from Saudi largesse, but he also combined these traits with a more intense, fundamentalist brand of Christianity than the high-church Episcopalianism of his New England ancestors. In one Republican presidential primary debate in 1999, Bush identified Jesus as his favorite political philosopher; six years earlier, while campaigning to be governor of Texas, he shared his view that only Christians would make it to heaven.

Bush’s campaign in 2000 and significant elements of his presidency — even his personal biography — could be interpreted, in the words of novelist Philip Weiss, “as an attempt to reverse Jewishness in the establishment.” That’s not to say that Bush is unwilling to appoint Jewish advisers — see Wolfowitz, Fleischer, et al. — but he has displayed a consistent disdain for the “elitist” emphasis on rationality, balanced budgets, measurements, science and government regulation that in the past few decades has often taken on a very Jewish tint, especially in the Clinton administration.

Yet despite all these handicaps, not to mention his right-wing agenda, after three years in office, Bush appeared to be making significant gains within the Jewish community. One poll, released by the American Jewish Committee in December 2003, found that he had actually raised his level of Jewish support to 31%. The most significant sign of Bush’s improved standing, however, came on May 18, 2004, when he delivered a speech to thousands of members of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. That day, as Bush addressed members of the most powerful pro-Israel lobby, he was greeted with rousing chants of “Four more years!” and showered with an estimated 20 standing ovations. The contrast with his father was striking: Thirteen years ago, the first President Bush found himself in a debilitating political war with Aipac and other Jewish organizations over his efforts to suspend $10 billion of loan guarantees to Israel in response to Jerusalem’s plan to settle Russian immigrants in the West Bank. But, despite the younger Bush’s own punitive use of loan guarantees, he received a hero’s welcome.

The most common explanation for the president’s solid standing with Jewish communal leaders is that — as opposed to previous Republican presidents, as well as to his Democratic opponent — the younger Bush is widely perceived as a virtual “yes man” when it comes to Israel. Or, as Jewish Republicans would have it, “the best friend Jerusalem ever had in the White House.”

The problem with this theory, however, is that it ignores the many ways in which the Bush administration has sought to pressure Israel regarding the Palestinians.

The younger Bush has drawn praise from pro-Israel forces for refusing to meet with Yasser Arafat and granting Israeli Prime Minister Sharon great leeway in targeting Palestinian terrorists in the West Bank and Gaza. But he also is the first sitting president to endorse publicly the creation of a Palestinian state (a commitment that he has restated repeatedly, describing it as a chief aim of American policy). In addition, his foreign policy lieutenants have quietly pressed Sharon into abandoning several significant red lines, including his previous refusal to consider Israeli withdrawals or talks with the Palestinian Authority until terrorism ceased and terrorist groups were dismantled. And when Sharon insisted on extending its security fence into the West Bank, the Bush administration responded in 2003 by decreasing loan guarantees to Israel by $300 million.

In the first months following the September 11, 2001, attacks, Sharon and some Jewish communal leaders were sounding alarms about the Bush administration’s approach to Israel. “I turn to the western democracies, first and foremost the leader of the free world, the United States,” Sharon declared at a press conference just weeks after the attacks. He insisted: “Don’t try to appease the Arabs at our expense. We will not accept this. Israel will not be Czechoslovakia.” Soon after, Aipac and real estate magnate and publishing mogul Mortimer Zuckerman, then chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, blasted the White House over reports that it was set to endorse a Palestinian state.

Well, the push for Palestinian statehood continues and White House pressure on Israel hasn’t stopped, but these days Sharon is willing to bend quite far to keep America happy, and Zuckerman insists that the Israeli premier owes it to Bush to deliver on the Gaza pullout.

The difference between 1991 and 2004 is not the degree to which the Bush in the White House was willing to pressure Jerusalem, but the decreasing importance of the settlements and the territories in the eyes of the Israeli prime minister and the American Jewish communal leaders. A new priority has emerged — and on this count, Bush’s record is impeccable.

Since the Twin Tower attacks, Bush’s most important gift to Jewish organizations — and what the thousands of Aipac members were celebrating at their convention this past May — is an unyielding White House commitment to the premise that Israel and the United States are allies in one, unified global war against terrorism. At a time when a growing chorus of mainstream voices is suggesting that the American-Israeli alliance might be fundamentally responsible for America’s problems with the Muslim world, Bush repeatedly has rejected such thinking, insisting that Islamic fundamentalism is, at it roots, fueled by unbridled antisemitism and anti-Americanism. For both Sharon and several influential, centrist American Jewish organizations, it is a formulation that seems well worth the price of Israel’s pulling out of Gaza, dismantling some Jewish settlements in the West Bank and endorsing the establishment of a Palestinian state.

Still, despite some meaningful accomplishments during the past four years, Republicans must wrestle with a disappointing bottom line: Though Bush expanded his support among American Jews, nearly three-quarters of them ended up voting for John Kerry.

So what happened?

An AJCommittee survey released in September found that Jewish disapproval of the Iraq war had jumped from 54% to 66%, suggesting that many Kerry backers rejected the notion that Bush was the candidate to keep America safer. But the bigger challenge facing GOP activists is the likelihood that many Jewish Democrats refused to accept the argument that international threats should trump domestic concerns.

As a group, Jewish voters fall to the left of both the president and the overall American population on a host of social issues. This disproportionate support for liberal causes represents more than a series of policy disagreements — it boils down to a firm belief that the greatest threat to a healthy and safe society comes from those who would seek to limit abortion rights, block gay marriage, lower the church-state wall and dismantle the federal government safety net: in other words, Bush’s base of religious and economic supporters.

By recasting the world as a jungle, Bush backers tried to sell the president to Jewish voters not as a Republican or a conservative, but as a one-of-a-kind Tarzan, the only one capable of taming the seemingly untamable. But if Bush aggressively advances his conservative domestic agenda and pays heed to the emboldened declarations of his right-wing supporters, the bulk of Jewish voters will increasingly see him not as a leader who is battling religious extremists abroad, but as the one who is turning them loose here at home.

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