WASHINGTON — Already fearing potential Republican gains among Jewish voters, Democrats were scrambling this week to undo any damage caused by a series of inflammatory outbursts by one of their own — Senator Ernest “Fritz” Hollings of South Carolina.
Many Democrats were particularly worried over the sight of President Bush being cheered last week by thousands of pro-Israel activists at the annual convention of the lobbying powerhouse, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (Aipac). Then, on May 20, two days after Bush’s speech to members of Aipac, Hollings took to the Senate floor to defend his view that the White House sent the country to war in order to win Jewish votes and to protect Israel. He also blasted Aipac and the policies of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
Hollings, who is retiring in January at the end of his term, first aired his claims about Bush’s war plan in a column earlier this month that appeared in several South Carolina newspapers.
The flap over Hollings comes as Democratic Party leaders are intensifying their outreach to Jewish organizations and working to rebut GOP claims that President Bush is the stronger candidate on Israel. In addition to stressing their own positions, Democrats have been hammering away at Bush’s conservative domestic positions — which are opposed by most Jewish voters and Jewish organizations — and attempting to raise questions about his Middle East policies. Democrats continue to argue that Bush’s good relations with Saudi Arabia have produced undue American pressure on Israel. And, in a new front, a leading Jewish Democrat is arguing that Bush’s Iraq policies have increased the danger to Jews worldwide.
Recently senior Democrats have been asking Jewish communal leaders for advice on ways to solidify support for presumptive presidential candidate Senator John Kerry and other Democrats, sources said.
Kerry had a recent visit with leaders of the Anti-Defamation League and is planning to step up his general outreach to the Jewish community. Also recently, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi helped organize a meeting between dozens of fellow Democratic congressmen and officials from more than 40 Jewish organizations in an attempt to underline their common views on most domestic issues.
But these efforts were, to a large degree, overshadowed last week by the image of thousands of pro-Israel activists cheering the president at last week’s Aipac convention. The enthusiastic reception provided a boost to Republican efforts to portray Bush as a strong supporter of Israel.
Democratic strategists said they worry that frequent media reports describing a major shift of Jewish votes from the Democratic camp to the GOP may become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
“We’re definitely not taking the Jewish community for granted,” said Ira Forman, executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council. But, he added, the media “is chasing its tail” by repeatedly suggesting that a shift has taken place among Jewish voters when “the empirical data is not showing that.”
A poll conducted by the American Jewish Committee in December found that Bush commanded the support of 31% of Jews compared with the 19% who voted for him in 2000. But a Gallup study of previously published polling data, released this week, showed that Bush suffered the sharpest rise in disapproval ratings among Jews –– from a 38 percent disapproval rate in September 2002 to 59 percent this month –– as compared to Catholics, Protestants or Americans who did not state religious preference.
If Bush has experienced a boost among Jews, Republicans say, it is attributable to the increased perception that he has been a strong supporter of Israel.
“I don’t think that any American president has been as supportive of Israel as President Bush, and I think that the Jewish community is sensitive to that,” said Joe Gildenhorn, who served as U.S. ambassador to Switzerland in the first Bush administration and was George W. Bush’s campaign manager in the Washington, D.C., area in 2000. In particular, he said, American Jews were moved by Bush’s repeated claims that Israel and the United States “are partners in fighting terrorism.”
Gildenhorn said that the Bush campaign is aiming for 40% of the Jewish vote in November. Jews count for approximately 4% of the electorate nationwide, but they are overrepresented in presidential battlegrounds such as Florida, Pennsylvania and Ohio. Gildenhorn said the Bush campaign recently hired several liaisons to the community to boost efforts to attract Jewish voters.
To counter such efforts, Democrats are pointing to a host of domestic issues in an attempt to make Jews think twice before giving their vote to the president. “I think that domestic considerations will eventually even out whatever support Bush may get for his positions on Israel,” said Steve Rabinowitz, a Washington media strategist who served as director of media planning, design and production in the Clinton White House. Jewish voters, Rabinowitz said, will realize that Kerry is “at least as strong a friend of Israel as Bush.” As a result, he added, Jewish voters will end up making their decision in November based on domestic issues — a development that favors Democrats.
That thinking was on display earlier this month at the meeting between Jewish organizational leaders and Democratic House members, including Pelosi. According to participants, after agreeing that they see eye to eye on Israel, both sides spent most of the time discussing domestic issues. Several participants said the idea was to flesh out a common agenda reflecting “Jewish values and Jewish sensibilities” on several fronts, including taxes, federal funding for human services and support for civil rights legislation.
A spokeswoman for Pelosi said that one of the goals of the meeting was to highlight the strong political bonds between Jewish organizations and Democrats in an attempt to counter reports of eroding Jewish support for the party. “We are not taking Jewish voters for granted,” the spokeswoman for the House minority leader said.
Democratic strategists told the Forward that the Kerry campaign is putting together a comprehensive collection of the Massachusetts senator’s Middle East positions to be circulated within the Jewish community, and is also planning more appearances for the presumptive Democratic nominee before Jewish crowds.
But many acknowledge the difficulty of their task. “I don’t know that we can get as powerful pictures as the Aipac crowd promising Bush ‘four more years,’” a Democratic strategist told the Forward on condition of anonymity, referring to a popular chant at last week’s Aipac convention.
While coping with Bush’s Aipac reception, Democrats had to deal last week with the growing controversy over Hollings, South Carolina’s senior senator.
The Jewish Republican Coalition issued a statement challenging Democrats to criticize Hollings. The senator also came under attack from two of the three Jewish Republicans in Congress — Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia and Senator Norm Coleman of Minnesota.
By the end of last week, Democrats were also repudiating the South Carolina senator’s remarks.
The National Jewish Democratic Council was the first Democratic group to speak out. Next, Democratic lawmakers on Capitol Hill criticized Hollings. Then Kerry, in a May 21 statement, called Hollings’s remarks “absurd” and insisted, “Comments such as these lend credence to unacceptable and baseless antisemitic stereotypes that have no place in America or anywhere else.”
Among those criticizing Hollings was Sam Tenenbaum, a Jewish communal leader in South Carolina and the husband of Democratic Senate candidate Inez Tenenbaum.
“Is he antisemitic? No,” Sam Tenenbaum told reporters. “Is the statement antisemitic? Yes.”