Specter’s Switch

About 50 people gathered on the evening of April 26 at a home in suburban Philadelphia to raise funds for Pennsylvania’s senior U.S. Senator, Arlen Specter. The host, Mark Aronchick, is a prominent attorney and Democratic fundraiser who worked with Howard Dean and traveled with Hillary Rodham Clinton during last year’s campaign. Probably 80% of those in attendance were Democrats. Probably half were Jewish. But the object of their attention, and their obvious affection, was a Republican.

Or at least he was a Republican until he converted two days later.

Specter’s headline-making switch caused Democrats to do cartwheels across the Capitol steps, gave Republicans a fresh case of angina on top of the dyspepsia afflicting them since the last election, and set political tongues a’wagging. It also solidified the alliance that American Jews have with the Democratic Party and amplified the sense that for Jews — and plenty of other Americans — the current manifestation of the Grand Old Party holds little or no appeal. As Aronchick said of his guests that night, “They look at the Republican Party and say, ‘That’s not me.’”

Republican Jewish leaders dispute this, saying that Specter’s move was a selfish, transparently desperate attempt to hold onto a Senate seat that was at risk of being snatched away by a more conservative candidate better in tune with the party faithful. Knowing how fiercely Specter wanted to hang onto his status and seniority, that may well be true. He is, after all, a 79-year-old who has battled a brain tumor and Hodgkin’s lymphoma, who prides himself on being an iconoclast, willing to toe the party line one moment and buck its expectations the very next.

It’s dangerous to make Arlen Specter a symbol of anything but Arlen Specter, as generations of Pennsylvania voters have learned.

But the numbers also tell a damning story. Once Norm Coleman finally concedes his endlessly disputed race in Minnesota, there will be no Jewish Republicans in the U.S. Senate, and just one in the House, minority whip Eric Cantor, who will then have the distinction of being the only Jew holding any federal office as a Republican.

For those who see a natural synergy between Democratic policies and Jewish values, who watched the Republicans’ expensive attempts to woo Jewish voters in last year’s election go down in flames, this is an “I told you so” moment. If the GOP no longer has room for an Arlen Specter — who voted for the Bush tax cuts, Bush’s judges and Bush’s Iraq War, who waffled on torture and opposes the union-friendly Employee Free Choice Act — then why would an average liberal-to-moderate Jew pull up a chair and join the party?

The stubborn, lingering affinity that American Jews have for the Democratic Party defies what passes for political scientific wisdom. Generally, the more accepted, educated and prosperous an immigrant group becomes in American society, the more likely its members are to shift rightward on the political spectrum. Yet in the last presidential election, only African Americans voted for Barack Obama in greater numbers than Jews.

This should worry national Republicans not because Jews, at less than 2% (and shrinking) of the American population, are game-changers. We’re not. It should worry them because it’s an indication of their inability to craft a political message that reaches those who, by at least some standards, ought to be receptive. And it’s a sign that the recent attempts by some Republicans to use Israel as a wedge issue — or a scare tactic, take your pick — don’t find much resonance. American Jews care deeply about Israel’s security and survival, but American Jews also care about this country’s economic and environmental health, its judicial values and its global reputation.

In the long run, the nation depends on a thriving political marketplace, with true competition between parties. To that end, it’s now up to Republicans to figure out how Jews — and plenty of other Americans — can stand outside the tent, peer in at the leaders and the policies they promote, and say, “That’s me.”

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Specter’s Switch

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