WASHINGTON (Jun. 16)
American Jews, who traditionally vote overwhelmingly Democratic, are nonetheless fascinated by the maverick independent candidacy of Texas billionaire H. Ross Perot.
But their fascination is coupled with a profound wariness of his proud detachment from the political establishment, his ambiguity on Israel and other policies at the core of the Jewish agenda, and an alienating personal style.
In fact, Jews are reserving judgment on Perot in far greater numbers than non-Jews. Exit polls from the June Democratic primaries in California and New Jersey, the only recent presidential surveys with a statistically significant Jewish sample, found Jewish Democrats much less willing to defect to Perot than other Democrats.
In California, 38 percent of Democrats said they would vote for Perot in November, compared to 25 percent of Jews; in New Jersey, Democrats who would vote for Perot numbered 30 percent much higher than the 19 percent among Jewish Democrats.
Many political analysts and Jewish leaders predict that Perot’s now-soaring presidential bid will falter by October. But if the strong three-way race now in the offing does persist, they say the Jewish vote will be disproportionately important, especially in key states, such as California and New York.
WINDOW OF OPPORTUNITY FOR PEROT
Pundits project that in a three-way contest, more than 60 percent of the Jewish vote would be firm for the apparent Democratic nominee, Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton.
President George Bush, meanwhile, is expected to suffer a sharp drop in the 30 percent of the Jewish vote he won in 1988, primarily because of his hard-line stance on loan guarantees to Israel last fall and winter.
That leaves a window of opportunity for Perot.
Already he has begun to court the organized Jewish community, through his close friend, Morton Myerson, who runs Perot’s business and has recently heightened his own profile in Dallasarea Jewish causes.
“The currency of the Jewish vote is now much more significant than it was three months ago,” said Abraham Foxman, executive director of the Anti-Defamation League, “and because he is an astute and organized politician, Perot is beginning to reach out.”
By Myerson’s account, Jewish leaders have been “more than eager” to hear him out on Perot and on Perot’s stands on the issues.
But he has some doubts to assuage.
For one, Perot was a longstanding member in a Dallas country club that bars Jews and blacks, from which he only recently resigned. Further, he has come under scrutiny for his company’s firing of a Jewish employee for wearing a beard as an exercise of his religious beliefs. He has not yet responded to a recent call from the Anti-Defamation League to explain that action by Electronic Data Services, which was found guilty of civil rights violations by a court in 1983.
“If the Jewish community is looking at this incident for an indication of anti-Semitism,” said Myerson, “I was president of the company at the time and that should answer the question. EDS always has had strong anti-discrimination policies.”
The most public evidence of Perot’s new outreach mission was his speech at an American Jewish Committee fund-raiser in New York last month at the invitation of event co-chair Alan Greenberg, chief executive officer of Bear Stearns and Company and a Perot enthusiast.
The speech touched a host of Jewish buttons. It offered standard fare in support of Israel: “Israel is our friend,” he said, “and you stand by your friends, it’s just that simple.” But it offered little by way of substantive policy.
Perhaps more memorable than the speech, however, was the $100,000 contribution he sent to the AJCommittee shortly afterward.
A FUNDAMENTALLY DECENT MAN
Those who have made contact with Perot say that despite a few examples of apparent insensitivity to Jews, he appears to be a fundamentally fair and decent man, free of systematic anti-Semitism or bigotry.
Greenberg, who conceded he is helping the Texan in his Jewish outreach efforts, was spare in explaining his support for the independent candidate and assessing broader Jewish response.
“He’s a smart guy, a good guy, without a vicious bone in his body,” said Greenberg. “Jews who like smart guys, good guys, will vote for him. Those who don’t, won’t.”
“Jews are like other Americans,” he said. “There is no attachment to parties, just personalities.”
A bipartisan poll of the overall American electorate released last week found Perot had the lead in a three-way race with 36 percent, followed by 32 percent for Bush and 24 percent for Clinton.
But close observers say the “outsider” appeal that has catapulted Perot to the top of presidential polls resonates far less for Jewish voters than for other white Americans, who believe Perot is an answer to their frustrations with the status quo.
JEWS UNHAPPY WITH BUSH
ADL’s Foxman said Jews will be open to Perot because of “unhappiness with George Bush’s policies in the Middle East” and because of lingering concern with past Democratic concessions to pro-Palestinian demands in party platforms.
But Foxman conceded Perot’s defiant outsider status is of little appeal to Jews and even inspires fear and mistrust.
“Minorities are protected by the system against the tyranny of the majority,” he said. “The system isn’t perfect but it provides safeguards.
“We need to hear more meat on Israel than the fact he’s met Golda Meir and liked her,” said Foxman. including former Washington Post reporter Marilyn Berger, who will advise him on the Middle East.
But reservations about Perot extend beyond foreign policy programs to his hard-line moralistic posture; he has said he would not hire homosexuals or adulterers for Cabinet positions.
“The rather rigid lines he draws on social behavior are foreign” to the vast majority of Jews, said Steve Gutow, executive director of the National Council of Jewish Democrats and a longtime Texas political activist.
Gutow believes, however, that Perot is “fundamentally not an anti-Semite and not bigoted” and that he would not foster divisiveness among different groups.
“There is an attraction among Jews to the Horatio Alger type (because) we came from the ghettos and made something,” said Matthew Brooks, head of the Republican National Jewish Coalition, based in Washington.
But Brooks said Jews have to look harder at Perot’s ambiguous positions on Israel and on his company practices that resulted in the firing of the Orthodox Jew for wearing a beard. The “autocratic” and “dictatorial nature of his business doesn’t resonate well,” said Brooks.
“Perot has been successful building a coalition by being all things to all people to date, but that can’t last. The electorate is not that unsophisticated,” he said.