DEARBORN, Mich. (Oct. 21)
The top Republican Party official praises President Bush’s “unique and special relationship with the Arab American community” and gets polite applause. His Democratic counterpart says, “We’re going to beat George Bush next Nov. 2 ” and gets a standing ovation.
What a difference four years — and a transforming national crisis — has made.
Bush, whose substantial Arab American support in 2000 helped him win swing states, has plummeted in Arab American polls.
“The community has changed. It was almost the other way around in 2000,” said pollster John Zogby, himself an Arab American.
Democrats have taken note of the change, and eight of the nine Democratic candidates for president gave speeches last weekend at an Arab American Institute conference in Dearborn, Mich., which boasts a heavy concentration of Arab Americans.
It helped that some of the states with the heaviest Arab concentrations — including Michigan, Wisconsin, Florida and Pennsylvania — are considered up for grabs for Democrats or Republicans in 2004.
Candidates pitched their appeals to issues dear to the hearts of Arab Americans — including opposition to how Bush is conducting the post-war operation in Iraq and the perceived dangers to civil liberties of the USA Patriot Act — but artfully avoided one issue.
Most candidates tried to bypass saying anything substantive about the Israeli-Palestinian issue. But they were pressed to do so at times, and some of the most tense moments at the conference came when candidates were asked to comment on the security fence Israel is building in the West Bank.
Former Gov. Howard Dean’s appearance was most telling. He earned loud cheers for his condemnation of the war in Iraq and his endorsement of civil liberties, and got a standing ovation at the end of his speech. Dean had time for one question. It was about the barrier.
His noncommittal answer — “I’m concerned about the course of the wall; I need to know more about it” — was met with silence. By the time Dean left the stage, audience cheers had subsided, and there was only polite applause.
James Zogby, president of the institute, told disappointed delegates that it was unrealistic to expect candidates not to take into account the concerns of Jewish voters. Instead, he said, Arab Americans should see a victory in the willingness to take at least some Arab American views into account.
“They have to think about what both sides think now, and that’s the beginning of making a huge difference in the political discourse,” said Zogby, the pollster’s brother.
It was just such an attempt to appeal to Arab and Muslim concerns that won Bush the attention of this community in 2000.
In his second debate with Vice President Al Gore, Bush explicitly pledged support for a Palestinian state, a step beyond the implicit support of the Clinton-Gore administration. He also said he opposed the use in courts of evidence kept secret from the defense, a tactic that had been used against alleged Muslim supporters of terror.
Gore was not clear enough on those issues, Arabs and Muslims said, and he was perceived as more pro-Israel and aloof than Bush.
“Bush made a public gesture to Arab Americans, and that was enough to create a buzz,” said John Zogby.
So Arab Americans who were evenly split among the candidates before the debate tipped heavily toward Bush. At that point, Bush won the endorsement of at least one major Muslim group.
Zogby’s post-election polling showed Bush winning 45 percent of the Arab American vote, compared to 29 percent for Gore and 16 percent for Green Party candidate Ralph Nader, an Arab American.
Bush’s immediate actions after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks appeared to bolster the confidence that Arab Americans had shown him. He quickly condemned attacks on Muslim Americans and appeared in mosques.
But such reassuring symbols quickly gave way to policy changes that alarmed the Arab American constituency.
Attorney General John Ashcroft, who had taken steps to stop the use of secret evidence before Sept. 11, halted those efforts. In addition, his deputies endorsed profiling and tough new immigration restrictions that singled out nationals from Arab and Muslim nations.
On the Israel-Palestinian front, Bush made it clear that Israel was his likeliest regional ally in the war on terrorism.
Arab Americans said they were especially shocked when Bush called Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon a “man of peace,” especially after Bush’s frustration with those who obstruct peace led him to marginalize Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat.
Now, Zogby said, Bush’s approval among Arab Americans is at 34 percent. And in surveys that pit Bush against an unnamed Democratic opponent, the Democrat wins the support of 45 percent of respondents — a virtual flip-flop from the 2000 numbers.
Even with Democrats hewing to their traditional support for Israel, there are enough differences to keep Arabs in the Democratic camp, he said, especially because of opposition among Democrats to the Patriot Act.
“Something like the Patriot Act threatens their sense of security,” Zogby said of Arab Americans.
Muqtedar Khan, a political scientist at Michigan’s Adrian College who tracks the U.S. Muslim and Arab communities, said an older generation that basked in symbolic attention was giving way to a younger generation that understood policy.
“The older generation thought it was a big deal to be invited to the White House for Ramadan, but it was nothing,” Khan said. “It’s a Third World way of thinking. America is about policy.”
Bush’s failure to send a senior representative to the conference in Dearborn — Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham, an Arab American, was the only Cabinet member present — did not go unnoticed.
The effort by Republican Party boss Marc Racicot to explain Bush’s recent distance from the community was not likely to make a positive impression.
“He is more than capable of denying himself the universal affection of everyone to do what he believes is right,” Racicot said of Bush.
Racicot, a seasoned politician, seemed aware of the hostile territory, delivering his speech in hesitant, at times choked, tones.
Democratic Party boss Terry McAuliffe, by contrast, led what looked like a revival meeting.
“The Democrats will never rest until every Arab American in this country feels at home in this country,” he said to a standing ovation. “We need you to come out of this conference with a passion for politics.”
George Salem, a Washington lawyer who served Bush’s father and President Reagan, said Arab American Republicans like himself were aware of the administration’s credibility gap in the community, and were reaching out to the president and his senior aides.
“The jury remains out,” Salem said, referring to issues such as the Patriot Act, Israel and the perceived failure to consult Arab allies on U.S. goals in the region.
“Assuming these issues can be addressed successfully in the coming year, Bush will carry the Arab American community,” Salem said.
Not likely, said Khan, the political scientist, citing recent polls showing that older white conservative males are the likeliest to express bigotry towards Arabs and Muslims.
“We know now, the guys who hate us the most are the guys we voted for,” Khan said.