Don Shein disagrees with President Bush on the environment. He disagrees with Bush on stem-cell research. And he disagrees with Bush on abortion.
But he’s voting for Bush anyway.
For Shein, a financial adviser from Baltimore, the 2004 presidential election is about only one thing: Israel. The loyal Democrat said he has been impressed by Bush’s support for the Jewish state and even donated $500 to Bush’s re-election campaign, despite his opposition to the president on many domestic issues.
“My sense is that Bush would stand up for Israel when no Democrat would,” Shein said Sunday at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee annual policy conference.
Bush is something of a messiah to those attending the conference in Washington, many of whom traditionally vote Democratic. They are willing to overlook what they don’t like about the president because of what they do like.
The very mention of Bush’s name or the sight of his image on video screens prompted thunderous rounds of applause and standing ovations at the Washington Convention Center.
Most recently, Bush’s unprecedented support for Israeli claims in the West Bank and his rejection of any “right of return” to Israel for Palestinian refugees has made him a darling of many AIPAC members.
Many here also supported the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq because of the threat Saddam Hussein’s regime posed to Israel.
But the AIPAC crowd isn’t necessarily representative of the American Jewish community at large. Many here consider themselves single-issue voters — choosing a chief executive solely on the basis of support for Israel — while most Jews consider a wider range of issues.
And loud applause for a pro-Israel president at a pro-Israel conference is no guarantee of a vote on Nov. 2. Among those standing up for ovations were top Democratic donors and organizers; one enthusiastic applauder for Bush even sported a “Throw Bush out of the White House” button.
Alex Freedman, a senior at Washington University in St. Louis, was buoyed by the enthusiasm for Bush.
“This is the first time I’m going to hear a president speak,” he said, referring to Bush’s scheduled address Tuesday.
But that didn’t mean the president had his vote.
“I have yet to decide,” Freedman said.
Freedman’s dilemma was reflective of the larger debate facing many American Jewish voters: how to balance Bush’s support for Israel with his domestic record, which they view as troubling.
Some said they would vote for Bush despite strong opposition to his positions on the economy, abortion and other domestic policy issues, because international policy was their main concern.
“I think international stuff is more prominent right now,” said Yifat Hassiel, a lawyer from Los Angeles. “The domestic stuff can be changed with the local leadership.”
Lana Krebs, a computer technical support project manager from Atlanta, said the economy is important to her, but Israel issues have to be her No. 1 priority. She said she feels almost guilty backing a politician who opposes abortion and stricter gun controls.
“It does bother me, but I don’t see a better option,” she said.
“Kerry’s record is still really pro-Israel, and I consider other issues,” said Stephanie Bloom, a pediatrician from Boston. “The Jewish community has influence over whoever is in office, and we would do fine with Kerry.”
Many people say they have not heard enough from Kerry about Israel and international terrorism, or don’t trust what he has said.
“What he says doesn’t seem to change what I feel his position would be,” Krebs said. “I don’t think he would be tough enough.”
Some have suggested that Kerry did not properly enunciate his pro-Israel credentials in his recent speech to the Anti-Defamation League and needs to do more to show that a Kerry administration would back Israel to the same extent that Bush’s has.
AIPAC has touted this election as a “win-win” proposition, noting Bush’s strong support for Israel and Kerry’s 100 percent pro-Israel voting record in the Senate.
AIPAC officials also recently met with the Democratic candidate. Democratic surrogates with strong pro-Israel credentials made the case for Kerry at the conference.
Republicans, targeting Jewish votes and money in battleground states, want to add nuance to that perception: Kerry may be a friend, the Republican subtext suggests, but Bush is the better friend.
Vice President Dick Cheney appealed directly to Jewish voters last Friday, speaking to the Jewish Federation of South Palm Beach, Fla. In addition to the regular pro-Israel sentiments, Cheney tried to connect support for Israel and the Iraq war.
“We believe that the removal of Saddam Hussein and the rise of a free Iraq will, in time, help create the conditions in which a lasting peace between Israelis and their Palestinian neighbors is more likely,” he said.
Bush’s Tuesday speech to AIPAC will only be his second speech to a Jewish organization since he became president.
Kerry was not invited to address the conference because of a tradition that limits invitations to incumbent candidates.
But some attendees say there’s almost nothing Kerry could say that would outweigh Bush’s actions over the past three years. Danny Kohn, a Chicago native who also is a senior at Washington University in St. Louis, says it has been hard for him to convince other AIPAC students to support Kerry.
“Everybody’s made up their minds that Bush is pro-Israel, and even if John Kerry is pro-Israel, it’s not good enough,” Kohn said.