WASHINGTON (Nov. 2)
The Democratic and Republican whips in the U.S. House of Representatives have a lot in common when it comes to Jewish issues — such as bipartisan agreement on support for Israel and an understanding that neither party can take the Jewish vote for granted any longer. In exclusive interviews with JTA, Reps. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) each explained why reaching Jewish voters will continue to preoccupy them long-term, even after an election that saw unprecedented attention paid to the Jewish vote.
In the short term, both men suggested that the incoming, 109th Congress would not hesitate to support Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s efforts to withdraw settlers and soldiers from the Gaza Strip.
“I wouldn’t at all be surprised in a new Congress to see resolutions easily adopted that encourage the current policies to continue,” Blunt said.
Hoyer said such support would be a natural fit with the new Congress.
“Israel has to decide what policies it wants to pursue for its own safety and security and future economic health, and it is my posture that the United States needs to be very supportive of those objectives,” he said.
Hoyer said he also would continue to make sure that advocacy of Jewish issues is not confined to the 24-member Jewish Democratic caucus.
“I had discussions with a number of Jewish leaders in our caucus and said that I believe — and they shared this belief — that it was very important for the Jewish community to understand and know that it was not simply Jews in the Congress who agreed with them on various issues of great importance, that there were a large number of non-Jews who felt perhaps not equally, but close to equally passionately about these issues,” he said.
Blunt had little choice but to farm out Jewish outreach to non-Jewish legislators: After all, there’s only one Republican Jew in the House, Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.). Blunt hopes to change that in the 2006 midterm elections, saying Cantor’s meteoric rise in his four-year House career could be an example to other Republican Jews considering bids for Congress.
“Eric Cantor is the chief deputy whip, he’s at the leadership table, he has more impact on the daily work of the House of Representatives than any other member,” Blunt said. “Both he and I are committed to do what we can to find more” Jewish “candidates between now and 2006.”
Republicans especially were hungry to sway Jewish voters, who have a higher turnout rate than the national average and whose campaign dollars have traditionally been a pillar of Democratic fund raising.
Significantly, Republican outreach in this election was not confined to battleground states, but targeted Jewish communities with ads and events in regions considered solidly Democratic, such as New York and southern California. Ads from the Republican Jewish Coalition included appeals to join the RJC that sometimes were almost as prominent as appeals to vote for President Bush.
Blunt suggested the goal is long-term recruitment.
“I do know in terms of fund raising, in terms of volunteer efforts, we’ve seen a great increase in both of those areas in the last four years,” Blunt said. He noted that the RJC packed 1,500 people into a ballroom at the Republican convention this summer, “whereas three or four conventions ago you wouldn’t see 15 people.”
“We have a lot to gain because traditionally we have not done well with Jewish voters,” Blunt said. His own engagement includes appearing at Jewish functions during the convention and chairing the House Republican Israel caucus.
Both Hoyer and Blunt have a deep understanding of American Jewish political culture, rattling off Jewish demographics and displaying an awareness of where even the most obscure backbenchers stand on Israel and foreign aid.
Hoyer was one of the first Democrats to understand in 2002 that President Bush was making inroads with the Jewish community. He was the main architect of the Democratic Party’s aggressive outreach to its Jewish base last year; the strategy was to emphasize that the Democrats were as good as Bush on Israel but still trumped Republicans on the domestic issues Jews care about, including the economy, health care, reproductive rights and church-state separation.
“The values expressed by Jewish Americans over the centuries have been much more in line with the values adhered to and promulgated and fought for by Democrats, not the least of which is a commitment to diversity and tolerance as well as investing in the community, its health, its housing, its education, its general welfare,” Hoyer said.
Blunt acknowledged that Democrats have the advantage with Jewish voters, and noted Hoyer’s solid performance as minority whip on Israel votes.
“There’s no question the whole House is pro-Israel. Steny Hoyer and I have worked on a number of different things to achieve the right results,” he said.
Still, he felt Republicans were gaining the advantage when it came to Middle East policy.
“Increasingly, if you ask a Jewish voter which party is more dependably pro-Israel and focused on the war on terrorism, they would say the Republican Party,” Blunt said.
Hoyer suggested the real question was whether the Republicans were gravitating toward Israel’s far right. He noted that the House majority leader, Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas), drummed most of the pro-withdrawal language out of a recent pro-Israel resolution, even though an explicit expression of congressional support for the withdrawal could have aided Sharon.
DeLay “tends to be significantly to the right of Sharon on this issue,” Hoyer said with a laugh.
Blunt said his party’s posture on Israel suggests a brighter future for Republicans among Jews.
The Democrats “have a significant majority of Jewish voters, but not among those under 55,” Blunt said. “Younger voters are more inclined to give both parties a look. Our stand on the economic issues, homeland security, economic security are in line with where those voters and those younger Jewish families see themselves. They believe they do a better job with their own money and their families than the government does.”
Hoyer and Blunt are careful to keep their distance from their parties’ lightning rods for Jews. In the Democratic camp, that means leftist anti-Zionists; among Republicans, it’s evangelical fundamentalists.
“You could find individuals on both sides who would say something wrong and inappropriate,” said Blunt, adding that he believed most fundamentalist Christians feel goodwill toward Jews.
Hoyer suggested he had little interest in working with Democrats who negate Israel’s existence. One person who clearly was not okay with Hoyer was Cynthia McKinney, the anti-Israel Georgian who was voted out in 2002 but is poised to return to the House this year.
“Cynthia’s views are really unique to herself,” Hoyer said.
Both leaders agreed on another issue: Allegations this summer that the American Israel Public Affairs Committee was involved in espionage had no impact on the pro-Israel lobby’s work on the Hill.
“I have not felt a very substantial, even a moderate response to the allegations,” Hoyer said.
“The fact that you haven’t seen members rushing to be critical of AIPAC is a testament to AIPAC’s standing with the Congress,” he said.