WASHINGTON (JTA) — Mitt Romney’s record as a moderate Republican governor would seem to have made him ideally suited to peel off Jewish votes from President Obama. The problem is that he spent much of the past half decade running from that past.
Now, however, as the campaign draws to a close, Romney is ditching his “severely conservative” primary persona, as he famously described himself, and trying to remind voters about the centrist Republican who once governed Massachusetts. Given his recent rise in the polls, the strategy appears to be paying off.
In addition to enhancing the Republican nominee’s appeal to undecided and swing voters, the shift also could help Romney with a subset of Jewish voters disillusioned with Obama over the economy and the Middle East but who do not necessarily subscribe to conservative positions on domestic and social issues.
While Democrats continue to portray Romney as beholden to the right, his Jewish surrogates have embraced his move to the middle and argue that, if elected, Romney will govern more from the center than his critics suggest.
“It’s no different for any politician of any stripe or ilk,” said Fred Zeidman, a Houston businessman and former chairman of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council who is a leading Romney fundraiser. “You look at anybody running, you look at President Obama, he tacks left when he’s campaigning."
On social issues, Romney’s emphasis during the primaries was on the narrative that led him, as governor, to evolve from a supporter of abortion rights to an opponent. But since getting the nomination, he has looked to highlight his differences with more ardent abortion foes, saying in an October interview that abortion legislation is not part of his agenda.
On health policy, Romney’s pledge to repeal “Obamacare” now includes a promise to preserve some popular aspects of the health care reform. At a debate, Romney said that his health plan would cover pre-existing conditions and allow young people to stay on their families’ health insurance. (Observers, however, noted that Romney’s health plan calls only for preventing discrimination against people with pre-existing conditions when they have maintained “continuous coverage,” something that was already required of insurance companies under federal law before the passage of health care reform.)
On Middle East policy — an area seen by his supporters as one of his major selling points to Jewish voters — Romney has also softened some of his tough talk of late. In the candidates’ foreign policy debate, Romney accompanied his longstanding criticism of Obama’s policies on Iran with a reassurace that he would exhaust all options before considering a direct military confrontation.
Romney’s expression of pessimism at a May fundraiser about prospects for Israeli-Palestinian peace — an appearance that was secretly recorded and included his now infamous remark about foregoing trying to win over the 47 percent of Americans dependent on government — has been followed by promises to pursue a two-state solution. Speaking at the Virginia Military Institute, Romney vowed to “recommit America to the goal of a democratic, prosperous Palestinian state living side by side in peace and security with the Jewish state of Israel.”
Romney’s nods toward the middle have not stopped Democrats from trying to paint him and his running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.), as bearers of a ultra-conservative agenda, with critics lashing the Republican ticket’s positions on Medicare, tax policy and social issues.
“‘Severely conservative’ Romney has pledged to be a ‘pro-life president,’ and when he’s tried to give some semblance of moderation, his staunchest anti-choice supporters jump in to knock down any notion that he is anything but solidly in their camp,” David Harris, the National Jewish Democratic Council’s president, wrote recently in the Washington Jewish Week.
Some Jewish supporters, however, counter that Romney’s stance on abortion is not the paramount issue that his critics make it out to be.
“They continue to miss opportunities by harping on the issue of abortion,” Matt Brooks, the Republican Jewish Coalition’s executive director, said in an interview during the Republican convention. “This is something they have been trying to scare people with for decades, and yet access to abortion in this country continues despite having incredibly conservative presidents and a conservative court.”
The RJC has focused much of its effort to woo Jewish voters on Middle East policy, although it also has emphasized the struggling economy. On Israel, Romney has tried to distinguish himself from the president by arguing that he would have a closer and more harmonious relationship with Israel and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who faces an election contest Jan. 22.
“I will make clear that America’s commitment to Israel’s security and survival as a Jewish state is absolute, and will demonstrate that commitment to the world by making Jerusalem the destination of my first foreign trip,” Romney wrote in reply to an American Jewish Committee questionnaire. “Unlike President Obama, I understand that distancing the U.S. from Israel doesn’t earn us credibility in the Arab world or bring peace closer.”
Romney’s Israel stance was prominently displayed at the Republican convention with a video highlighting the nominee’s July trip to Israel. He has also promised that as president he would not allow disagreements with Israel to be aired in public.
Many of Romney’s advisers on both foreign and domestic policy are Jewish. They include Dan Senor, a former spokesman for the Coalition Provisional Authority after the U.S. invasion of Iraq and co-author of "Start-up Nation: The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle," who has risen to prominence as one of the campaign’s most visible foreign policy voices; Eliot Cohen, an international relations scholar and former State Department counselor; Michael Chertoff, President George W. Bush’s second Homeland Security secretary; Dov Zakheim, a former Pentagon comptroller who has a reputation as a foreign policy realist; and Tevi Troy, a former deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services who also served as Jewish liaison for the George W. Bush’s White House.
By the time he made his second run for president, Romney already had built good relationships with Jewish Republicans from his first term as governor and his first presidential run. Romney’s record of moderation made him a natural fit with the party’s Jews, Zeidman said.
“A lot of people in Boston and on Wall Street knew him and respected him,” Zeidman said of the period in 2005-2006 when Romney started exploring his first presidential run. “But he had yet to be in a position where he addressed the Jewish community at large. Now we know what kind of problem solver he is, we know his integrity, his ability to get things done and that as Jews we never have to be concerned about his commitment to the security of the State of Israel.”
Ann Romney has said that she and her husband, as Mormons, feel a kinship with Jews. "Mitt and I can appreciate coming from another heritage," she told the RJC last year. When he was starting his business career in consulting, Romney reportedly would joke with Jewish colleagues about being fellow outsiders.
For his first job after graduating from Harvard Business School, Romney joined Boston Consulting Group, where he first met a young Benjamin Netanyahu who was employed there at the time. Today, Romney speaks of his strong bond with the Israeli prime minister.
Romney often repeats to Jewish and non-Jewish audiences his favorite Netanyahu story, in which the Israeli leader describes an Israeli soldier in basic training who is told to run a course with an overweight soldier on his shoulder. The punch line: “Government is the guy on your shoulders.”