President Bush’s standoff with Israel over its request for U.S. loan guarantees has eroded what little political support he already had among American Jews.
Republican and Democratic strategists alike figure Bush will get only 15 to 20 percent of the Jewish vote in the November elections, down from the 30 to 35 percent he received four years ago.
While Jews tend to vote overwhelmingly Democratic, Bush was able to win a sizable minority of Jewish votes in 1988 because of his association with Ronald Reagan, regarded by many as the most pro-Israel president in decades.
By contrast, Bush and his secretary of state, James Baker, are viewed as being evenhanded on Middle East issues or even displaying a pro-Arab tilt.
Any marked drop in the Jewish vote for Bush could reverse his fortunes in states where he won only slim victories in 1988. That is because under the American election system, candidates get all of the electoral votes of the states in which they win even a razor-thin majority of the popular vote.
In this regard, Bush is particularly vulnerable in Pennsylvania and Illinois, with 23 and 22 electoral votes respectively out of a total of 538. In those states, he narrowly beat Michael Dukakis by winning just 50.7 percent of the popular vote.
Next among the states where the Jewish vote could reverse Bush’s 1988 victories are California and Maryland, where Bush received 51.1 percent of the popular vote in each. California has 54 electoral votes and Maryland has 10.
ANGER OVER SEPTEMBER REMARKS
States with many Jews where a change from 1988 is less likely are Florida, where Bush won 60.9 percent of the popular vote; New Jersey, where he won 56.2 percent; and Ohio, where he won 55 percent. The state with the largest Jewish population is New York, which Bush lost in 1988 and is likely to lose again.
As the 1992 election campaign shapes up into a contest between Bush and Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, one of the Democrats’ chief lightning rods will be Bush’s statement in September about being “one lonely guy” standing against what he called “some powerful political forces,” a reference to pro-Israel activists lobbying for loan guarantees.
Another will be Baker’s alleged use of a profanity in speaking about American Jews during the loan guarantees fight — a charge the secretary of state angrily denied.
Mark Siegel, a Jewish Democratic political consultant, said of the September remarks that Bush “threw a lighted match on the volatile issue of anti-Semitism” and “perverted the sanctimony of the bully pulpit of his office in a fist-pounding, red-faced denunciation of the alleged influence and political powers of Jews in America.”
Matthew Brooks, executive director of the National Jewish Coalition, a group that seeks Jewish support for the Republican Party, conceded that Bush’s statement “still reverberates within the community.”
“But it is important to also understand that the president understands that,” Brooks added. “He’s done a ‘mea culpa’ on that, and I think he sincerely believes that.”
“I am sick and tired of our community focusing our debate on whether or not this administration has written off the Jewish vote,” Brooks said.
OBSESSION WITH SETTLEMENTS POLICY
The Bush administration’s view that expansion of Israeli settlements in the administered territories is an “obstacle to peace in the region” is the “deciding factor in the way they are making their policy decisions right now,” Brooks said.
But critics of the administration have charged that it has blown out of proportion Israeli settlement expansion as an obstacle to peace without placing a similar emphasis on the effects of the Arab states’ economic boycott against Israel or their refusal to bestow diplomatic recognition.
There is also a sense that Bush personally dislikes Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir and that the entire relationship between the two countries is adversely affected.
Jacob Stein, a leading Jewish Republican, dismissed the claim that the Bush administration is working deliberately to cast Israel in a negative light.
“I can’t see any gain for the administration” in doing that, he said.
“I’ve known the president long enough to know he’s generally interested in maintaining a strong and constructive American-Israeli relationship,” said Stein, a former chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
He pointed out that Israel’s hopes of sitting at the peace table with the Arabs “have been realized by the efforts of this president.” And he cited the administration’s effort to get the U.N. General Assembly to repeal its 1975 resolution defining Zionism as racism.
While American Jewish leaders acknowledge these achievements with appreciation, few would dispute that this administration has taken a tougher stance against Israel than any other in recent memory.
SIDING WITH ‘DEVIL YOU DO KNOW’
Brooks of the Republican Jewish group said he hopes Jews will cast their votes on the basis of issues other than just the loan guarantees standoff.
He said American Jews should be concerned about any increased ties between Clinton and the Rev. Jesse Jackson, as Clinton seeks to turn out the black vote. Jackson’s remarks about Jews and Israel in the past have been a major concern of the community.
Steve Gutow, executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council, said Bush’s stands on social issues and his appointment of conservative Supreme Court justices are compelling reasons to vote for the eventual Democratic nominee, if the Israel issue is set aside.
Gutow also linked Bush to being from the same party as fellow candidates Patrick Buchanan and David Duke, both considered to have made anti-Semitic statements.
Brooks said that despite the negative reaction of many Jews to Bush on Israel, until more is known about Clinton, “I am not so certain that the alternative is going to be any better.”
One Republican strategist said it might be wise for American Jews to “go with the devil you do know rather than the devil you don’t know.”
But Gutow called Clinton a “regular mensch” and speculated that he will be a “damn good friend of Israel.”
Despite the deep dismay among American Jews about the Bush administration’s stance on Israel, there is no clear defection from Bush yet among the most active Republican Jews, who in recent elections have provided substantial support to the Reagan and Bush presidential bids.
One party strategist said that Republican Jews are continuing their 1988 level of contributions to the Bush campaign, which account for a quarter of all funds raised, although total contributions have decreased because of the recession.
Some leading Republican Jewish activists “may not get involved in the fall campaign, but I wouldn’t trumpet that as them leaving the party,” said one strategist.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.