Shortly after Gov. Mitt Romney announced Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan as his running mate on the Republican presidential ticket last weekend, the two appeared together on “60 Minutes” and tried to ease concern about the future of Medicare.
They might as well have been speaking directly to Jewish seniors in the crucial swing states of Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania, each with large elderly populations.
“What Paul and I have talked about is saving Medicare, is providing people greater choice in Medicare, making sure it’s there for current seniors,” Romney told Bob Schieffer. “No changes, by the way, for current seniors, or those nearing retirement. But looking for young people down the road and saying, ‘We’re going to give you a bigger choice.’”
But the damage may already be done. The budget pushed by Ryan as the Tea Party-leaning chair of the House Budget Committee in April of 2011 proposed privatizing Social Security and replacing Medicare with a voucher plan. This year, he proposed the creation of a Medicare exchange that would have the program paying for or subsidizing payments to private plans.
Those who depend on government benefits tend to get uneasy when politicians talk about radical changes in them — which some call entitlement reform — and polls show that Jewish voters are among the biggest boosters of public safety nets. The Jewish Federations of North America and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs — the two leading umbrella groups addressing economic issues — wrote letters to Congress opposing less government control of Medicare in response to Ryan’s plan.
So despite what polls show as diminished Jewish support for President Barack Obama since his estimated 78 percent share in 2008 — largely attributed to his posture toward Israel — analysts say Romney’s ability to exploit that weakness as Republican operatives and donors make a major play for Jewish votes could be offset by his choice of running mate.
“On the domestic policy side, [the choice of Ryan] presents significant problems for anybody who supports Medicare and any of the safety-net social programs, which in general is the Jewish vote,” said Ester Fuchs, a professor of public affairs and political science at Columbia University.
“I don’t see this as anything that positively affects Romney’s standing within the Jewish community,” Fuchs continued. “In fact, I think it will put some of the fence-sitters into the Obama camp, particularly seniors in New York and Florida.”
Within hours of the Ryan announcement, Fuchs received an e-mail from relatives in Florida with the photo of a bumper sticker now making its way around the Sunshine State. It read: “Romney and Ryan: Medicare For No One.” Regardless of whether the message is true, it shows a level of distress that Democrats may find easy to exploit.
Republicans have long insisted there are holes in the armor of traditional Jewish loyalty to the Democratic Party — George W. Bush won a quarter of the Jewish vote against Democrat John Kerry in 2004 — and have hoped for reinforcement this year because of “buyer’s remorse” over Obama.
Indeed, the staunch pro-Israel position Romney showed in Israel this month — calling Jerusalem undisputed Israeli territory — and his conservative social views may help him lock down the small politically conservative Jewish vote, including a large share of the Orthodox.
But the latter segment may hesitate to support the Romney-Ryan ticket because of its strong advocacy for and use of such federal programs as subsidized housing and Pell grants, programs Ryan might want to see on the chopping block as he pushes an austerity agenda.
Analysts see Ryan’s selection as a bid to strengthen the most conservative elements of the GOP after a fractious primary that left Romney lacking in enthusiastic backers. But Ryan is seen as having little appeal to the center.
“Independents who were leaning may find some of his positions disconcerting, especially on social issues and the safety net,” said Gil Kahn a professor of political science at Kean University in New Jersey. “These are people who have a sense that they could vote Republican, but this is not going to push them. The fact that [Ryan] has virtually no defense or foreign policy credentials, together with the fact that Romney has none either, is a bit disconcerting to Jews concerned about international issues.”
Ryan has been openly critical of foreign aid programs but, unlike fellow fiscal ultra-conservative Ron Paul, he has never called for cutting off funds to Israel.
“He worked for [Kansas] Sen. Sam Brownback, another staunch supporter for Israel and then for [former New York Rep.] Jack Kemp, one of Israel’s best friends, and he has been there for Israel, promoting Israel and one of the strongest supporters of Israel in Congress,” said Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America. “I would not think he favors cutting aid to Israel. If Jews vote against him, it will have to be for reasons other than Israel.”
Elected in 1998, Ryan visited Israel in 2005 on a trip organized by the American Israel Education Foundation, an affiliate of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.
Democratic political consultant Hank Sheinkopf sees Ryan offsetting any major increase in the rightward drift among Jewish voters.
“Jews moving to the right will stay there and those who were worrying about moving to the right will go back to Barack Obama because of Medicare and Social Security,” he said. “You can’t convince [those] Jews for whom Israel is the No. 1 issue that they should stand with a guy whose running mate will be made to appear like Attila the Hun on Medicare and social issues.”
But Matt Brooks, director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, sees Ryan’s views on the budget as a diversion.
“It is not Paul Ryan’s vision for America and not [Vice President] Joe Biden’s,” said Brooks. “They are there to be advocates for the person who will ultimately be commander-in-chief.
“The stuff out there about Ryan is the worst kind of fear and smear they can do. It is because they are desperate. The Democrats know they are in trouble in the Jewish community, and so they are lying about Paul Ryan.
“When people get a chance to hear about Paul Ryan and what he stands for… Jack Kemp had great support in the Jewish community, and Ryan is similar in thinking and in the Jack Kemp tradition.”
David A. Harris of the National Jewish Democratic Council, said in a statement, “Ryan’s signature budget plan drew the profound concern and even ire of many in the American Jewish community because of its plans to end Medicare as we know it, slash vital social safety net programs, and increase the burden on seniors, the middle class and the poor — yet Romney today proudly hitched his horse to Ryan’s dangerous plan.”
Chasidic political consultant, Ezra Friedlander, who mostly works for Democrats, said it’s “up in the air” how the Orthodox will weigh Ryan’s place on the ticket.
“In terms of families in the Orthodox community who rely on government social programs as part of their monthly budget, the Ryan plan would probably eliminate many of the entitlements,” said Friedlander.
The recent New York Jewish Community Study found that in New York City and three suburban counties 35 percent of Orthodox Jews and 45 percent of Russian-speaking Jews live in low-income households.
But Friedlander said those voters do not necessarily vote in their own interests.
“The Orthodox community increasingly votes Republican; that’s a fact,” said Friedlander. “Even on the state level, which doesn’t make much sense. If you rely on government social programs you should be voting for the Democrat.”
New York, a non-battleground blue state, has by far the largest Jewish population, estimated at more than 1.6 million. In the rest of the country, the percentage of both Orthodox and poor Jews is considerably smaller, meaning that vote may have little impact on the race. Non-Orthodox Jews, however, are concentrated in many swing states such as Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida.
When Friedlander in June met with Ryan on Capitol Hill, he told the Republican rising star to look at cuts in all areas of the budget.
“Across the board, there is waste, in military and defense and every government program,” he said. “I said when hardworking families come to rely on social programs you can’t just throw [them] off a cliff, and he agreed.”
Adam Dickter is assistant managing editor. Stewart Ain is a staff writer. JTA contributed to this report.