Posted on July 27, 1998 in Washington Watch

U.S. electoral politics can be a crass and unprincipled business. A reminder of this fact came last month with the release of a strategy report by Frank Luntz, a leading Republican pollster. Luntz, who designed Speaker Newt Gingrich’s “Contract with America” campaign that helped Republicans win control of the Congress in 1994, is now advising Republicans that they can make significant inroads into the traditionally Democratic Jewish vote.

Luntz’s report was prepared for a national Republican Jewish organization and was based on a study of reactions of some Jewish voters interviewed in southern California. While the Jews interviewed were sharply critical of Republican attitudes on social issues, most notably abortion and the separation of church and state, when the discussion shifted to Israel the tone of their comments shifted as well.

The principle concern of these Jewish voters interviewed by Luntz were Mrs. Hillary Clinton’s recent comments favoring a Palestinian state and President Clinton’s refusal to support the construction of a U.S. embassy in Jerusalem.

When these Jewish voters were asked what was the more important issue, abortion or Israel, they resoundingly declared “Israel.”

Luntz’s conclusions presented to the Jewish Republican organization were that Republican candidates can win large numbers of Jewish voters in the 1998 and 2000 elections if they are “vocally and unconditionally pro-Israel” in their campaigns and if they use “less divisive social language” and do not use “overtly religious language” when they discuss “issues of values and morality.”

Apparently picking up on this strategy, Republican Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich has been addressing groups of Jewish contributors blasting the Clinton Administration for being “anti-Israel.” In one recent event Gingrich was cited telling a group of donors that there are “terrorists roaming freely in territories controlled by the Palestinian Authority” while the Clinton Administration was pressuring Israel for more concessions. Gingrich has also been strongly critical of Mrs. Clinton’s “Palestinian state” comment.

To add to this campaign, a prominent national Jewish newspaper featured quotes from Israel’s Minister of Industry and Trade, Natan Sharanksy, criticizing what he called the “Presidential Jews” in the Clinton Administration. According to Sharansky these Jewish advisors in the Administration share the philosophy of Peace Now and have sheltered the President from understanding the reality of Jewish attitudes and the reality of Israel’s needs.

All of this may seem strange to an Arab audience, but it reflects the kind of pressure that is being mounted against the Democratic Clinton Administration.

Before evaluating the validity of Luntz’s observations, it is important to note their unprincipled cynicism. Luntz was recently a participant in a U.S. delegation of young political leaders who traveled to the Middle East to participate in a three-way conversation involving American, Likud, and Fatah representatives. Participants in the discussions have reported that Luntz was impressed by what he learned from the Palestinians in the groups and that he had changed his personal attitudes and had become more balanced in his views.

Even Gingrich, who recently completed Washington meetings with a delegation of Palestinian Legislative Council members, headed by Palestinian Speaker Abu Ala’a, was quite balanced and supportive in his discussions with the PLC members.

Unfortunately what this points to is the sad reality that when money and voters and winning elections are at stake, principles and understanding take a back seat to politics.

The question that remains, however, is what to make of Luntz’s observations and conclusions. Initially several facts must be noted:

    1. Historically, Jewish voters are decidedly Democratic. In national elections Jews have consistently supported the Democratic candidate with 75 to 80 percent of their votes.

    The one exception was in the Reagan Presidential campaign of 1980. In that year, the Republican Reagan won more than 30 percent of the Jewish vote in his race against then Democratic President Jimmy Carter.

    2. In local races the politics are much different. Jews in New York and California (two states, which combined, include more than 50 percent of the overall Jewish population) have frequently supported Republican candidates in state and local elections. In New York, for example, Jewish voters have given strong backing to Republican candidates like Senator Al D’Amato, Governor George Pataki and Mayor Rudolf Guliani.

    3. In New York, (which alone comprises 40 percent of the Jewish population) there is a strong and growing conservative Jewish vote bloc comprised of two elements: Orthodox Jews who are conservative in their beliefs are now registering to vote and participating in increasing numbers in U.S. politics, and wealthier suburban Jews who are shifting like many other ethnic groups into the Republican camps. These same trends exist in areas of Southern California among both Orthodox and newly transformed, ideologically Republican Jews.

    4. In the rest of the United States where Jewish voters are less than one percent of the total voter population (even though they vote in higher numbers and therefore increase slightly their overall impact in elections), the impact of the Jewish vote is largely negligible in most races. What is a factor, however, is Jewish contributions to political campaigns and political parties. Estimates are that American Jews account for more than one half of the large individual contributors to the Democratic Party and, in recent years, between 20 to 30 percent of the contributors to the Republican Party.

    Pro-Israel PAC contributions are also an issue that must be considered. These contributions are based on a single issue and traditionally favor the party in power. This year, for example, the total amount of pro-Israel contributions to Democrats and Republicans are almost even–despite the fact that Jewish Americans still show strong leanings toward the Democratic party.

    The PACs are not a reflection of Jewish attitudes since the bulk of the PAC money is derived from a rather small group of individuals (less than one thousand) and are directed by an even narrower group of leaders to serve a single issue.

    5. Polls continue to show that over two-thirds of American Jews support the Middle East peace process and suprisingly a large percentage of American Jews even support a Palestinian state.

    What is equally clear from recent polls is that the overwhelming majority of American Jews are repulsed by the Christian fundamentalist agenda that has been adopted by the Republican majority in Congress.

    Jewish voters, therefore, will support a Republican candidate who is liberal on social issues and pro-Israel. It doesn’t necessarily follow that they will reject a Democratic candidate who is balanced on the Middle East if that Democrat is facing a conservative Republican simply because that candidate is “unconditionally pro-Israel.”

It appears that the Luntz strategy and that of his Republican Jewish patrons has two overall purposes. One is to cynically manipulate the fears of some Jews about the peace process in an effort to make Israel and Hillary Clinton into wedge issues that can be exploited for partisan advantage. Another purpose appears to be to create pressure on Democrats, and, in particular, the President, in an effort to block any pressure against the Netanyahu government.

At the end of the day, however, I believe that if the White House were to be clear, decisive and positive in its stand against the intransigent anti-peace policies of the Likud government, Democrats would not, overall, lose one dollar or one vote. The money would continue to go where the money traditionally goes, and nationally Jewish voters would continue to support the candidates they traditionally support.

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