The late film critic Pauline Kael apparently never said, “I don’t know how Richard Nixon could have won. I don’t know anybody who voted for him.” But the quote lives on as a watchword of liberal myopia.
I think of the remark whenever I hear a prediction that the Jewish vote is on the verge of a major realignment. Earlier this month Matthew Brooks of the Republican Jewish Coalition boasted that the “GOP is making consistent inroads with the Jewish vote” and that “President Obama’s actions have ensured that a wide swath of the Jewish vote is ‘in play’ for 2012.” Brooks and other conservative activists were excited by a Dick Morris poll suggesting Jewish support for Obama had declined to 56 percent, compared to 78 percent in the 2008 election.
The huge shift struck many observers as improbable, and critics picked apart the Morris poll’s methods and its mischievously leading questions. Besides, with few exceptions, the Jewish vote remains a stubbornly consistent thing: Even weighed down by his associations with the Rev. Wright and Rashid Khalidi, Obama managed to top the 75 percent advantage Democrats have enjoyed among Jews since Ronald Reagan’s re-election bid in 1984.
I’m not sure who “Pauline Kael” is in this equation — Republican Jews, who don’t know anybody who supports Obama, or me, who rarely meets committed pro-Israel voters who say they are switching parties.
That isn’t to say that I haven’t heard a lot of criticism of Obama from my overlapping circles of friends and acquaintances, who disproportionately are rabbis, Jewish journalists, Jewish professional workers, and “lay people” who take an inordinate interest in all things Israel. Many thought he blew it in his first year, first demanding a settlement freeze only to back down — appearing simultaneously weak and bullying at the same time. The liberals among them weren’t shocked by his recent invocation of the “1967 borders,” but most sort of wished that he had not chosen that moment or phrase to pick a fight with Netanyahu.
But whether they love Obama or hate him, vote Republican or Democrat, I don’t hear many people say they are switching parties, at least not yet.
Writing in Tablet, Michelle Goldberg suggests why: American Jews “might get anxious about liberal criticism of Israel, but this anxiety tends to pale beside their abhorrence of the Christian Right.”
And yet I think wariness over evangelicals only partially explains Jewish loyalty to the Democrats. It’s also, if not mainly, a question of political ideology. Most Jews, excluding the Orthodox, tell pollsters they are liberals or moderates. And yet moderation, let along liberalism, is hardly the signature of today’s GOP. For liberals and most moderates, the GOP’s hardening stances on its core issues — the no-tax pledge, shrinking government, deregulation of private industry, inaction on climate change, abortion, gay rights — far outweigh the evidence showing Republicans to be stronger on Israel than Democrats.
Which isn’t to say that Jews can’t be conservative, only that their conservatism has limits that fall far short of current Republican orthodoxy. It was, after all, David Brooks, a pro-Israel Jewish conservative, who recently blasted his fellow Republicans as “Beltway Bandits,” “Big Government Blowhards,” and “political celebrities” for refusing to compromise on the debt-ceiling debate. The party, he writes, has been “infected by a faction” whose members “do not accept the logic of compromise, no matter how sweet the terms.”
Various indicators do suggest that Republicans are, on balance, more pro-Israel than Democrats, but such findings may be matched by a growing distancing of American Jews from Israel itself. If Israel isn’t your top priority, neither is Obama’s take on the peace process.
And yet even among many Jews who take a keen interest in Israel, Republican support for Israel isn’t decisive. Here’s why: They think Democratic support for Israel is good enough. Yes, there’s an anti-Israel wing of (presumably) Democratic voters who support the BDS movement and consider Congress Zionist Occupied Territory, but their representation in mainstream Democratic politics is marginal. More important to Jewish voters is the vast majority of Democratic lawmakers who stand with Israel.
True, 54 Democratic members of Congress signed a letter to Obama advocating an end to the Israeli blockade of Gaza. The letter angered the pro-Israel mainstream; on the other hand, it was endorsed by Americans for Peace Now and J Street. You can revile those groups’ politics, but they represent mainstream political positions within Israel and the American-Jewish conversation. Besides, Obama ignored the letter.
The Republican Jewish Coalition is no doubt preparing its pre-election ads claiming Obama would return Israel to its “indefensible” pre-1967 borders and citing his “disrespect” for Benjamin Netanyahu. Of course, they are going to have to convince Jews that the U.S.-Israel relationship has fundamentally changed under Obama and hope voters ignore the evidence that security cooperation between the countries has actually improved.
The question, of course, is whether upset over Obama’s Mideast rhetoric is going to outweigh the Jewish majority’s dim view of the GOP’s domestic agenda anytime soon. If so, the stars of David may well realign. But my guess is that the rhetoric would have to get a lot worse, and the GOP agenda would have to change significantly, for the realignment to take place.