More Pro-Israel Than Thou

It’s getting to be crunch time in the presidential primaries, with the two parties’ nominees likely to be decided in the next two weeks. Most of us will have no say in the matter, since we don’t live in states holding primaries; nevertheless, it is still interesting to ask that all-important question: Who will be good for the Jews?

The good news is that all four of the major candidates have said all the right things. It’s no surprise that they talk about their support for Israel, moving the embassy to Jerusalem and supporting the peace process. These guys are all serious, seasoned candidates who know how to pander for Jewish votes. The question, of course, is whether we can believe what they say.

Jews do not base their votes solely on Middle East issues. This is unfortunate for Republicans. The reality is that Jews are the most liberal group in society, other than African-Americans, and overwhelmingly vote Democratic. Unless the Republican is an incredible candidate (e.g., Ronald Reagan) and/or the Democrat is a disaster (e.g., Jimmy Carter), the Democrat is virtually assured 80 percent or more of the Jewish vote. Despite what they say publicly, Republicans generally don’t care much about the Jewish vote because they know they have little chance of getting enough to make a difference. I can tell you from first-hand knowledge that George Bush didn’t care a whit. Still, while it is true that Jews can’t decide an election, they can swing key states and it can make a difference in the election’s outcome if the Republican candidate gets 15 percent or 30 percent of the Jewish vote.

What about the candidates?

I’ve always liked Al Gore. He was my choice to head the last ticket. Imagine how different the world would be if that had happened. If Bill had still met Monica, they’d have done their thing in the Old Executive Office Building instead of the Oval Office. Anyway, Gore’s credentials are impeccable. He’s got a long history of support for Israel and tons of friends and advisers who are Jewish. The only question you might raise with Gore is why he hasn’t made a difference on some of the negative decisions of the Clinton Administration, such as the failure to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem. On non-Middle East issues, Gore has sufficiently liberal views to satisfy the majority of Jews.

My hesitation about Gore is that he lacks charisma. He’s always been wooden, but he seems even less inspiring now than he did eight years ago. His responses to the fundraising scandals seem a tad ingenuous, but he still impresses me as an honest man with the country’s interest at heart. To borrow a phrase from my mother, he just doesn’t tickle my toes.

Gore looks almost scintillating, however, compared to Bill Bradley. The greatest danger he may pose to foreign leaders is that he will put them to sleep. Bradley’s record on Israel is fine, but he’s never been a leader on Middle East issues. I like the fact that he is very smart and does think and talk about big ideas. Of course the last really smart president we had, the peanut farmer, did not inspire confidence in the relationship between brains and policymaking. Bradley is casting himself as more liberal than Gore, so he would certainly have no trouble winning most Jewish votes in the main contest, but he’s probably at a big disadvantage in the primary because of Gore’s long and close association with the community.

George W. Bush still looks like the man to beat because of the financial and political support he has from the Republican establishment. As a governor he has no foreign policy record to run on. He’s said the right things about Israel so far, but his emphasis on his Christian beliefs makes a lot of Jews uncomfortable. While the Bush name helps him in most communities, it is a minus in the Jewish community where his father is widely considered the most anti-Israel President in history. The fact that some of his father’s foreign policy advisers are either now guiding him, or likely to be if he is elected is a cause for concern. Most Jews will have a problem with both he and John McCain because of their conservative positions on social issues. “Compassionate conservatism” has an appeal, but on specific issues like abortion and gun control, he’s still out of step with liberal Jews. The one area where Bush most closely resembles his Democratic opponents is in dullness. He looks and sounds to me like Pat Robertson without the evangelical pizzazz.

This brings me to John McCain. The same thing that seems to be exciting the nation, excites me about McCain and that is his charisma. The life experience, the folksiness, the sense of strength and integrity make this guy come across as a leader, a person who will make Americans feel good about themselves and foreign leaders respectful of the United States. He hasn’t taken the lead on Middle East issues, but his understanding of security issues and appreciation for Israel’s strategic value inspire confidence in his approach to the region. I particularly like things he’s said about using force not only when our strategic interests are at stake, but when our moral values are being offended. If McCain wins the nomination, I think he has the potential to attract greater than average Jewish support, but his problem will also be on social issues. He could get 20-30 percent of the Jewish vote, but he’s far too conservative to do much better.

So who is best for the Jews? Each of us will have to decide that for ourselves.