Opinion // A Turning Point for Jewish Republicans?
It will take a lot more than the Iran deal to make American Jews switch parties.
by Nathan Guttman
These could be the best of times for Jewish Republicans.
The controversial nuclear deal reached with Iran has made the stars align for this group as never before. Most of the Jewish organizational world has sided with congressional Republicans in opposition to the accord, and Jewish donors and constituents, some of whom had never voted Republican in their life, are lining up to shower praise on GOP lawmakers for their strong stance against the agreement.
Republicans would love to translate this ad hoc alliance into a long-lasting relationship, as in those short-lived golden days when Ronald Reagan, running against a highly unpopular Jimmy Carter, swept 39 percent of the Jewish vote.
But it will take more than a growing dislike for President Barack Obama’s way of dealing with the Iranian nuclear threat, and more than the real policy disagreement over the deal that has been negotiated, to turn the summer of 2015 into a watershed moment in the politics of Jewish Americans.
Because for every email blast telling an American Jewish voter how Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry sold out Israel’s security in favor of a dangerous deal, there is a Donald Trump popping up on the TV screen with a xenophobic cry; and for every shul-side conversation on how Obama’s choice of words is bringing back demons from the past, there is a Ted Cruz calling to defund Planned Parenthood because of its “trafficking in fetal organs.” And these positions still offend values that every poll shows most American Jews hold.
As of 2015, 77 percent of Jewish Americans support same-sex marriage, compared with 55 percent of America’s general population. Jews are twice as likely as all Americans to support abortion rights, and numerous polls show them significantly more supportive of immigration reform than the overall electorate.
And just when Jewish Republicans thought they could sit back and watch how Jewish Democrats—not all, but enough to make a difference—are finding it harder to reconcile their support for Israel with their party allegiance, just then the Republicans had to move their primary battle into full speed and march onto the stage a gallery of candidates all bent on being more extreme than their rivals.
Republican strategy has focused in recent years on making Israel a wedge issue, on trying to drive home the point that Republican administrations will always be friendlier to Israel and to its Likud government.
But this approach has consistently failed to reach the critical mass of Jews needed to flip a vote. Tensions over settlements and mutual snubs between Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu haven’t persuaded large numbers of Jews that the Democratic president’s support for Israel is insufficient. Now, Republicans feel they have a stronger hand—that this time there is a real security issue, not another argument about the peace process.
The Iran deal provides Republicans with a rare opening to reach out to Jewish voters, but that is all it is—an opening. Once the gate has been unlocked, they still need to persuade Jewish Democrats and independents that the GOP can actually be their new home. And this can only be done by discussing domestic politics.
Polls have consistently shown, in wartime and peacetime alike, that when making their choice for president, Jewish voters put Israel in seventh or eighth place after a long list of economic and domestic issues. In a 2014 survey conducted by pollster Jim Gerstein for J Street after the midterm elections, Jews named the economy and health care as their top priorities. Only 8 percent of voters cited Israel as a deciding factor, fewer than those who voted based on environmental issues, tax policy, education or terrorism. A 2012 poll by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), conducted ahead of the last presidential election, found that the economy, health care and social inequality were more important to Jewish voters than concerns over Israel and Iran.
Here is where Republicans have their work cut out for them. How many Jewish voters, even those disenchanted by Obama, can connect with a call such as that voiced by Jeb Bush to work longer hours? How many will flock to a Republican like Donald Trump who advocates mass deportation? And how comfortable will they feel in a party whose leaders keep invoking religion and trumpeting their opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage?
It’s only pre-primary season, a time when voters reward extremism and moderation is a political liability. As voters begin to think in practical terms of electability, centrist voices are likely to prevail. It happens every four years.
When it does, the Republican candidate who survives will have a unique opportunity to loosen the Democratic hold on American Jews, to reap political gains from the Iran dispute—with or without a nuclear deal. But to do so will require an understanding that Democrats and centrist Jewish voters need more than a strong case on Israel. And Republicans will have to risk turning their backs on Tea Party and Christian conservatives in order to present a palatable platform for Jewish voters.
Jewish voters are a sliver of the American electorate, mostly concentrated in blue states Republicans can’t win. But for the odd chance that enough Jewish voters will switch sides to help flip Ohio or Florida, Republicans may yet decide it is worth the effort.
Nathan Guttman is the Washington bureau chief of the Jewish Forward.