The morning after the election, I called one of my friends and partners, Michael Steinhardt, to chat about the vote. An early supporter of Bill Clinton, he had become disaffected with the Arkansan’s presidency. So I was eager to hear how he’d come down in the end. He told me he’d voted for Al Gore and Rick Lazio. I told him I’d voted Republican not only for Senate but also for president.
“Do you feel guilty?” he asked.
It was an apt and telling question. Particularly at this agitated moment. In the state that is about to decide the presidency by a few votes, Jews and African-Americans alike are important voting blocs. It prompts me to contemplate the difficulty of a minority opinion, meaning a conservative one, prospering in minority communities.
In the latest election, according to estimates of the Voter News Service, George W. Bush fared abysmally among both blacks and Jews. Mr. Gore won 79% of the Jewish vote, vs. just 19% for Mr. Bush and 1% for Ralph Nader. This is little changed from 1996, when 78% of Jews supported Mr. Clinton, 16% Bob Dole and 3% Ross Perot–or from 1992, when 78% of Jews voted for Mr. Clinton, 11% for President Bush and 9% for Mr. Perot.
It’s tempting to draw from this quick sketch the thought that there seems to be little, if anything, the Republicans can do to gain ground in the Jewish community (or, for that matter, the black community, whose members supported Mr. Gore over Mr. Bush by an even more lopsided 90% to 9%). Some argue that the institutions that have arisen within the minority communities themselves have become captive, financially and otherwise, to statist policy prescriptions advanced in an earlier era, and find it difficult to break free.
One example of this erupted last year, when the president of the UJA Federation of New York, James Tisch, wrote a letter to the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, a Washington-based national umbrella group. The letter suggested that opinion within the community might be shifting on such things as taxes and school vouchers. Coming from the head of the New York federation, which provides significant funding for the JCPA, the letter was a bombshell. In its wake, the executive director of the JCPA resigned. But his replacement turned out to be a Democratic Party activist from the Midwest, though one who some insist is open to change.
I’ve never been comfortable with the notion that the Jewish community–or the black community–is trapped by its institutions. It seems to suggest that Jewish and African-American voters are incapable of judging their own interests. And I doubt it’s the right conclusion, even on the statistics. In 1980, after all, Ronald Reagan won 39% of the Jewish vote. Admittedly, that was against a president–Jimmy Carter–who was one of the weakest in the history of the republic and who, in the eyes of many Jews, emerged at Camp David as a partisan of Egypt. No doubt as a consequence of that combined with John Anderson’s third-party candidacy, Mr. Carter was the first Democratic presidential candidate in memory to win less than half the Jewish vote.
Even in 1988 George Bush won 27% of the Jewish vote. My guess is that he enjoyed the some residual goodwill from having served under the Great Reagan. That was notably short-lived. In the event, the 41st president made it his business to destabilize the national unity government in Israel in hopes of gaining a more left-leaning government that would take a more tractable position in dealings with the Palestinian Arabs. By 1992 Mr. Bush’s share of the Jewish vote had shrunk to 11%, with nearly 9% of Jewish voters defecting to Mr. Perot.
It’s both encouraging and sobering that the Jewish vote turns out to have shifted a good bit over the years. Encouraging because it suggests the Jewish vote–and I would guess, by extension, other communities with strong interests–will respond on the merits. When its voters reckon a candidate is with them, they will abandon party. One of the famous cases, of course, is the ability of New York’s Republican mayor, Rudolph Giuliani, to garner some two-thirds of the Jewish vote in the city’s 1997 election, even against a Jewish opponent.
Seth Leibsohn, director of policy with the nonpartisan but Republican-oriented Jewish Policy Center in Washington, reckons that Gov. Bush did better than might have been expected, since Joe Lieberman enthused the Democratic base. He takes it as a sign that the Republicans will gain ground if they court the Jewish vote, as they did in this election. Mr. Bush has taken a hard line on Israel, surrounded himself with a wonderful set of advisers on Jewish-related foreign policy issues and has articulated–with his attack on “the soft bigotry of low expectations”–what might be called a Jewish approach to education.
But it’s sobering because in the case of the election just ended, the evidence suggests that even with a candidate prepared to court the Jewish vote, the going is slow. Whether or not Mr. Bush lands in the White House, those of us who see promise in the right-of-center policy prescriptions are going to have our work cut out for us.
That’s not something that I feel guilty about. On the contrary, it’s a prospect I rather relish.