Volume 73, Number 6 | June 9 - 15, 2004

Talking Point

Exodus: Can Kerry stop a Jewish migration to Bush?

By Kenneth S. Baer

When I traveled in 2000 with then-Vice President Al Gore to the annual policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the premier pro-Israel lobbying organization, he was met with thunderous applause and a standing ovation, especially when he chastised the Bush Senior administration for promoting “linkage,” the use of loan guarantees to pressure Israel to make concessions to the Palestinians.

In light of this record, the appearance of George W. Bush that year was noteworthy in and of itself, and his short address was met with polite applause.

Four years later, and it was the second coming of George W. Bush. At this year’s conference held in May, the AIPAC crowd embraced Bush as a conquering hero — literally. Bush is the only president in American history to defeat a mortal enemy of the Jewish state (Iraq), and by launching an expansive war on terrorism, Bush is now chasing terrorists who have vowed to destroy both the United States and Israel. To that, add Bush’s recent letter to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon rejecting a Palestinian right to return to Israeli lands, and the wholesale dismantling of West Bank settlements, and one gets excited Jewish Republicans (once as rare as Jewish hog farmers) heralding a realignment of the Jewish vote.

They point to polling numbers that suggest that Bush would receive about one-third of the Jewish vote — besting the 19 percent he won in 2000 and breaking the lock that Democrats have had on a solid 80 percent of this constituency’s support. And while even these few thousand votes may make a difference in a 50-50 nation, the bigger coup would be the defection of Jewish Democratic donors to the Republican side. It’s not that the G.O.P. needs the money, but if $10 million or $15 million goes to the G.O.P — or just not to the Democrats — its absence will be felt.

Interestingly, the Democratic Party by and large has not wavered in its support for a strong U.S.-Israel relationship. It rejected as its standard-bearer Howard Dean — who despite having a Jewish wife and kids had circumspect pro-Israel credentials — and is poised to nominate John Kerry, who has a perfect AIPAC voting record. If that wasn’t enough, Kerry recently learned that his grandfather was Jewish, and Kerry’s closest adviser is his younger brother, Cameron, a convert to Judaism.

Yet individual votes and a healthy dose of Semitic seasoning will only get a politician so far this year. In many ways, what’s moving the pro-Israel vote is not the traditional fare of positions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the status of Jerusalem and U.S. aid. Normal political pandering won’t pass muster this year. A candidate could promise to be bar mitzvahed in the Rose Garden and donate any budget surplus to Israel Bonds, but it still may not be enough to win over this crowd.

For what looms over every political calculation made by the pro-Israel community is one issue: terrorism. For the past 30 years, members of the pro-Israel community lived with bombings and massacres that not only horrified them from afar but also put them at personal risk any time they traveled to Israel, or, in the case of the Achille Lauro, traveled anywhere at all. The attacks of Sept. 11 only intensified this feeling, as the World Trade Center was literally — for at least one in three Jewish Americans — in their backyard.

With this as a backdrop, the two obvious strategies to beat Bush on this issue don’t do the job. First, arguments that Bush actually is bad for Israel fall on deaf ears. For instance, former U.S. ambassador to Israel and Kerry adviser Martin Indyk laid out a compelling case to the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles that Bush lacks a “willingness to help Israel stop the violence and regenerate a process of reconciliation.” Following on that point, Gershom Gorenberg, in the April issue of American Prospect, argued that this failure has made everyday life worse for Israelis by any measure: the number of terrorist-attack fatalities, depletion of national wealth (and accompanying growing poverty) and the lack of hope for the future among the young.

Second, the strategy of purposely matching Bush on each pro-Israel move (while hoping to win Jewish voters on social liberalism), while necessary, is hardly sufficient to prevent Democratic defections.

Arguing against Bush point by point and matching him point by point ignores the larger dynamic at work. The key to winning this debate is in the music, not the notes. Pro-Israel voters are interested in a candidate who exhibits toughness, demonstrates an understanding of the terrorist threat as nothing less than existential and shows a willingness to take any action necessary to defeat it.

This is the heart of Bush’s appeal and what is behind the Republicans’ 2-to-1 advantage over Democrats on which party voters believe will do a better job battling terrorism. Bush may be wrong on all the specifics, and show a lack of interest in them to boot, but his swagger, his crisp but high-minded public statements and his black-and-white view of the world all convey a toughness that appeals to terrorism-focused voters.

As Kerry completes the difficult transition to the general-election campaign, he is beginning to find his footing and challenge Bush on this terrain. His recent round of biographical television ads tout his “lifetime of service and strength,” beginning with his birth in an Army hospital. In his remarks to the Anti-Defamation League in early May, Kerry focused less on policy and more on his personal connection to Israel, from climbing Masada to flying a plane over the Sinai, demonstrating that he understood viscerally the threats Israel faces.

Kerry can halt the exodus of the pro-Israel community out of the Democratic camp by continuing to emphasize his personal connection to the country as well as his personal conviction in doing anything necessary to win the war on terrorism. In addition, Kerry needs to stay out of the weeds — especially detailing the role he wants the United Nations and the international community to play in Iraq and in fighting terrorists (no matter how necessary both may be) — and use tough language that makes it clear that the same man who did not hesitate 35 years ago to kill America’s enemies in a war that he didn’t believe in will not hesitate to kill terrorists in a war that he does.

Ultimately, and unfortunately, all of this may be good practice for the fall. While stemming the flow of pro-Israel Democrats to the Bush camp probably won’t decide the election, if Al Qaeda decides to launch its own “October surprise,” knowing how to talk about terrorism just may.

Baer, former senior speechwriter for former Vice President Al Gore, runs Baer Communications, a Democratic consulting firm.


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