This year, as in every election year since Barack Obama has been in the White House, we are hearing the cry of the hopeful Republican: This is the year that Jewish voters and donors and activists are going to turn on the president and his party and turn out for the GOP.
The hope stems from a few observable truths. President Obama is not a great friend of Israel and he visibly doesn’t get along with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The American Jewish community – white, assimilated and prosperous – is out-of-place in a Democratic Party determined to build a coalition around an appeal to racial gender minorities, unmarried women, the LGBT community, immigrants and the dependent poor. And while the Jewish community is shrinking because of low birthrates and intermarriage, its Orthodox wing – strongly pro-Israel and socially conservative – is gaining in numbers and self-confidence.
All this, according to some conservative pundits, has created a tipping point. In November, they say, Jews could turn out in key congressional elections, especially in Senate contests, and vote for Republicans who have made support for Israel a signature issue. And in 2016, fed up with Obama’s chilly attitude toward the Jewish state and his weakness in the face of Islamic aggression, Jews could abandon their traditional affiliation with the Democrats and give their energy, their contributions and their votes to the Republicans.
I hate to rain on anybody’s inaugural parade, but this is sheer fantasy.
Jews are not simply supporters of the Democratic Party; they are at the heart of everything from union leadership to campaign funding, think-tank policymaking to grass roots organizing.
Three of the four liberal justices on the Supreme Court are Jews. There are 10 Jewish U.S. senators and more than 20 Jewish members of the House.
In contrast, after the departure of Majority Leader Eric Cantor, there isn't a single Jewish Republican in Congress (or in any statehouse). And 2014 isn't going to reverse that.
There are only three congressional races – two in New York, one in Connecticut – where Jewish candidates are considered competitive, and all three are long shots. The GOP has no Jewish senatorial candidates at all.
The Republican side of the aisle in both houses of Congress has, and will have, about as many Jewish members as the Icelandic parliament.
There aren't even any great Hebrew hopes out there, just a few obscure local politicians who might, someday, run for higher office. The best known (and most influential) Republican Jew in America is Sheldon Adelson, the octogenarian casino mogul and mega-donor. Whatever Adelson’s virtues, he isn't anybody’s idea of an electoral poster boy.
Of course you don’t have to be Jewish to get Jewish votes. Al Smith, a New York Catholic, won almost 75 percent in his loss to Herbert Hoover in 1928. Franklin Roosevelt got between 85-90 percent in four straight elections. John F. Kennedy, the son of a notorious anti-Semite, topped 80 percent in 1960. Four years later, Lyndon Johnson got 90 percent running against Barry Goldwater, the grandson of frontier Jews. Obama got 69 percent of Jewish voters in 2012.
In the last 20 presidential elections, only Jimmy Carter, a transparently unfriendly figure, got less than two-thirds of the Jewish presidential vote – and even he out-polled the strongly pro-Israel Ronald Reagan.
The fact is, the great majority of American Jewish Democrats see their party and its agenda as their secular religion. Reform Judaism, America’s largest Jewish denomination, is sometimes jokingly called “the Democratic Party with holidays.” A lot of Jews would sooner convert to Shia Islam than leave the party of their forefathers.
Republicans sometimes wonder at this loyalty. After all, polls show that they and their voters are more pro-Israel than Democrats. Republicans are attracted to the Jewish state because of its pioneer ethos, its “peace through strength” posture in the face of anti-Western jihad, its reflexive pro-Americanism and, for Christian evangelicals, its biblical roots.
None of this means much to most American Jews, however (except to the Orthodox, still a relatively small minority). There isn't much data, but conventional political thinking is that secular Jews, to the extent they are voting as Jews, are more concerned about a woman’s right to choose, gay rights or comprehensive immigration reform than they are about specific Israel-related policy.
Jews of all sorts tend to be pro-Israel. For many it is personal. But that doesn't mean supporting specific policies. The Democrats will retain their loyalty as long as the party maintains an acceptable level of support for Israel – to be, as Barack Obama once said about Hillary Clinton in a different context, “likable enough.”
President Obama clears that bar. Clinton, if she runs in 2016, will do even better. Bibi Netanyahu would prefer a Republican president, but he won’t be on the ballot, and any candidate he supports will lose big time to Hillary Clinton. Or Chelsea, for that matter.