The Most Jewish Election
The 2012 presidential campaign will be a landmark for U.S. Mormons. It’ll also be the most Jewish election in history, argues a Mitt Romney adviser.
Now that Rick Santorum has dropped out of the Republican primary, the long-anticipated election showdown between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama is beginning to heat up. And one thing is becoming clear even at this early stage: The 2012 presidential race, between a Mormon Republican and a Christian Democrat, is shaping up to be one of the most Jewish elections in American history.
Yes, you read that right.
We’ve had very Jewish elections before, perhaps none more than 2000, when Joe Lieberman was on the Democratic ballot as vice president. That race also featured the spectacle of South Floridian bubbes and zaydes who thought that they might have voted for Pat Buchanan over Al Gore because of the infamous “butterfly ballot.”
At least so far in 2012, there are no Jewish candidates on either major ticket. But this year, the involvement of Jews in all elements of the political process, combined with increased Jewish confidence and security as a community, is manifesting itself on the political stage—most notably, on both sides of the political aisle. These factors, as well as the potential for Mitt Romney to take advantage of President Obama’s rough patches with Israel to peel away some of his Jewish support, have made the Jewish role in the 2012 election more prominent than in any previous race.
Though Jews seem to be everywhere in politics these days—as candidates, strategists, officials, fundraisers, commentators, and more—the high level of Jewish involvement in national politics would have been unfathomable in the 19th century. In 1813, for example, President Madison appointed Mordecai Manuel Noah as U.S. consul to Tunis, only to have the Islamic government there object to having a Jew in the role (so much for the idea that Islamic anti-Semitism is a post-Israel phenomenon). The State Department, headed by future president James Monroe, acceded to the request, and Madison blamed the recall on “the ascertained prejudice of the Turks against his Religion.” It would be 40 years before there was another equally prominent Jewish appointee in the form of Democratic fundraiser August Belmont, whom Franklin Pierce named U.S. minister to The Hague in 1853.
Jews did emerge in presidential politics during the Civil War—but not in a positive way. In 1862, Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s infamous General Orders No. 11 expelled Jews from the Department of the Tennessee, an area under Union Army Control. A delegation of Jews lobbied President Abraham Lincoln to rescind the order, a request that the president quickly granted. Yet the order became even more relevant when Grant ran for president in 1868. Grant’s candidacy presented a real challenge to American Jews, who, for the first time, faced the question of whether to cast their votes as Jews or as Americans. As a result, Grant had to reach out to Jews in unprecedented ways for a presidential candidate. As president, he delivered: Grant was the first president to attend a synagogue dedication and, later, the first one to visit Palestine. He also appointed more Jews to his administration than had any other president.
Even so, Jews still faced a glass ceiling for the remainder of the 19th century, with a number of Jews serving in ambassadorial positions, but none attaining Cabinet rank.
The Jews broke through in the 20th century, when Theodore Roosevelt named Oscar Straus to be Secretary of Commerce, making Straus the first Jewish Cabinet secretary. William Howard Taft became the first president to invite a Jew—Sears President Julius Rosenwald—to dinner at the White House in 1912. In addition, 1920 GOP candidate Warren G. Harding benefited from a campaign song written and performed by the Jewish entertainer Al Jolson, titled “Harding, You’re the Man for Us.”
Despite these groundbreaking steps taken by Republican presidents, for the most part Jews have been an assumed part of the Democratic coalition since Franklin Roosevelt built his New Deal majorities. Furthermore, widespread Jewish acceptance into mainstream society following World War II meant that Jews were becoming more involved in politics, but mainly on one side of the aisle. This imbalance meant that Democrats could take Jewish votes for granted in national elections, while Republicans could run for president, and even secure the GOP nomination, without much need for or hope of Jewish electoral support.
Over the last century, no GOP candidate has won the majority of the Jewish vote, although Harding—perhaps thanks to Al Jolson—did secure a plurality in 1920. Democrats have won, without fail, the Jewish vote in every election since FDR. Yes, Ronald Reagan was able to get 39 percent of the Jewish vote in 1980—but 16 percent went to third-party candidate John Anderson, leaving Carter with only 45 percent.
In 2008, Barack Obama won 78 percent of the Jewish vote—just one percentage point lower than the 79 percent Al Gore received in 2000, when he had a Jewish running mate. Peter Beinart, a Jewish critic of Israel, recently came out with a book in which he attributes Obama’s Israel policy and general worldview to Jewish influences—going so far as to call Obama America’s first Jewish president. This may be a bit of a stretch, but it’s certainly the case that the president has had a number of high-profile Jewish events, including the first White House Passover Seder, and appointed a number of Jews to senior positions. Obama’s first chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, was Jewish. Obama’s second chief of staff, Bill Daley, wasn’t—and he did not work out so well. In January, Obama replaced Daley with Jack Lew, who is not only Jewish but Orthodox to boot. David Axelrod, the Obama campaign’s chief strategist, is also Jewish, and Obama shows no signs of replacing him with a non-Semitic alternative.
Despite these overt and symbolic nods, over the past four years, President Obama’s relations with Israel have increasingly become the subject of intense debate inside and outside the Jewish community. Obama’s given everyone—particularly the Republicans—a lot of material on this subject, with his refusal to take a picture with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in March 2010; his hot-mic criticism in November 2011 of Netanyahu during discussions with French President Nicolas Sarkozy; and his orchestrated rebuke of Israel after Vice President Joe Biden’s visit to Jerusalem in early 2010. It is not surprising that Jews obsess endlessly about the state of the relationship between the United States and Israel, but the mainstream media have been following this question just as closely this time around.
Jerusalem’s light-rail system was designed in part to force Arabs and Jews to interact. Now that it’s running, commuters share one thing: discontent.