Jews for a day

All six GOP presidential hopefuls schlep their pandering points to the Republican Jewish Coalition's candidates forum.

Published December 3, 1999 11:00AM (EST)

"Fuck 'em," Bush Secretary of State Jim Baker allegedly said about American Jews in March 1992. After all, Baker accurately -- if irrelevantly -- assessed, "They didn't vote for us."

Baker denied making the comment, but for many Jews it was all too believable, and disconcertingly symbolic of the relationship between Jews and the Republican Party. Only a few months before Baker's alleged comments were leaked to the media by a GOP higher-up, President George Bush himself had made some questionable, vaguely conspiratorial allusions to the pro-Israel lobby.

If its members have anything to say about it, the Republican Jewish Coalition -- which held its 15th anniversary gala and presidential candidates forum on Wednesday -- will make sure that Texas Gov. George W. Bush doesn't experience the missteps of his father.

There's a checklist for candidates who want to garner the favor of Jewish groups. Pander point No. 1 is that a candidate must support Israel. Persecuted since the beginning of time, many Jews simply feel safer knowing that -- if worse comes to worst -- they can always move there without fear of pogroms. Pander point No. 1, Section B, is that a candidate considers Jerusalem the capital of Israel and believes the United States should move its embassy from Tel Aviv to the actual capital.

These and other pander points clearly weren't news to Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, commentator Alan Keyes, Arizona Sen. John McCain, Christian activist Gary Bauer, publisher Steve Forbes or George W. Bush, who all spoke at the forum and hit on most of them.

Founded in 1985, the RJC has toiled like the Pharaoh's Jewish slaves to build better relations between the Jewish community and the Republican party. And not without some successes. Likely Senate candidates Hillary Rodham Clinton and Mayor Rudy Giuliani are polling at equal numbers among New York's largely Democratic Jewish voters -- helped in no small part by the RJC's anti-Clinton TV ad, which featured footage of Clinton kissing Yasser Arafat's wife after she levied an outrageous charge against Israel (alleging that Israelis had used poison gas against Palestinians).

On Wednesday, the RJC forum was notable for getting all six GOP presidential hopefuls to come and pander -- an accomplishment many sponsors of other, more public, debate forums haven't been able to accomplish.

All the candidates had key RJC members introducing them, but leave it to the front-running Bush to walk up with the biggest macher of the RJC: the ancient Max Fisher, who has advised every Republican president since Eisenhower.

Bush proceeded to wow the crowd with a speech heavy on pre-packaged platitudes. He ripped into the tax speech he'd given earlier that day in Iowa, combined with a smattering of lines from his defense commercial ("We live in a world of madmen ... and terror ... and missiles") with a
dose of pro-Israel rhetoric thrown in for good measure.

"Bush didn't speak to us like we were just 'Jews,'" said an attendee, "he gave us the same speech he gives to every group -- he spoke to us as Americans. Republican Americans who are Jewish. It's why he's such a successful politician, and why he'll be the next president of the United States."

The RJC, like every other establishment Republican organization, has been
fairly supportive of Bush -- if unofficially so -- for some time now. A few members of the RJC even took Bush on his first trip to Israel last year, an experience he recounted for the crowd.

But there was more than a note of discord in the air before and after -- if not during -- Bush's speech. Most American Jews didn't vote for Bush's father; and though many of the RJC attendees seemed amenable to the son's inclusive message that what the world needs now is love sweet love, others voiced a wariness, largely of George W.'s own making.

Attendees voiced concern about Bush's refusal to decry the anti-Semitism of Pat Buchanan -- even after Buchanan's book "A Republic, Not an Empire" was published and resoundingly decried by McCain, Forbes and Elizabeth Dole, among others. While Buchanan was flirting with joining the Reform Party -- and various other Republicans were telling him not to let the door hit him on the ass on the way out -- Bush was pleading with Buchanan to stay in the GOP.

"Buchanan was a big moment and I think Bush made a mistake," said the Weekly Standard's Jewish editor and publisher, William Kristol. "I was struck by how many in that crowd -- and it was a fairly pro-Bush crowd -- were unhappy with Bush for asking Buchanan to stay in the party ... It was interesting how many Buchanan comments I heard."

Knowing that Jews, for some reason, are sensitive to issues of ethnic
cleansing, Hatch bashed the GOP Congress for its opposition to U.S.
intervention in Kosovo. But Hatch also reached for a more personal
connection to the crowd. According to Hatch, Mormons
and Jews have a special relationship.

Revealing to the crowd that for 15 years he's worn a mezuza (a Jewish religious object containing Biblical text) around his neck in honor of
Israel, Hatch told the crowd about his work and friendship with
Irving Brown, a Jewish international labor leader. And in a happy,
revealing, gaffe, Hatch declared his support for a "united and
indivisible Jerusalem as the capital of Utah."

"I love you," Hatch told the crowd. "We in Utah feel very deeply
about Israel. We in Utah feel very deeply about you."

Keyes, speaking off the cuff as always, channeled the subject at
hand through his "this country is going to hell in a handbasket"
meat grinder. Israel, through this worldview, is a possible victim
of the United States' downward swirl into the sewer of immorality. For, if we live in a country that honors money and sleaze over courage and
integrity, Keyes asked, how much longer will this country continue to
respect its alliance with Israel -- the Middle East's beacon of the
very virtues American culture is flushing away like so much human

It was interesting, insightful and illuminating, and many members of the audience seemed impressed. Then, of course, as is his modus operandi, Keyes proceeded to squander away this hard-earned attention by riffing on abortion before the largely pro-choice crowd. Abortion is the absolute measure of our decline, he said. Robert Bork had it wrong -- we're not "slouching toward Gomorrah. We're galloping toward Gomorrah!" In fact, we're "galloping through the town square in Gomorrah!" he cried. He then decried the existence of gays and lesbians.

McCain used the forum to remind everyone again
of his leadership on foreign policy by outlining the five points of
the McCain world order. He touched on security
in the Middle East, but generally he chose to use the forum to
introduce his latest endorser -- Reagan's U.N. ambassador, Jeane Kirkpatrick -- and wave his internationalist sword.

After a lunch break featuring speakers like Giuliani, Missouri Sen.
John Ashcroft, Michigan Sen. Spence Abraham, and Nevada senatorial
candidate John Ensign, participants sat in on a seminar
in which GOP pollster Frank Luntz counseled candidates on the language to use to woo Jews -- as well as suburban swing voters (examples: "cooperation," not "compromise"; "plan," not "agenda").

"Two issues stand in the way of Republicans gaining a significant
percentage of the Jewish vote: abortion and the 'religious right,'"
noted Luntz . "But here we have an answer. The magic word is
'Israel.'" While Jews tend to support abortion rights and are wary of
the influence of Christian conservatives in the Republican party,
Luntz argues that "pro-life Republican candidates, if they use less
divisive social language, can win a significant portion of Jewish
support if they are vocally and unconditionally pro-Israel."

And while Israel is paramount in importance, Luntz noted, Jews -- with
the Holocaust looming large in their minds -- also "are more
concerned about defense and foreign policy issues than virtually any
other segment of the electorate."

Luntz, like many of the day's speakers, took the opportunity to slam
Hillary Clinton for various campaign missteps, including her supposed
claim to be Jewish.

"When was her bas mitzvah?" Luntz joked.

"You mean, 'When was her bris?'" a member of the audience shouted.

Christian activist Gary Bauer spoke when the candidates forum
reconvened -- regurgitating some of the very same anti-Hillary
Clinton jokes Luntz had used just hours earlier. Better that than his comments that Pat Buchanan "is a great guy," which he says repeatedly when
standing before Iowa and New Hampshire gentiles. The RJC itself
recently characterized Buchanan as having a message of
"intolerance ... and a disdain for those who are 'different,' especially
recent immigrants and Jews."

Bauer went so far as to decry the Nazi salutes Columbine shooters
Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris routinely gave one another. He
acted as if he's been fighting for years for the right of public schools to recite excerpts from the Bill of Rights, instead of to praise Jesus.

If nothing else, Bauer's presence provided the crowd with a
living, breathing definition of chutzpah.

Steve Forbes was up next. After giving his standard pro-flat-tax stump speech, and hitting the standard pander points, he demonstrated a breadth of understanding of certain key -- if arcane -- issues important to many members of the Jewish community. He asserted that "blood
libels have no place in diplomacy today" -- an allusion to the belief
of some Jews that Yasir Arafat's claim that Israelis have poisoned
Palestinians with "toxic gas" is just the latest of a centuries-old,
anti-Semitic canard that Jews routinely get their jollies by
poisoning gentiles. Forbes went on to decry the circulation of
another hate-filled anachronism, "The Protocols of the Elders of
Zion," an anti-Semitic tract widely disseminated among Arab youth.
"We can't have a true peace with that kind of hatred distributed to
young people."

Forbes, like all of the candidates, was received warmly, though the crowd seemed to be split between Bush and, to a lesser extent, McCain.

Not only was Wednesday's meeting "the largest gathering of Jewish
Republicans in history," according to RJC executive director Matthew
Brooks; "it also highlights the commitment of the key political
leaders in the Republican party to actively solicit and campaign for
the support of the Jewish community." Brooks says that Republican
candidates, buoyed by the successes of Giuliani and Los Angles Mayor
Richard Riordan in getting out the Jewish vote, are reaching out to
the 12 tribes as they never have before.

And in the party of President Richard "Most Jews are disloyal ... you
can't trust the bastards" Nixon, that ain't exactly chopped liver.

With more than 6 million residing in the United States -- approximately 2.3 percent of the total population -- Jews have become an important voting
bloc. The largest populations of Jews are concentrated in electorally important New York and California, where they comprise 9.1 and 3 percent of the respective state populations -- though their activism in the community and high rates of voter turnout make them a more significant force than those numbers suggest.

Historically, Jews have voted overwhelmingly Democratic, but President
Ronald Reagan made some serious electoral inroads -- winning
43 percent of the Jewish vote, by some counts. But these
gains were not furthered by President Bush,
who scored about a third of the Jewish vote in '88 and only received about 25 percent in '92 -- about the percentage of Jews who are registered Republicans.

Democrats have consistently received the support of more than half the Jewish voting population since 1972.

"More Jews should vote Republican but they don't," said Weekly Standard's Kristol. "They're liberals. There were good reasons why Jews became liberals 200 years ago, but not anymore. And, to be fair, conservatives and Republicans have been stupid in certain respects."

Kristol notes that there is some evidence that Jews' traditional alliance with the Democratic Party is shifting. "Younger Jews are more likely to consider voting Republican," he says. "Jewish men under 35 or 40 are almost 50-50,
especially when you have a Republican like Rudy Giuliani."

But it remains unclear if, when it comes to the Jewish vote,
George W. Bush will follow in Giuliani's footsteps, or if he'll
experience the tsuris his father went through.

At the end of Luntz's session, I asked the room how Bush hoped to win their votes after making it crystal clear that he's not willing to expend one iota of political capital by decrying anti-Semitism among the GOP ranks -- most notably with Buchanan and with Bush's Louisiana campaign
chairman, Gov. Mike Foster, who purchased voter mailing lists from
Klansman David Duke.

The public doesn't like reporters. And most Americans don't like
discomforting questions. Plus, the crowd was already on to me --
Luntz had pointed me out as a pro-Hillary "liberal" member of the media (which isn't really true, but that's another matter).

So I was expecting people in the room to hiss, to decry my negativism
and my anti-Bush bias. But something happened in the room after I
asked my question that has never happened to me before. Something
almost unheard of. Something that should give Bush at least a moment
of pause.

They applauded.

By Jake Tapper

Jake Tapper is the senior White House correspondent for ABC News.

MORE FROM Jake Tapper

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

George W. Bush John Mccain R-ariz. Middle East Religion Republican Party