Over the next few weeks, presidential candidates will be setting their sights on states with large Jewish populations. On March 7th, primaries will be held in New York, California, Maryland, Ohio and Connecticut. Thus, this period will highlight the role of the Jewish vote in the primaries as well as the upcoming general election. While Jews traditionally vote Democratic in overwhelming numbers, it is arguable that Campaign 2000 – at least at the presidential level — may be a watershed election for the American Jewish community and thus, with large and politically active Jewish populations in key electoral states, a watershed event in political America. This is because the salient issues that have driven Jews into the Democratic camp are more quiescent than they have ever been.
Consider support for Israel, arguably an issue that turns many American Jews into single-issue voters; on this front we have an embarrassment of riches. On the Democratic side, Vice-President Gore has been a stalwart supporter of Israel throughout his entire career, while Bill Bradley, most recently at last October’s Orthodox Union dinner, has been loudly pro-Israel as well. As for the G.O.P., Governor Bush and Senator McCain – have both publicly expressed their strong support for Israel. American Jews might be able to parse the candidates’ records and rhetorical nuances to determine which individual will be more reliably pro-Israel, but the threshold issue is uncontested.
Consider another hot-button issue that has driven many Jews to vote for Democrats, keeping abortion legal. This issue has largely been settled as well. As much as some candidates and special interest groups might like to pretend otherwise, the Supreme Court took this issue off the table when it reaffirmed the validity of Roe v. Wade seven years ago. While it is true that the next president is likely to appoint two or three new justices to the high court, American voters do not cast their vote for president based upon who they think the candidate might appoint to the Court some time in the future.
With support for Israel and abortion rights essentially mooted, some might suggest that church-state issues will keep Jews pulling Democratic levers in the polling booth. But this is far from certain. Again, while polling data still indicates that a majority of American Jews prefers more separation of religion and state rather than less, rank-and-file support for the sort of strict separationism minted in the 1950s is clearly waning; moreover, even this issue does not neatly divide the parties.
While the debate over school vouchers traditionally raises some Jews’ church-state concerns, they also realize that the voucher debate is more complex than that. First, the growing appreciation for Jewish day schools within the broader Jewish community, as well as an appreciation of the resources these schools need to operate, has tempered the resistance to state assistance for parochial schools. Moreover, the fact that those driving the demand for vouchers are inner-city families whose children are trapped in dysfunctional schools appeals to Jews’ traditional commitment to helping the less fortunate. It is this latter point that has prompted Bill Bradley to accept experimentation with voucher plans, thus imploding the traditional Republican-Democrat divide on this issue. Another potential church-state divide that has been bridged is over “charitable choice.” Both Al Gore and George Bush have endorsed this policy which allows religiously affiliated social service providers to apply for and receive government funding for their programs. While many Jewish organizations oppose charitable choice, here too, rank-and-file Jews understand the critical role that religiously affiliated charities play in society (as they have seen in the federation network) and understand the virtue of government empowering these good works.
What all this suggests is that in an unprecedented fashion, American Jews are free to loosen their political thinking, and ultimately their votes, upon a wider array of issues and concerns, from campaign finance reform and health care, to tax reform, defense readiness and child care subsidies. American Jews — who in reality reflect a diverse spectrum of political inclinations, religiously inspired attitudes, personal interests — will be drawn into these more “mainstream” aspects of the upcoming electoral debates and be found on all sides of these debates. Election 2000 is American Jewry’s analog to the post-cold war era; unifying threats have been defeated and we are now free to search for and promote new and different priorities. National, state and local candidates who understand and address this new reality will reap its benefits next November.