Has the Republican Party sentenced itself to permanent political irrelevance? I realize a sentiment like this is a dangerous one to consider. After observing American politics for a few decades one begins to realize that, as in life, there is no such thing as permanence. You can have a decade or more of one party dominance and it can evaporate rather quickly to be followed by a decade of the other side. So one should always hesitate and be wary of triumphalism.
In fact, it’s one of the reasons I predicted in the middle of the celebration of George Bush’s rousing 2004 Presidential victory, that he’d sown the seeds of not only his own demise, but that of the entire Republican Party. I didn’t realize at the time it would result in eight, and possibly even twelve or sixteen years (if Hilary Clinton wins two terms) of consecutive Democratic presidents. But what I do realize is that Republicans won’t always be in as sorry shape as they are today.
Nevertheless, I’m afraid the GOP stands to remain a minority Party for the foreseeable future. Why? Let’s go back to the presidency of the first George Bush. In that era (the 1980s), the Republicans could rally their hardcore constituency with red meat issues. Bush and his capo di tuti, Lee Atwater, called them “wedge” or social issues (or “culture wars”). They were then crime, school prayer, race (welfare), homosexuality, abortion.
These were issues the Republican leadership knew it could or would do little to address. But that this is what aroused the fiery determination of the party faithful. Therefore, like Pavlov’s dog, every four years the leaders rang this bell to bring the voters to the polls. After victory, it put the issues back in the closet and went about legislating and governing on terms set by the leadership (and not the party grassroots).
But a funny thing has happened between then and now. These wedge issues, which were overwhelmingly powerful ones for the GOP have stopped ringing any bells for the majority of Americans. That’s because of the demographic shift in the American population. Instead of being overwhelmingly white, the nation is far more diverse. It is far more brown and black than it ever was. Thirty years ago, some women were satisfied taking direction from their husbands in terms of who they voted for. Now, women are on the cutting edge of advocating for more tolerance regarding these same social issues.
George Bush could win an election in 1984 by trotting out a Black rapist and blaming his opponent for freeing him. Now, Americans are far more concerned about policemen killing Black citizens. Then there were a handful of Blacks in Congress. In 2008, we elected our first Black president. Then gays were routinely beaten and harrassed by police and homophobes. Gay rights was part of the agenda of a narrow segment of the American public. In a few years at most, gay marriage will become the law of the land.
While abortion remains a contentious issue, the issues that drove the early feminists to become activists for women’s rights are far more mainstream. It is far easier for the average American to understand the important of equal pay for men and women; of maternity (now “parental”) leave; protection from sexual violence. It’s even possible a woman will become president in 2016.
Now, all the social issues that rang bells for the traditional GOP no longer do. The Party has been slow to recognize this. Its elected officials continue with the dog whistles evoking racial and sexual stereotypes that have long since lost their resonance. It’s one of the reasons I predict that Party will not win a presidential election for some time. Yes, the Republicans can win control of the House or Senate (though usually only in a non-presidential election cycle). But they have far less success in elections that are national in scope.
There is another important wedge issue the Republicans are attempting to exploit to threaten a traditional Democratic stronghold: the Jewish vote. For decades, American Jews have voted anywhere from 60-80% Democratic in elections. Besides, Jewish campaign donations have accounted for up to 40% of funding in presidential primaries. Not to mention that the cities (New York, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston) and states in which Jews live are often critical in winning elections.
To rack up such high levels of support, Democrats have adopted an exceedingly pro-Israel, Lobby-friendly political platform. There was a time when Aipac could truly say it was bipartisan because Democrats were strongly involved. As Aipac’s Steve Rosen used to say, if he took a blank napkin and told Congress members it was an Aipac-sponsored bill, he could have 70 signatures on it by the end of lunch. And most of them would be Democrats.
But then a funny thing happened: a combination of increasingly chauvinist, nationalist Likud governments mixed with a seemingly endless series of wars and misery inflicted on Palestinians. It has led to a gradual decline in Democratic lockstep support. Bibi Netanyahu’s fawning over his Republican pals in Congress and wealthy GOP donors (like Sheldon Adelson) has only speeded the process.
Of course, the majority of Democratic elected officials still toe the Lobby-line. They still know on which side their campaign bread is buttered. But we’ve now entered an increasingly fluid period in which some leaders are beginning to understand the need for a certain degree of independence and skepticism of the Lobby’s agenda.
Republicans smell blood in the water: as a result they’ve trumpeted the supposed mass defection of Jews from the Democrats. But the rumors of the Party’s death among Democrats are premature. As elected Democrats move ever so slightly left on the issue of Israel, many American Jews do as well, as polls show.
Republicans have succeeded in drawing a small circle of exceedingly wealthy Jewish billionaires into their camp. Ronald Lauder, Sheldon Adelson, Paul Singer, Herb Sandler, Seth Klarman, Michael Steinhardt, Aubrey Chernick, and Daniel Loeb have poured hundreds of millions in the Party’s coffers. Their generosity isn’t nearly matched by the few wealthy Democrats like George Soros and a few others.
But just as America as a whole has changed over the past few decades, so has Amerian Jewry. At one time, the Grand Old Men ran the show. We had our Morgenthaus and Stephen Wises. They were our ambassadors to the WASP power elite. We listened and followed their advice because they had the money and the power. To a small extent this is still true in our community.
But as the recent Pew survey of American Jewish attitudes pointed out, the youngest among us don’t adhere to these traditional notions of consensus and restraint. Young American Jews are increasingly secular and increasingly disaffiliated with the mainstream communal institutions. They’re less likely to serve as volunteers or donors in Jewish federations. They join synagogues in lesser numbers.
Their views about Israel are also less certain and “loyal.” While the majority of American Jews continue to consider themselves Zionist and supporters of Israel, they don’t do so with the zeal of their fathers and mothers. Israel is no longer a top priority on the list of what motivates Jewish voters. Despite this, Republicans, thanks to the tantalizing impact of Adelson’s billions, have doubled down on their support for Israel. They never met a settlement they didn’t like. They wave the blue and white whenever Israel attacks Gaza. They threaten war against Israel’s enemies like Iran. They welcome Israel’s prime minister to thumb his nose at the American president.
But little of this draws any large number of American Jews into the Republican column on Election Day. Jews are not impressed. For one, their true priorities are domestic, like most Americans (jobs, education, civil rights). Israel is in ninth place, if that, for most Jews.
These are all reasons why the Republican foray has largely failed. Despite millions raised and spent by the Republican Jewish Coalition to dent Democratic appeal, Jews still turn out in almost precisely the same numbers as they always have for Democratic candidates. Sheldon Adelson may be willing to spend $100 to 150-million to get a Republican elected in 2012 (and I predict at least $200-million in the 2016 cycle), but it has almost no impact on American Jews.
The Brookings Institution published a poll last week which largely reinforces the phenomena I’ve discussed here. It shows that Republicans are displaying an increasingly shrill, slavish support for Israel. Democrats, while still highly supportive, are increasingly willing to doubt the wisdom of a Middle East policy that privileges Israeli interests over American ones.
Here are a few examples: while 63% of American said Israeli settlements were counter-productive; 66% of “high-intensity” Republicans said they were a good thing. Overall, 39% of Americans favored a two-state solution and 34% favored a one-state solution. But 23% of the most committed GOP supporters favored annexation of the Territories and 27% supported “indefinite Occupation.” The most incendiary result was for the question of whether we should support Israel even if American interests diverge from Israel’s. While 41% of Americans agreed with that statement, 66% of the most highly motivated Republicans supported it. 26% of Americans said their main concern in the Israel-Palestine conflict was Israeli interests, while 48% of high-intensity Republicans said this.
Here is how Slate’s writer summarized the poll results:
When Republicans are asked to pick from a range of guiding principles…most…in the absence of a two-state solution, prefer Israeli control of Palestinians, through occupation or annexation, to a single integrated country with equal rights. Thirty-seven percent of Republicans consider Israel one of their top five issues, and most of these people would abandon democracy in order to make sure Israel remains a Jewish-controlled religious state. By a wide margin, this segment of the GOP cares more about Israeli interests than about American interests, human rights, or any other principle.
That’s not McCarthyism or anti-Semitism. It’s reality. And it raises hard questions about what the Republican Party stands for.
Which brings me back to the beginning of this post. The Republican Party is increasingly a minority, rather than a populist movement. It favors wealth and privilege. It favors whiteness. It favors evangelical Christianity. It is also largely a regional party with power based in the South and Midwest. But most of all it is a party favoring Israel, regardless of what Israel does or stands for. This resonates neither with American Jews or Americans in general. Until Republicans can shed this parochialism, they will remain a minority national party.