Washington Correspondent James D. Besser, writing for The Jewish Week on September 10, 2008, outlines the issues many Jewish voters are having with the selection of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as the GOP vice presidential candidate.
John McCain’s selection of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his vice presidential running mate may be the biggest boost yet to his presidential campaign – but it could cripple his aggressive and, until now, promising outreach to Jewish swing voters.
Voters like former New York Mayor Ed Koch.
“Governor Palin scares the hell out of me,” Koch told The Jewish Week in a telephone interview. A Democrat who four years ago endorsed President George W. Bush’s re-election effort, Koch on Tuesday endorsed Sen. Barack Obama.
Koch said that Palin’s conservative views on a host of domestic issues – not fears about her lack of foreign policy experience – prompted his swing back to the Democratic ticket and he predicted many Jewish voters will make a similar calculation.
He said that while he swung to the GOP in 2004 because he regarded President Bush as the best choice on national security and Israel-related matters, “I do not find any real difference in [Obama and McCain’s] positions on these issues.
“But, Koch continued, “I do find enormous differences on domestic issues – which are also part of defending America, including the issues of abortion rights, gay rights and the right to privacy.”
Koch said aloud what many Jewish politicos are saying privately: Palin’s selection, while solving in one dramatic move McCain’s problem with the religious right, may torpedo McCain’s unusually strong support from Jews.
“To think that if McCain is president and, God forbid, dies in office – when you examine her record it is an absolutely miserable one on the domestic issues that are so important to Americans, to Jewish voters and to me,” he said.
Analysts describe the selection of the unknown, relatively inexperienced Palin as a bold gamble that has galvanized an Evangelical electorate that never warmed to McCain’s candidacy and badly undercut Democratic nominee Obama’s own pitch to that segment.
“Palin is really an X-factor in this campaign,” said University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato who directs the school’s Center for Politics.
. “We already know she has energized the base, which has never liked McCain. She’ll prove very popular in Western states and rural areas, maybe eliminating any chance of Obama carrying Montana, North Dakota and others.”
In response to growing criticism of Palin from Democrats, the Republican Jewish Coalition branded mounting criticism of Palin as “frenzied attacks” and “smears” – citing claims the nominee was a Pat Buchanan supporter, that she actively tried to ban books during her stint as a small-town mayor and that she “endorsed” the views of a Jews for Jesus speaker at her Alaska church.
In a long statement, the partisan group cited her “strong working relationship with Alaska’s Jewish community” and her pro-Israel credentials.
In Jewish Republican circles, the nomination has won the expected strong praise – all the more so as polls show the Palin pick boosting McCain in the polls and producing an outpouring of support from top Christian right leaders, many of whom had been distrustful of McCain from the outset.
“I have never seen anything like this, and it’s not just the Evangelicals,” said Fred Zeidman, co-chair of the McCain campaign’s Jewish outreach effort. “There is an excitement about her. Sen. Obama keyed up this change thing, but the change issue is now on the other side.”
Zeidman said the rising chorus of attacks against Palin is already backfiring.
“The attacks have encouraged many Americans to say, this time we really can elect somebody just like them,” he said.
But even some top Jewish Republicans privately concede that the Palin nomination is, at best, not a plus with Jewish voters, and very likely a minus with that small segment of Jews considered swing voters.
“I’d have to say the jury is out on the impact of this nomination on our Jewish efforts,” said a leading Jewish Republican who asked that his name not be used. “At this point, I think you can say that she’s not going to hurt significantly.”
Many experts disagree, saying Palin’s blend of old-fashioned, anti-urban, anti-intellectual populism and a slashing, religion-based “culture wars” ethic will scare Jewish voters and cut deeply into McCain’s claim to be a GOP moderate and maverick.
Jonathan Sarna, a Jewish history scholar at Brandeis University, said Palin “harkens back to a populist tradition that is alien to most Jews – the world of guns, of anti-urban small towns, the world where women are proud to compare themselves to pit bulls. Pit bulls are not a symbol American Jews tend to admire.”
Sarna said that imagery, effectively evoked by Palin during her acceptance speech at last week’s Republican National Convention, could pay dividends with millions of rural and small-town evangelical voters who distrusted McCain, but it may produce a “visceral discomfort” among the Jews his campaign hoped to attract – political independents or Democrats uneasy with the Obama nomination.
And Palin, he said, is the real thing, not just another wealthy suburban Republican pretending to be part of the NASCAR and NRA set.
“We’ve seen many candidates who have used populist themes,” Sarna said. “President Bush could talk the talk, but everybody knew he was a rich kid from somewhere else. She really is from that world; that’s who she is.”
Jacques Berlinerblau, director of the Program for Jewish Civilization at Georgetown University and author of “Thumpin’ It: The Use and Abuse of the Bible in Today’s Presidential Politics,” said the Palin nomination solved McCain’s big evangelical problem with one bold stroke – and badly undercut Obama’s growing effort to win a slice of the Evangelical vote in key states, something his campaign views as critical.
“With McCain, the effort to energize the Evangelical base was always two steps forward, three steps back,” he said. “His problems with this segment go back 20 years.”
Palin changes all that, he said, and it means more than just votes.
McCain never galvanized what Berlinerblau called the party’s “conservative, white Evangelical base” – until Palin emerged from remote Alaska. Palin, he said, taps the “enthused religious voter,” a group whose electoral influence is multiplied because “they get psyched, they network, they convince their friends.”
“It solves the problem for him,” he said. “The base is now energized; they will go to the mat for him. The Evangelicals are the virtuosi of political organization; they can be devastatingly effective.”
Much of Obama’s recent talk about religion, he said, was aimed at winning a slice of an evangelical electorate that was unhappy with a McCain seen as not genuinely religious – an opportunity Obama, steeped in the African American church, seemed well positioned to exploit.
“I’ve done calculations showing that if [Sen. John] Kerry had gotten 5 to 6 percent more of the evangelical vote in Ohio alone, he would be president today,” Berlinerblau said.
In response to that politically costly “God gap,” Obama has been unusually open in talking about his own religious commitment, in promoting religious dialogue as part of the public policy debate and in supporting faith-based government programs.
But Berlinerblau said the Palin nomination may have derailed that strategy as the Alaska governor builds her blend of small-town populism, strong evangelical faith, a longtime commitment to the issues of the religious right and a down-home persona into a formidable political force.
That same factor can only hurt the McCain-Palin ticket with Jewish voters, he said – but that may not be a concern for the campaign because according to current calculations, the Jewish vote is likely to be significant in only a small handful of states.
Other analysts offer harsher assessments.
“We’ve never seen a candidate like this,” said presidential historian Allan Lichtman, author of the recent book “White Protestant Nation: The Rise of the American Conservative Movement.”
Lichtman called Palin a “cultural warrior who looks and sounds different, who is almost in the tradition of the old populists like [turn-of-the-20th century Kansan] Mary Ellen Lease, who said ‘raise more hell and less corn.’ And yet, at the same time, she is a very modern cultural warrior. This is something new in modern American politics.”
That combination, he said, will be “chilling for Jewish voters.”
Michael Kazin, a Georgetown historian and author of several books about American populism, said Palin’s mix of traditional populism and religious right themes is not new, but it comes in a different package.
“It seems new because it’s a good-looking woman from Alaska, a mother of five, who is saying these things,” he said. “But these are themes that have been struck from at least Sen. Joe McCarthy.”
Jewish voters have traditionally been turned off by such views, he said, but concerns about Israel, especially among older voters, could offset some of that in 2008.
And in the end, the election will really be about the presidential candidates, not their running mates.
“We’re still in the first blush of Palinmania,” he said. “In a month, that will pale, and we’ll be back to putting the focus on the presidential candidates. And here McCain may have some advantages. How many Jewish votes will he get out of it? That’s still not clear.”