November 1, 2010

U.S. Elections Countdown: 4 Weeks (originally published Oct. 13, 2008)

[Here's what I wrote to my European colleagues two years ago...]


The elections and all other aspects of U.S. life are now overshadowed by the financial crisis. The Jewish community, centered in New York City, is even more overwhelmed. During the past two weeks, Senator John McCain’s uneven and “maverick” response has done little to reassure many voters - Republicans or Democrats - that he would oversee the U.S. economy effectively as President of the United States. At a time of extreme volatility, voters and investors are seeking constancy and stability rather than boldness.

Although Senator Barack Obama was boosted in the primary campaign by his pledges to accept the constraints of federal funding, his subsequent decision to “opt out” has allowed him to dwarf McCain’s rapidly eroding campaign account using online and other innovative fundraising strategies. With only four weeks remaining until Election Day, Obama is able to take the fight to states that voted for George W. Bush in 2004, leaving McCain to make some difficult last-minute decisions rather than launch his own initiatives.


While much of the media interest has focused on national opinion surveys, candidate debates and television commercials, the latest analysis shows that Obama is far ahead of McCain in the one decisive criterion for victory. Obama is already considered to have locked in 260 votes out of the 270 Electoral College majority required to win the White House ; McCain is valued at 200, and has even abandoned campaigning in Michigan, typically a “swing” state. As the 2000 election underscored, the nationwide popular vote has no bearing on the outcome. The campaigns must focus instead on winning the Electoral College, where in most cases the winner in each state - based on a simple majority - walks away with all its Electoral College votes, whether that state has only three Electoral College seats or 55, as in the case of California.

Ironically, both Vice-Presidential running mates, Governor Sarah Palin of Alaska and Senator Joseph Biden of Delaware, come from states with only three Electoral votes each. Florida, whose large and aging Jewish minority may hesitate to vote for an African American but also doubts McCain’s ability to stabilize Wall Street and secure their retirement benefits, remains one of the few states which could still go to either side.

Just as McCain is seeking to distance himself from President Bush, many other Republicans up for reelection are seeking to distance themselves from both gentlemen. Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives have essentially uncoupled themselves from the President, underscored by their resistance to adopt the recent financial rescue legislation, and are prepared to lose the White House in 2008 in exchange for rebuilding their Congressional majority along the way. McCain is finding himself in the position of independent maverick, by choice as well as circumstance.


American Jews are divided as to whether a candidate’s love for Israel is the best gauge for Israel and the Jewish people. While many community leaders believe that Israel’s security depends on having a U.S. President with a deep personal attachment, many others argue that a strong and respected America is far more crucial to Israel’s survival. Likewise, U.S. Jewish opinion is divided between those who think the U.S. Government should be helping Israel delay or avert difficult territorial decisions and those who blame the current U.S. Administration for refusing to engage in peace diplomacy for most of its tenure.

Of the candidates, McCain and Biden both have long records of supporting Israel, but Biden is only running to be Vice-President. Palin seems to be very pro-Israel, but with a limited understanding of global affairs or other issues that Israeli leaders would consider important. Obama has a briefer record, but is very close to many in the pro-Israel community. It is useful to remember that every campaign issues position papers and “plans” on nearly every topic, and Israel is no exception. Over the past three decades, for example, every major Presidential campaign and major party platform has committed to moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, and yet the embassy remains on the Tel-Aviv beachfront.

McCain seems to feel more strongly about Israel than Obama and even many American Jews.It is now a common assumption that McCain would be more likely to back an Israeli strike against Iranian nuclear facilities, while Obama would be more likely to engage allies and adversaries toward a diplomatic understanding.
Much of the U.S.-Israel relationship has also been driven by interpersonal dynamics : Carter-Begin, Bush-Shamir, Clinton-Netanyahu, vs. Clinton-Rabin and Bush-Sharon. So the question of which candidate will be better for Israel may also depend on who becomes Israel’s next Prime Minister.

Good for the Jews ?

For better or worse, most American Jews will not vote on the basis of which candidate has voted more times to support Israel or visited more synagogues. While Israel remains important, many American Jews either feel Israel needs them less than it used to, or they simply don’t feel much connection at all. Other, more immediate concerns include the economy, health care, reproductive choice (i.e., abortion), and civil rights (including the idea of an African American being elected President).

Possibly because American Jews still retain a survival instinct from centuries spent escaping persecution, some of them are still vulnerable to chain e-mails warning that Obama is a Muslim with ties to Al-Qaeda, etc. And yet, many American Jews have strong allegiances to either the Democratic or Republican party, going back to Franklin Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower, regardless of who the nominee is. And 40 years ago and more, Jews were instrumental in the struggle for racial justice.

The United States may not be entirely ready for a Black President, and there are many other issues to weigh in this election, but the consensus is that if Obama does win, this will move America to a more advanced stage of society. That might be good for the Jews as well.

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