Monday, August 6, 2012

Pander Fail

Politics is, among other things, theater. Candidates travel from place to place, from state fairs where they consume corn dogs to iconic dessert palaces like Ted Drewes, where they gorge on delectable frozen custard. It's a bonding ritual, an effort to show "ordinary" Americans that people who run for President, travel with hundreds of staffers, Secret Service personnel and media, are actually regular "Joe Six Packs" who, but for the fact they are you know, RUNNING FOR PRESIDENT, are just like you and me.

Of course, pandering takes many forms.  Much of it is harmless, like the tradition where the President dons a green tie on Saint Patrick's Day or appears on a daytime talk show and reveals something mildly personal. Others are more blatant, and nowhere has Mitt Romney's pandering been more obvious than his outreach to Jewish-Americans.  I'm Jewish. Not particularly religious, in fact I'm whatever the opposite of religious is - I don't go to synagogue, I don't keep kosher, I don't think Noah built an ark and the animals, came on by twosies-twosies (elephants and kanga-roosies-roosies), but nonetheless, I'm a Jew, secular, assimilated, but intensely invested in my "people" and our future, both here in America and across the world. 

In other words, and in theory, I'm in Mitt's sweet spot for the full-court press he's done lately in trying to show what a great friend to the Jewish people he will be as President. His most overt effort occurred last week when he traveled to Israel (he had already promised to make Israel his first foreign trip as President). He got his photo taken at the Wailing Wall, a crisp yarmulke perched on his thick mane of hair and a look of appropriate solemnity on his face. His rhetoric was muscular in its defense of the Jewish state, bellicose toward Iran and dismissive of Palestinians (apparently, cultural differences account for you know … all that money <wink> <wink> Jews in Israel have accumulated - nice one, Mittens!). In other words, short of being circumcised by a mohel or growing a flowing beard and payis, Mitt is super duper supportive of Israel! Vote for him because .. yarmulke and he knows Netanyahu, or something. 

But here's the thing, Romney will be lucky to get a quarter of the Jewish vote in November. Obama cleared 78% in 2008 and every Democratic presidential candidate since Bill Clinton in 1992 has won at least 75% of the Jewish vote. Even Walter Mondale won Jewish voters 2:1 over Reagan (want to see the breakdown of Jewish votes for President from 1916-2008? Of course you do: 

So why won't Mitt Romney's genuflect work? Simply put, reflexive support for Israel is ignorant and, arguably, bigoted.  Why do politicians assume putting on a yarmulke (something very few Jews I know wear anywhere but synagogue, and attach little significance to) and expressing support for moving the American Embassy to Jerusalem (it's currently in Tel Aviv) will cut ice with most Jewish voters? Are people like Romney of the opinion that Jews are so simple minded and dogmatic that all politicians need to do is promise to protect Israel's interests and we will vote for them?

Instead of fundraising and getting that made-for-the-front-page photo of himself at the Wall, it would have behooved Mr. Romney to learn more about Jews as people, not as a convenient backdrop for his photo ops or Greek chorus for his rehashed neo-conservative rhetoric on Iran. What he would find is that Jews are liberal because we know what it's like to be outsiders in our own country. We know what it is to be barred from attending certain schools, to be slurred and picked on, to be called names like "Jew Boy" and "Kike," to be stereotyped and to be singled out for approbation by everyone from Richard Nixon to Father Coughlin to Jesse Jackson (sorry, Jesse, "Hymietown" let you down). Many of us were educated in public schools Republicans deride, marched with African-Americans during the civil rights era, defend the rights of others in court, and believe in equality for all. These are not big "D" democratic ideas or principles, once upon a time, they were just "democratic" views that people across the political spectrum believed in.  

On Israel, the saying that if you ask two Jews a question, you will get three opinions is particularly apt. American Jews are of as many opinions on Israel as Israelis are.  We are not monolithic. I think ultra-Orthodox Jews who refuse to leave the West Bank and believe in the biblical land of Israel are idiotic and borderline dangerous. I have no idea why Evangelical Christians have a weird fetish about Jews but I wish they would stop. I don't like what the West Bank has become and think that Israel's continued occupation erodes its democratic character. On the other hand, I'm proud of the ingenuity of Israeli businesses and the fact that Israel has the third-most companies listed on the NASDAQ of all countries in the world, but it doesn't mean I don't support a two-state solution (in fact, I have my own proposal, read about it: I've read about Ehud Barak's daring-do as an Israeli commando (including dressing in drag during a raid in Lebanon) but I also respect the fact that a decorated war hero like him understands the need to negotiate for peace. 

So here's a pro tip for Mitt - before you put that yarmulke on again, before you try to memorize a few words in Hebrew so you can impress your audience, and before you regurgitate whatever Bill Kristol and the neo-cons at The Weekly Standard want you to say about the existential threat Iran poses to Israel, learn about my people and you will understand why we hold Republicans in such low esteem - your policies are antithetical to the idea of community, antagonistic toward public sector workers (where many of us work), would sever the social safety net that many of us firmly believe in (not to mention have relatives who rely on for retirement income and health benefits), slavish in your protection of the wealthy over the middle class (the latter being where many of us originate or remain) and discriminatory toward other minority groups (something we, as a minority, are quite sensitive to). Until any of that changes, that 20-25% you've steadily collected over the last 20 years is unlikely to change, no matter how many blintzes you eat. 

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