Mitt Romney is receiving support from Jewish voters not seen for a Republican candidate in 24 years. Although a sizable majority of Jewish Americans will still cast their ballots for Barack Obama, the erosion of Obama’s solid foundation in the Jewish community is a political phenomenon worthy of commentary. It is also one that can make a striking difference in an electoral race polling within sampling error.
Nowhere is this phenomenon as visible as in Chicago’s heavily Jewish and Democratic northern suburbs. There, the Jewish embrace of the Republicans has reached such significant numbers that the Daily Herald, Chicago’s largest and most prestigious suburban newspaper, ran the topic as its lead story in its Sunday edition (July 8): “More suburban Jews turning to the Republican Party.”
Beneath the headline ran a picture of Arie Friedman, a prominent pediatrician and Republican candidate for the Illinois state Senate in the 29th district. Friedman — like Jewish candidate Jonathan Greenberg, an ordained rabbi who is running for the state house in the newly formed 57th district — is a fiscal conservative who is strong on national defense and liberal on social issues.
But while both candidates are Jewish in districts with large numbers of Jewish voters, they are not running on Jewish issues. They are running against a runaway fiscal policy that has ruined a great state. Illinois’ bloated pension system, mountain of debt, and soaring taxes are as much local issues as they are national. What propels Jews toward Romney also propels them toward the local Republican candidates. The hope of the local candidates is that Democratic identifiers who vote for Romney will continue to vote for Republicans at the local level and for the same reasons.
When pundits speak of Jews deserting Obama, his tenuous policies on Israel come to mind. Yet Paul Miller, a political consultant to both the Greenberg and Friedman campaigns who has long been involved in Illinois politics (disclosure: he is a relative), sees things differently. To Miller, Jews are first and foremost experiencing politics as would any American citizen, and Illinois rivals California for the state in the most dire economic condition.
The state has an $85 billion hole in its pension system that is unfunded and for which there will be no coming source of revenue. The obligation is three times the size of last year’s revenue receipts. Moreover, the Illinois Constitution requires that, once earned, retirement benefits can neither be diminished nor abolished.
For ten years, the Democrats have controlled the state, and there is no one else to blame for the deficit. Single-party control led to obligations to the party’s special interests, and the consequences were sweetheart pension deals which the state can not possibly fulfill.
Illinois bonds have the second lowest rating of any state. The unemployment rate in Illinois is above the national average, and in Chicago it is nearly ten percent. A survey of corporate CEOs ranked Illinois 48 out of 50 in terms of business climate; only New York and California rank worse.
Illinois is a microcosm of failed Democratic policies, and Miller sees a confluence of understanding among all voters that their day-to-day economic experiences in Illinois are a consequence of Democratic policies in the extreme because of the lack of opposition. What’s happening to Jews is happening to everyone. Miller notes:
You have to understand that in this part of the world, as in so many, life is with family. Whether you’re Jewish, Catholic, or Protestant, you don’t want to see you children to grow up in a state without opportunity and move away. What I see is people are realizing that their children will have no economic opportunity here and move. When people think their grandchildren are going to be living in Texas or North Carolina because of failed economic policies, party loyalty evaporates. Here, it’s a family crisis if the grandchildren are more than fifteen minutes away.
Jews are slowly beginning to understand that compassion and social justice cannot mean a coerced transfer of the benefits of their labor to someone else. The concepts of tzedakah (charity) and tikkun olam (repairing the world) are moral obligations of the individual, not obligations imposed on the individual by the state. As Jews see the administrative costs of government, the debt, and the economic chaos, they are beginning to understand unrestrained leftism has nothing to do with their values. One can better repair the world by creating economic conditions where people have the opportunity to prosper.
Israel is an issue for Jews, but less so than the issues that affect the lives of all Americans. In the northern suburbs, there is no one position on Israel. There are progressive Jews who never saw a security risk for a faux peace that their Israeli brethren should not take, as they themselves live in an environment where the biggest security issue is how late they can catch the L in downtown Chicago and still feel safe. There are strong Zionists who are viscerally opposed to the progressives. And there are Jews that few put into the equation: the ultra-orthodox, with their strange dress, large families, and strong predisposition to vote Republican.
Jews are beginning to untie their Democratic moorings, because this is now not the party of JFK, but of Jimmy Carter. That is Barack Obama’s unique contribution to the transformation of the Jewish vote.
A month ago in the suburb of Morton Grove, the Republican candidates were prominently represented at the Greater Chicago Jewish Arts Festival. This year, things were different: although there was still hostility from some, the audience was not remotely as hostile as it had been four years ago. Overall, there was a warmer and larger reception for the Republican candidates and their message than at any time anyone can remember.
Most Jews will vote for Obama, but American elections generally have been about the margins. And the difference between 88% and 60% of the Jewish vote certainly can make a difference, especially if that translates to other contests down the ballot.