“I am not a member of any organized political party,” Will Rogers, the great American humorist, famously quipped. “I am a Democrat.” Like most political humor, his characterization of the Democratic party contained more than a grain of truth. Historically, Democratic party politics has often been chaotic. In a year like this one, with no incumbent eligible to run for President, we would have expected the race for the Democratic nomination to degenerate into chaos. This time, however, it’s the Republicans who seem to have elevated pandemonium into an art form. Compared to the Republican free-for-all, the Democratic race has been a model of decorum.
I did not post anything about the upcoming Presidential election during the warm-up year that recently ended, mostly for two reasons. The first reason is that too much of our public discourse was already focused on the campaign for President. This may shock some of you, but I actually believe that there are other things worth talking about.
The second reason that I have avoided commenting on the ongoing campaign is a practical one. For a combination of personal and technical reasons, the time lag between the time that I start writing a post and the time that others can start reading it is usually at least a few days. That time lag, in combination with the twenty-four hour news cycle and an exceptionally large field of Republican candidates, has made any attempt to comment on breaking news an exercise in futility.
Still, the civil New Year that we recently celebrated marks the beginning of a Presidential election year. We don’t know who will take the constitutionally prescribed oath of office on January 20, 2017, but we know that it will be someone who has never previously held the office. Anyone who is even moderately engaged politically cannot help but take an interest in the question of who will lead the United States for the next four years. Both as Americans and as Jews, we have a substantial stake in who holds what is often called the most powerful office on earth. Once the actual voting finally starts (with the Iowa caucuses on February 1), the nature of the campaign may change rapidly. Before that happens, it’s worth reflecting on the state of the campaign on the eve of the first caucuses and primaries.
If you’ve followed the campaign, you cannot help but be aware of the disproportionate attention that has been paid by the mainstream media to one of the least likely candidates, the billionaire blowhard Donald Trump. At the outset, the attention was understandable, an example of the familiar adage that dog-bites-man is not news, while man-bites-dog is. Hardly anybody initially took Trump’s candidacy seriously — least of all, it often appeared, Trump himself — but he could always be counted on to provide a colorful quote or take an outrageous position that might relieve the boredom of the seemingly endless campaign.
At this point, however, with the actual voting about to start and most polls showing Trump with leads in both Iowa and New Hampshire, there’s little choice but to take his candidacy seriously. It’s essential that the media stop treating him as an entertaining sideshow and start covering him as a serious candidate seeking the nomination of a major party for President. I am an optimist by nature, and thus I believe that some of Trump’s supporters view him as a protest vote rather than a serious candidate. If forced to consider the possibility, however slim, that Trump could actually win the Presidency, some of them will, I hope, recoil in horror.
There are many qualities we would like to see in a President, but there’s at least one that we must insist on: we must have confidence that whoever becomes President is capable of acting rationally in a crisis. Trump cannot meet this standard, and that should disqualify him. All the rest is commentary.
One unfortunate by-product of Trump’s candidacy is that he makes the rest of the Republican field seem moderate by comparison, which is no mean feat. Ted Cruz, in particular, has benefited from this process, which we might call (with apologies to the late Senator Moynihan) defining extremism down. Cruz’s best chance of winning the nomination would be to emerge from the early contests as the only viable alternative to Trump. This is not likely because Cruz is extremely unpopular with his Senate colleagues on both sides of the aisle, which is a bigger obstacle for a Republican than it would be for a Democrat. If Cruz is too extreme for the Republican primary electorate — a high bar, to be sure — then Marco Rubio, John Kasich and Jeb Bush are the most likely beneficiaries. (The current conventional wisdom is that Bush is all but dead politically, but I wouldn’t count him out so fast; it would only take an unexpectedly strong showing in one of the early states to put him back into the thick of the race.)
Given the large number of candidates, it’s natural to wonder whether the GOP will end up with a “brokered convention” — i.e., with no candidate having the backing of a majority of the delegates when the convention opens. Yes, there was a time — one seemingly lost in the mists of antiquity — when the national party conventions really decided things, when they when they were actually conventions rather than coronations. The last such Democratic convention was in 1972. I’m not sure when there was last an unscripted moment at a Republican convention, but it was certainly earlier, probably before I was born.
I doubt that this year’s Republican convention will break that streak. It is marginally less unlikely this time around because of the Trump factor. What usually drives lower-tier candidates out of the race early is a loss of financial support as donors hesitate to throw good money after bad in a losing cause. Trump, however, has both the resources to self-fund all the way to the convention if he so desires and the ego to find the prospect of additional attention attractive. But for a brokered convention to be a realistic possibility, there would have to be at least two other candidates in addition to Trump who were willing and able to continue the fight all the way to the convention — possible but not likely.
While the Republican nominating contest has commanded most of the attention, the Democrats have quietly gone about their business. Hillary Clinton remains the presumptive nominee, though her nomination seems to be a little less inevitable than it once was. Former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley remains at least nominally in the race, but he would need a political miracle to get past Super Tuesday. Barring an event or revelation of catastrophic proportions, the only potentially viable alternative to a Hillary Clinton nomination is Vermont Senator Bernard Sanders, who has mounted an unexpectedly spirited challenge.
I must admit that I have found Sanders a surprisingly attractive candidate. His focus on the economic realities facing middle class Americans is refreshing, and his steadfast refusal to attack adversaries personally bespeaks a principled approach to politics that is all too rare. His approach to foreign policy strikes me as a bit naïve, and I fear that he would find it difficult to resist the temptation to fund his domestic agenda with cuts in defense spending. He’s not a McGovern-style isolationist, however, and his record of support for Israel is solid.
Sanders’s biggest drawback — and the main reason I would be reluctant to vote for him in a primary (assuming that there’s still a live contest by the time New York votes on April 19th) — is my fear that given his unusual speaking style and his former self-identification as a socialist, he would have a difficult time winning a general election. He may well defeat Hillary in the New Hampshire primary (where, as a senator for the state next door, he is fairly well known ). He might even squeeze out an upset in Iowa, where voters often seem to take pride in their ability to defy expectations. But it’s hard to envision him leading the pack after Super Tuesday, much less winning over moderates in a hard fought general election race.
In the unlikely event that Sanders wins the Presidency, he would be the first Jew to attain that office. That milestone would speak well of our fellow citizens, but I find it hard to muster much enthusiasm for it. Sanders has never hidden or denied his Jewishness, but he has little connection to Judaism or the Jewish people. Sixteen years ago, when Vice President Al Gore chose Connecticut Senator Joseph Lieberman, a Shabbat-observing Jew, to be his running mate, the excitement among committed Jews was palpable. (Four years later, when Lieberman briefly made a run for the Presidency, some observant Jews became nervous at the prospect of an observant Jew in the White House, but let’s leave that subject for another time.)
Had Lieberman not been the Democratic Presidential nominee in 2000, the possibility of a major Presidential nomination for even as nominal a Jew as Sanders might feel like a significant milestone. After we came within a few hundred Florida chads of electing an observant Jew as Vice President, it would be quite a let down for Sanders to become the first Jew elected on a national ticket. Oh, well — we’ve always known that it was statistically unlikely for a Shabbat-observing Jew to be a political trailblazer. The Lieberman nomination was a fluke; we can’t expect lightening to strike twice.
Policy toward Israel has not been a significant factor in either party’s nominating contest thus far, which is as it should be. There’s a broad bipartisan pro-Israel consensus that appears to encompass all the candidates of both parties with the possible exception of Rand Paul, who has become almost invisible. (One of the few benefits of Trump’s candidacy has been to render Paul — who at the outset of the campaign was every pro-Israel activist’s worst nightmare — a non-factor.) That consensus will not prevent pro- Israel activists of either party from challenging the pro-Israel bona fides of their general election adversaries, but it should be sufficient to persuade most pro-Israel voters that they can safely vote based on their domestic issue preferences.
In my case, of course, that means that barring some almost inconceivable event or revelation, I will vote for the Democratic nominee — most likely Hillary Clinton — next November. The majority of American Jews will no doubt vote Democratic, as they have in all but one Presidential election since 1928. (The exception is 1980, when Jimmy Carter, seeking reelection, won a plurality but not a majority of the Jewish vote. It was also the only Presidential election of my voting life in which I did not vote for the Democratic candidate.)
There is a small but significant segment of American Jews — disproportionately but by no means exclusively in the Orthodox community — who prefer Republican positions on many domestic issues and who will thus vote for the Republican nominee regardless of who he is. (Many of these diehard Jewish Republicans would have made an exception for Rand Paul, and some would make an exception for Trump.) Many of those will argue that the Democratic candidate is bad for Israel. Much of the time, however, the pro-Israel argument will be a subterfuge, used by someone who would vote Republican for other reasons in any event.
From a narrow Jewish perspective, this Presidential race is likely to be less consequential than many other recent elections. The bi-partisan pro-Israel consensus seems likely to hold with relatively little effort, and no other issues of particular Jewish interest — with the possible exception of immigration — seems to be looming on the horizon.
That realization does not make the outcome of the Presidential race unimportant. There are numerous issues of policy, both foreign and domestic, for which the identity of the next President may well decisive. A strong and prosperous America is essential to the well-being of Israel, of American Jewry and of the world. As the prophet Jeremiah instructed us long ago: “[S]eek the welfare of the city to which [God] ha[s] exiled you and pray to the Lord in its behalf, for in its prosperity you shall prosper.” (Jeremiah 29:7, JPS translation)