The Obama Legacy: A Democratic Party Unsympathetic to Israel?

Sympathy for Israel is strongest by far amongst conservative Republicans, in the latest Pew survey; support from liberal Democrats, Obama's voter base, has dropped off the cliff.

Seth Lipsky
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U.S. President Barack Obama.Credit: AP
Seth Lipsky

Could one legacy of Barack Obama’s presidency be a Democratic party that no longer sympathizes with Israel? Could Obama’s be the presidency in which the cause of the Jewish state was left to the Republican Party and abandoned by the Democrats? Could the President, whose first foreign policy demarche was to fly to Cairo to reach out to the Islamic world, go out of office with less than 40 percent of his core base tending to favor Israel?

If those kinds of questions are nagging, feature the latest findings of the Pew Research Center. “As Mideast Violence Continues, a Wide Partisan Gap in Israel-Palestinian Sympathies,” is the headline Pew puts over its latest findings. It reports that the “sympathies of the American public continue to lie with Israel rather than the Palestinians” — and by a wide margin. Some 51 percent of Americans, Pew reports, say that they sympathize more with Israel, whereas but 14 percent sympathize more with the Palestinian Arabs.

Those views are little changed from April this year. Dig down further, though, and things start to get interesting. The share of Republicans who sympathize more with Israel has risen to 73 percent from 68 percent, Pew reports, while only 44 percent of Democrats express more sympathy with Israel. Greater sympathy for Israel soars to 77 percent among the conservative Republicans, Pew professes. Here’s the bell-ringer: The share that sympathizes more with Israel plunges to 39 percent among liberal Democrats.

And who would the liberal Democrats be? Try President Obama’s base. Pew doesn’t ask (or at least report) on candidate names, but one can guesstimate that Pew’s results translate to something like this: Among Obama’s base, 39 percent sympathize more with Israel, among Hillary Clinton’s base probably between 44 percent and 48 percent; among moderate to liberal Republicans (think, oh, say, Governor Chris Christie or, say, Senator Dan Coats), 66 percent; or among conservative Republicans (think, say, Senator Ted Cruz or Governor Rick Perry or even Senator Rand Paul), the percentage that is more sympathetic to Israel soars to 77 percent.

Again, those are my guesstimates as to who fits within Pew’s categories. To me the most illuminating part of the Pew publication is a chart that shows how this divergence between the parties has widened over time. The chart goes back to 1978, when the share of the parties that sympathized more with Israel was roughly 49 percent in the GOP and 45 percent in the Democratic Party. In the ensuing years those percentages dipped bit among both parties until the early 1990s, when both parties began climbing and then sliding a bit until early this century.

That is, the divergence really ripened after September 11, 2001, and the outbreak of the current world war. That is also the period in which a young Republican president, George W. Bush, began to emerge as a war leader and the Democrats fell into the role of caviling about the contest. No doubt the causes of divergence will absorb a good deal of debate.

“It’s a the-chicken-or-the-egg question,” writes my New York Post colleague, William McGurn. “Which came first: the Obama administration’s public contempt toward our allies in Jerusalem, or liberal Democratic animosity toward Israel? Either way, when Barack Obama steps down as president in January 2017, the Democratic Party he leaves behind will be one whose sympathies no longer embrace the Jewish state.”

No doubt the Democrats are going to belittle all of this. They are going to remind us that American Jews reliably vote for the Democrats over the Republicans. This patter certainly has included President Obama. But the share of the Jewish vote that went to Obama plunged to under 70 percent in his second term, while the sympathy for Israel soared among Republicans. I wouldn’t want to predict a realignment, but if there is one, neither would I be surprised.

Particularly because the Democrats are bent on an agreement with the mullahs in Iran, even as the same mullahs are calling during the Gaza war more stridently for the destruction of Israel. The Democrats are reducing the size of America’s armed forces even while spending recklessly on social programs at home. The only thing that could turn this trend around would be the Republican Party veering onto a true isolationist — not a mere libertarian — course. The Pew poll reminds us, after all, is that the patterns among the parties can change over time.

Seth Lipsky is editor of The New York Sun www.nysun.com. He was a foreign editor and a member of the editorial board of The Wall Street Journal, founding editor of The Forward and editor from 1990 to 2000.

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