Hillary Clinton is running for president. The announcement has not elicited much excitement in the Jewish community. Ms. Clinton has been a fixture on the national political scene for almost a quarter of a century, and her intentions were hardly a surprise. But whatever the response now, a year from November most American Jews will cast their votes for Hillary.
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Ms. Clinton’s entry into the race is very good news for Jewish Democrats looking ahead to 2016. U.S. President Barack Obama’s potential Iran deal has raised a lot of questions for all Americans, and for Jews in particular. The president has had trouble selling the deal to the Jewish community, primarily because it is a very problematic deal. While the president sees it as a possible game-changer with Iran, American Jews worry about the unanswered questions and the dangers posed to Israel’s security.
The result is that Jewish Republicans sense an opportunity. Since 1928, Jews have voted for Democratic candidates by landslide proportions in every presidential election, with a single exception. That exception was 1980, when Jimmy Carter was widely seen as indifferent to Israel’s well-being. (Carter still won the Jewish vote, but not by much.) A very iffy Iran deal combined with near-ecstatic backing for Israel from every Republican candidate has created an expectation that 2016 could be the long-awaited turnaround: Republican Jewish activists are whispering that their party could finally pull even in the Jewish vote, and that the Jews might even make the difference in the election by denying Florida to the Democrats. They also hope, of course, for more Jewish donors to switch their loyalties to the Republican side.
But this won’t happen, and Hillary Clinton is the reason. On foreign policy and Israel, Clinton is a reassuring presence for American Jews. At a time when President Obama seems bizarrely nave about aspects of the Iran deal, she is a known quantity - smart, resolute and assertive on foreign affairs. She may lack the star power and the charisma of Obama and of her husband, but she is genuinely engaged with the world and far more knowledgeable about it than any president since the first Bush. And while she served as Obama’s secretary of state for four years, since leaving office she has adroitly managed to be generally supportive of her former boss while sending the message that she’ll be a good deal tougher than he was.
On Iran, it is hard to imagine that Hillary will challenge a sitting president directly. Still, she will suggest, as she already has, that she would have taken a harder line. She will also assure us that as president, she will demand and deliver strict compliance with whatever agreement is reached. And on Israel, she will offer the ferocious support that is the hallmark of her career, leaving policy differences to be dealt with after the election.
The most important thing about this strategy is that it will work. The lesson of the 1980 Carter reelection campaign is that Jews will not vote for a presidential candidate who appears unsympathetic to Israel. But if both presidential candidates have strong pro-Israel credentials, the natural political sympathies of Jewish voters will assert themselves. And we know what these sympathies are. According the Pew Research Center’s Portrait of Jewish Americans, the most comprehensive research that we have on our community, 70% of Jews say they are Democrats or lean toward the Democratic Party, while 22% are Republicans or lean Republican. There is no reason whatsoever to think that these numbers have changed in any significant way in the 18 months since they were released.
None of this should be taken to mean that Hillary Clinton’s campaign will focus on foreign policy. It won’t. She and her Republican rival will speak broadly of foreign policy matters, of course, and both will understand the need to address Jewish concerns about Israel, Iran and the Middle East. But barring a major war or a major, as-yet-unforeseen foreign crisis, the presidential election will revolve around wages, economic inequality and other domestic concerns. It is interesting that Hillary’s first campaign video contained not even a passing reference to foreign policy issues. And it is interesting that Scott Walker has emerged as a serious potential candidate on the Republican side despite knowing even less about foreign policy than either Obama or George W. Bush did when they were elected.
And neither should Hillary’s likely performance among Jewish voters be taken to mean that she will win the general election. There is no way to tell who will win the election, least of all because there is no way of knowing who will be nominated by the Republicans. My own view is that Hillary is the underdog. She is an old warhorse who, on Election Day, will be pushing 70. It will require a monumental effort for her to seem like something other than a distant, dynastic figure, out of touch with a younger, more vibrant America; this is particularly true if she is facing an opponent such as Marco Rubio, who just announced his candidacy and who will be 45 on Election Day.
But for American Jews, I suggest, she will be the one, winning the 70-plus percent of the Jewish votes that Democrats usually win. She will be like that old sweater that’s not beautiful or grand but that makes us feel warm, comfortable, and reassured, especially when it’s cold and nasty outside. When the time comes for a sweater, that’s the one we will choose.
Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie served as president of the Union for Reform Judaism from 1996 to 2012. He is now a writer, lecturer and teacher in Westfield, New Jersey.