2020: Trump, Clinton, Obama 2.0, or Worse
The US presidential election is still a year away, and the race to determine the Democratic candidate for president remains wide open, though polls suggest the contest may boil down to Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, or Elizabeth Warren, with Pete Buttigieg as a long shot. For voters concerned about US-Israel relations, the choice is likely to be between Trump and a return to the more traditional US policy pursued by Democrats. Based on statements by the candidates, however, it is possible the result could be Obama 2.0 — or worse.
In a normal election, more than 70% of American Jews could be expected to vote for the Democratic candidate and 25% for the Republican. In 2016, Clinton got 71% and Trump 24%. In the Trump era, however, few things are normal.
According to Gallup analyst Frank Newport, “The Jewish vote is not going to make a huge difference in the coming presidential election unless there is an extremely close popular vote in specific swing states.” This is always the case, and every constituency can claim to have an impact in a close race.
Most candidates, especially Democrats, believe Jews are important because they disproportionately vote and contribute to campaigns. Hence, they show up at synagogues wearing yarmulkes and appear at the AIPAC and J Street conferences.
When it comes to Donald Trump, American Jews have shown no ambiguity; in a variety of polls, roughly 70% disapprove of him and 29% approve. Beyond the traditional liberalism of most Jews, they share the same reasons for disliking the president as other Americans. Some Jewish Republicans may follow the likes of Bill Kristol and Bret Stephens and seek an alternative to Trump. If the percentage of Jews who disapprove of Trump vote for him in 2020, Trump will do better than in 2016. That support is almost certainly due to what that constituency sees as his pro-Israel positions on Jerusalem, the Golan, and Iran, his warm relationship with Netanyahu, his hostility toward the Palestinians, and his lack of criticism of Israeli policies. Some Democrats are willing to give Trump credit on these issues, but many see those same policies as negatives.
According to a survey by the Jewish Electorate Institute, Israel ranks at the bottom of a list of 16 policy priorities of Jewish voters, which suggests that even if most Democrats agreed with Jewish Republicans that Trump is good for Israel, it would not change their votes. The problem with that survey, however, is that it does not reflect how Jews will react to a candidate who is viewed as hostile to Israel. Jimmy Carter lost in a landslide in 1980 and still blamed the Jews who abandoned him in droves (his share of the Jewish vote dropped from 71% to 45%), due primarily to the belief that he was hostile towards Israel.
As Jews look at the Democratic field, many are likely to be alarmed by the absence of any candidate, except for Joe Biden, who is a proven friend of Israel. Worse, some are staking out positions that are extremely critical of Israel and threaten decades of bipartisan consensus on maintaining a strong US-Israel relationship. Jews have also been alarmed by the tolerance of antisemitism in the Democratic Party, exemplified by the unwillingness to condemn Representatives Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, among other things.
The safest choice for Jews is Biden, who has a decades-long relationship with Israel’s leaders. He has continued to express his support for Israel, but he comes with the baggage of having been Obama’s vice president, which for some Jews is a negative. He is unlikely, however, to be as hostile towards Israel as Obama. He will probably behave more like Bill Clinton, who was unabashedly pro-Israel but opposed settlements, expressed sympathy for the Palestinians, and advocated a two-state solution.
The other front-runners, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, are more problematic in part because they are far to the left on many non-Israel issues. Sanders has been openly hostile towards Israel and called Netanyahu’s government “racist.” He is more outspoken in his support for the Palestinians and an “evenhanded” approach to the conflict. He also advocates using aid to pressure Israel to change its policies.
Warren has not been a leader on Israel-related issues in the Senate. Like Sanders, she has been critical of Netanyahu and favors a two-state solution in which Jerusalem is a shared capital. She promises to resume aid to the Palestinians and UNRWA, and has criticized Israel’s response to terror attacks. Both Sanders and Warren say they oppose the BDS movement, but neither voted for anti-boycott legislation.
Pete Buttigieg has also been critical of Netanyahu and stated flatly, “The occupation has to end.” Like other Democrats, he opposes Israeli annexation of parts of the West Bank and would use US aid to try to prevent it. Sounding very much like Obama, he has said, “I believe as the most important ally that Israel has, we need to do what you do when you have a friend who’s doing something you think is harmful. You put your arm around your friend and try to guide them to a better place.”
The Democratic nominee will almost certainly want to rejoin the Iran nuclear agreement, though some candidates have been more nuanced in their support for the deal and expressed an interest in negotiating tougher terms. These are the general positions of the frontrunners.
A majority of American Jews support most of the positions advocated by the Democratic candidates. Their tone, however, may be disquieting. Depending on the nominee, policy could range from the hostility of Carter to the pro-Palestinian Obama approach, which holds that America knows what’s best for Israel.
Former Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal was not talking specifically about Jews, but if the Democrats nominate someone too extreme, he argued:
Many voters will be happy to vote for Mr. Trump because they approve of what he’s accomplished — cutting taxes, deregulating the economy, unleashing domestic energy production, investing in the military, appointing conservative judges, and supporting Israel. There will, however, be voters who are not particularly fond of him but will choose him over the Democrats. Far better to bear four more years of Mr. Trump’s mercurial temperament, these voters will rightly conclude, than risk it all on the Democrats’ radical and destructive policies.
I disagree. If the Democrats nominate someone viewed as too far left, or too critical of Israel, they will not vote for Trump, but they may sit out the election or look for a third-party choice, as occurred in 1980 when 15% of Jews voted for John Anderson. The result, to Jewish Democrats’ chagrin, would likely contribute to the reelection of the president.
Mitchell Bard is Executive Director of AICE and Jewish Virtual Library. AICE does not rate or endorse candidates.