At the end of the 1990s, the nation seemed to want nothing more than a scandal-free White House and reassurance that computers wouldn’t go haywire when the clock struck midnight on New Year’s Eve.
But a decade later, the political landscape has been radically transformed, and several important narratives have unfolded that will change Jewish life in America forever.
The virtual termination of a Mideast peace process that had been on life support, the election of a conservative president in a controversial razor-thin victory and, most importantly, the literal explosion of terrorism on the home front in the first two years of the ‘00s shaped the rest of the decade.
“The biggest, and perhaps only story [of the decade] is 9/11 and its many aftermaths,” said Douglas Muzzio, a professor of political science at Baruch College.
Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said the terror attack “had a transforming impact and woke the American people up to a number of realities which were not new but put in stark relief. It impacted aspects of our lives such as travel, but the psychological impact of being vulnerable was even greater.”
The catastrophe served as the justification for our lasting incursions into Iraq and Afghanistan as well as a redefining of civil liberties and a new focus on domestic security.
And in New York City it changed the course of leadership while changing the tone of conversation from often balkanized discord to unity.
“New York City became the center of America for the first time,” said Ester Fuchs, a professor of public affairs at Columbia University. “But at the same time, today, the later crash of Wall Street turned all of that on its head.”
After the near constitutional crisis of the 2000 presidential election, the first big political event of the decade was the Senate victory of Hillary Clinton.
Her campaign largely became a referendum on her husband’s Middle East policy, which she supported and was already unraveling as the stuff of false hopes and would soon give way to a second intifada. Clinton managed to convince New York voters, the most pro-Israel in America, that she’d view things differently on Capitol Hill, and largely kept her promise in office.
Almost from the minute she stepped into office Clinton faced speculation that she was prepping for her own presidential run, confirmed in 2007 when she entered the fray, proving only to be a formidable sparring partner for the unstoppable Barack Obama. At decade’s end, as secretary of state, she faces criticism that she has abandoned the coziness with Israel that was essential baggage in New York.
After the terror attack, when Mayor Rudy Giuliani was unable to run again, the mayor’s rising national prominence gave his endorsement of Michael Bloomberg cachet, putting the business magnate in City Hall, where he built on his predecessor’s success, changing the tone of the city’s conversations while bringing the competent stewardship of a CEO to troubled times. There were fewer racial conflicts, and they faded faster.
In Albany, the first half of the decade was marked by partisan acrimony between Republican Gov. George Pataki, who won with and maintained strong Jewish ties, and his Democratic nemesis, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver. But the three men in the room, with Republican Senate Leader Joseph Bruno, managed to do the state’s business, even while ratcheting up spending and debt.
Pataki’s departure from politics in mid-decade paved the way for an unprecedented political drama, ushering in Democrat Eliot Spitzer, who would prove to be his own worst enemy. Most of his brief tenure was marred by a battle with Republican rival Bruno that became a criminal investigation, and the coup de grace was his dalliance with a prostitute.
“What’s tragic is that when Spitzer ran, the public gave him a resounding mandate,” said Fuchs. “People blamed the public for not paying attention to Albany, and then they actually tried electing someone who would clean up the mess left by the previous administration and he turned out to be the wrong person.”
Spitzer’s collapse, says Democratic political consultant Hank Sheinkopf, “set the scene for the political chaos that followed in state government. There are very few heroes left in public life, and New Yorkers thought they had one.” David Paterson became the state’s first black governor, but his popularity quickly sank as he grappled with the soaring deficit, and a leadership war in the state senate held up progress.
Spitzer and Bloomberg were among several Jewish political figures that made their mark on the decade, for better or worse.
Silver proved to be the official with the longest staying power. At 15 years and counting, he’s the longest-serving Democrat in the job and second longest in the history of the state.
But David Luchins, a political science professor at Touro College, says the departure of Pataki and the absence of a clear Democratic standard bearer have left both parties at sea.
“[Gov.] Mario Cuomo used to run the Democratic Party and [Sen.] Al D’Amato used to run the Republican Party, until they were both knocked out,” said Luchins, referring to the defeat of both men in 1994 and 1998, respectively. “Ironically [Attorney General and aspiring governor] Andrew Cuomo may be the heir to the completely destroyed Democratic party that his father left.”
Another Jewish Democrat who fell to scandal at mid-decade was Alan Hevesi, well respected in Jewish organizational life, who rose from state Assemblyman to New York City comptroller to state comptroller, where he enjoyed popular approval even after it was revealed that the fiscal watchdog who rooted out waste and abuse used an official driver to care for his ailing wife. After he won re-election, but stepped down under indictment, the news got even worse, and Hevesi remains embroiled in the scandal of a state pension fund that allegedly became a pay-for-play operation rewarding his cronies.
On the other side of the spectrum, Sen. Charles Schumer continued straight up the ladder, using the Senate seat he won in 1998 to become a key player not only in Democratic congressional politics but in every national debate from the current health care fight to national defense. When in 2005 it seemed he and Spitzer were headed for a clash of the titans in a gubernatorial contest, Schumer was offered the plum chair of the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee by then-Minority Leader Harry Reid. He was a key player in the Democrats capturing majorities in both houses in 2006 and 2007.
“Schumer getting the kind of power he has is a major story for Jewish power and for Wall Street,” says Sheinkopf. “To some extent he has always been close to the financial community, which he has defended in the halls of Congress. They are the power that helped propel the Democrats into majority and make him the powerbroker that he is.”
Another nationally prominent Jewish senator didn’t fare as well. Connecticut’s Joseph Lieberman wasn’t able to parlay his near victory as Al Gore’s running mate in 2000 into a successful run at the top of the ticket four years later, and his support of Bush administration policies, notably the war in Iraq, cost him his own party’s nomination for re-election in 2006. He backed Republican John McCain two years later over his party’s White House choice, Barack Obama, and remains an independent iconoclast in the Senate.
With declining numbers in New York — the population of the five boroughs dropped under one million for the first time in a century this decade — Jewish voting power suffered a setback with lower turnout, and Jewish communal groups launched numerous efforts to get those who are still here to register. At the same time, Jewish giving to philanthropic and political causes declined.
“Certainly the state of the economy has affected politics the same way it has affected charitable giving,” says political science professor Gilbert Kahn of Kean State University. “The number of organized pro-Israel PACS have declined and their capacity to reach out to Jews to be involved in pro-Israel activities has declined.”
“At one time you could reach a central position if a person is pro-Israel. Now, the question is what does it mean to be pro-Israel? Do you support foreign aid and oppose arms sales to the Arabs and want the embassy moved to Jerusalem, or do you want a peace process that is viable and an open approach?”
“The consensus was frayed in the ’80s,” Luchins said. “But the JCPA and Presidents Conference all spoke with one voice. Now, with J Street on the left and the Zionist Organization of America on the right with completely different narratives, they are sucking up the oxygen and polarizing the community.”
But Hoenlein said the state of Jewish organizational life going into the ‘10s is strong.
“It’s not about politics or ideology or particular points of view,” he said. “There are universal threats to domestic security. People come together more readily when they face a common threat.” n