Fresh data showing heavy Jewish opposition to the Iraq war may signal trouble ahead for Sen. Hillary Clinton’s campaign for Jewish support in her presidential drive while seeking a middle ground on the issue.
According to a new analysis of Gallup poll data over a two-year span, 48 percent of Protestants and 53 percent of Catholics surveyed said the Iraq war was a mistake —compared to 77 percent of Jews. The Jewish figure was second only to African American Protestants in opposition to the conflict.
In an indication of the breadth of Jewish opposition, even 65 percent of Jewish “non-Democrats” agree that the war was a mistake.
The numbers confirm what Jewish politicos say may be the 800-pound gorilla in Jewish politics at the start of a long
election season: the Iraq war. And Clinton, with a cautious centrist strategy, may be the most vulnerable Democrat.
“It’s huge — it’s the biggest barrier she has to crashing through for the nomination,” said American University historian Allan Lichtman, who has written several books on presidential politics. “Without Iraq, she would be the nominee. But it’s her Achilles heel. It’s the issue core liberal voters care about the most.”
And those voters, who will play a disproportionate role in the nominating process, include a big chunk of the Jewish electorate, he said.
Democratic sources say the well-organized Clinton campaign is aware that her cautious edging away from Bush administration Iraq policy is a problem with progressive voters. But they also believe that the risks of a more dramatic shift in her position outweigh the benefits.
“The Clinton people are very nervous,” said a leading Jewish Democrat. “They didn’t anticipate some of the [Democratic] opposition; they thought they had a lock on the nomination, so they could start the usual process of steering to the center for the general election early. Iraq may be more of an issue than they thought, but now she’s boxed in; she can’t change too dramatically without being called a waffler.”
This Democratic Party insider noted that it’s not really a Jewish problem — it’s a problem Clinton faces with progressive voters in general, a political subset that is disproportionately Jewish.
The Iraq issue could benefit several candidates who have always opposed the war and one who has embarked on a mea culpa campaign because of his earlier support: former Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.), who now says his 2002 vote authorizing military action in Iraq was a mistake.
It also includes the candidate who is drawing the most enthusiastic crowds and the biggest flocks of reporters on the campaign trail.
Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), the Senate newcomer has opposed the war from the beginning, although he has never faced a vote on the contentious issue. Obama has called for U.S. troops to start leaving Iraq in May and for a complete withdrawal by March 31, 2008.
Political analysts say Obama’s Iraq views are closer to the Jewish mainstream right now than Clinton’s. Legislation she is sponsoring would merely cap the number of U.S. troops in the conflict. She has also said she favors cutting funding to the Iraqi government unless it takes effective steps to end the sectarian violence. But she has refused to repudiate her 2002 vote to authorize the war, a decision that sticks in the craw of angry anti-war voters.
Obama, emphasizing in part his longstanding opposition to the war, is working hard to establish a broader Jewish base on a range of issues, starting with Iraq.
On Friday he will give his inaugural speech on Israel and the Middle East before the hometown Jewish community in Chicago. Following the Clinton lead, he will do it before an audience that expects and usually gets down-the-line support for the pro-Israel cause: local members of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).
While campaign sources say Obama will seek to bolster his pro-Israel credentials with the usual expressions of support for Israel, disappointment with the Palestinians and concern about Iran, he will also raise the issue of Iraq, which campaign strategists believe will resonate even with strongly pro-Israel Jews.
“The focus will be regional,” said an Obama adviser this week. “He will talk about helping Israel in the search for peace partners, about security, about Hamas, but he will also talk about Iran and Iraq. His proposals on Iraq will be very relevant.”
The candidate will also talk about “opportunities missed” as the Bush administration stayed on the sidelines in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, this source said.
Several seasoned politicos said that in a direct face-off, Clinton has big advantages over Obama in the fight for Jewish support, including the extensive Jewish ties she has cultivated during two Senate runs in New York, her experience on Capitol Hill and her familiarity with issues that Obama is just beginning to learn about.
Some say Iraq issue won’t be a killer issue with Jewish voters.
“It will have little impact except among antiwar activists and bloggers who happen to be Jewish,” said Steve Rabinowitz, a top Democratic media consultant who played a critical role in the first campaign of her husband, former President Bill Clinton. “Actually, I think she’s in a good place on Iraq; she’s been very tough on administration handling of Iraq. And the landscape will be very different nine months from now.”
Rabinowitz said Clinton’s recent shifts on the war reflect “where she is, what she believes. I don’t see this as strategic maneuvering.”
But Johns Hopkins University political scientist Benjamin Ginsberg said that while Clinton is still the “candidate of choice for liberals, including most Jewish liberals, she faces two concerns. One is the question of whether she’s electable. That comes up a lot with Jewish voters.”
The other, he said, is Iraq.
“She’s playing more to the general election,” Ginsberg said — a good strategy in a weak field, but a “dangerous strategy if there’s any other candidate who is able to get traction on the issue” — a candidate like Obama.
Still, he said, for the general electorate the costs of sticking with her cautious approach may be less than the costs of following Edwards’ lead and doing a 180-degree turn.
“American voters don’t like politicians who say they were wrong,” he said. “If she changes her mind now, she’ll be accused of waffling.”
But among Jewish antiwar activists, her caution on Iraq could be a deal breaker — at least in the primaries.
Gerald Coles, a psychologist and anti-war activist in Ithaca, said he won’t vote for Clinton in the primaries because of her Iraq position.
“My chief problem with Hillary is her continuation of Bill Clinton’s ‘triangulation’ policy—appearing to split the difference with a Republican party that has moved further to the right, thereby establishing a ‘middle ground’ that has moved the Democratic Party to the right,” he said.
Coles said that “deplorable tactic has propelled her support of the war.”
But Coles conceded that he would vote for Clinton in the general election.
“While I’d conclude she’d be about the same on foreign policy, I’d be certain she’d be better on domestic issues than any Republican, and much more likely to protect fundamental Constitutional rights and halt the current momentum towards autocratic rule,” he said.
That encapsulates Clinton’s potential Jewish problem as the campaigns begin in earnest. She could face stiff resistance from Jewish voters in the primaries based heavily on her stance on the war, reflecting her problems with the broader progressive electorate.
But in a general election against any of the current Republican contenders, Clinton is expected to continue the Democrats’ overwhelming lock on the Jewish vote.