For the storied liberals of Manhattan’s Upper West Side, the race between Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination posed a tough choice. Few denied feeling torn.
But based on random interviews with roughly evenly divided Jewish voters as they emerged from several polling sites, it seemed that many who chose Obama hungered for the excitement of a candidate they believed could inspire broad transformative change for the country.
And many who voted for Clinton hungered for the concrete satisfaction of a universal national health plan.
“I was really swayed by the difference in their health plans,” said Rabbi Jeremy Kalmanofsky, spiritual leader of Conservative Congregation Ansche Chesed, as he stood outside an elementary school on West 109th Street in which he had just voted.
“Health care was big for me,” echoed Rachel Kahn-Troster, 28, a rabbinical student at the Conservative Jewish Theological Seminary who opted for Clinton.
For these careful readers of The New York Times, columns on this issue by op-ed page regular Paul Krugman, a Princeton University economist, were cited often, and appeared to have a real impact.
Over several weeks, Krugman repeatedly criticized Obama’s health care plan for not requiring everyone to buy a medical insurance policy. Clinton’s plan mandates each individual take out such coverage, using government subsidies to enable them to do so, if necessary — a step Krugman touted as crucial for achieving universal coverage and large per-capita savings.
“I think her health care plan is supposed to be better,” said retired school psychologist and Clinton voter Judy Winters, citing “articles I read.”
A number of Upper West Side voters were also just plain excited to be voting for the first time for a woman to be president and the thought that she had a serious chance of succeeding.
“It’s important she’s a woman,” said Winters, a member of Congregation Beth Simchat Torah in Greenwich Village, “because I don’t see any other woman coming along soon who will be able to do this.”
Obama supporters, meanwhile, spoke often of what they saw as his greater potential to defeat a Republican opponent by drawing in independents and even some Republicans in ways that could alter long-standing societal divisions.
“I think he’s a candidate people will be really excited about,” said Michael Wise, a freelance journalist and member of Congregation Ansche Chesed, even though, he added, “Hillary’s take on health care and economic policies seems much more well considered.”
Coming out of a voting site at Rutgers Presbyterian Church on West 73rd Street, one Jewish Obama voter, a 54-year-old attorney who declined to give his name, noted the shouts of youthful Obama supporters a block away. He smiled as they yelled their support of their man for homebound rush hour crowds at the 72nd Street IRT stop.
“Listen to all those young people channeling the ’60s,” said the lawyer, who identified himself as Reform-affiliated. “It was a close call for me. But in the end I voted for Obama because I wanted someone who would make me feel less cynical about our system.”
Wise, the freelance writer, also seemed to seek by his vote to transcend his own cynicism. Despite being impressed by Clinton’s domestic policies — enough to waver at one point, he said — “In the end, the Clintons are just too tied into big money.” He emphasized the plural, highlighting one way in which the candidate’s ex-president spouse could be a liability as well as an asset.
None of the Jewish voters interviewed cited Israel as a major factor in their choice. When asked, some did cite their longer familiarity and comfort with Clinton on this issue, or their concern about Obama’s relative lack of a comparable record by which they could know him.
But most of those willing to stop and talk with a reporter appeared to fit a Jewish voter profile defined years ago by longtime American Jewish Committee Washington lobbyist Hyman Bookbinder. Now retired, Bookbinder often chided candidates for treating Jews as one-issue voters. After concluding a candidate was good on Israel, he said, Jews by and large do not dwell on it endlessly but move quickly on to other issues they care about.
“Both of these candidates satisfy my definition of pro-Israel,” said Rabbi Kalmanofsky in one typical response.
Many were more concerned about Clinton’s Senate votes in support of Bush’s decision to go to war in Iraq; her subsequent refusal to express regret for that vote; and last year, her support for a resolution to give the president power to initiate military action against a threat from Iran without first consulting Congress. Even some of her supporters seemed troubled by this record.
“Should she become president, I hope she’ll think long and hard about this,” said Kahn-Troster, the rabbinic student.