John McCain As Judah Maccabee: Why He Can Tap Into the Jewish Vote

Suzanne Fields
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Posted: Feb 08, 2008 12:01 AM
John McCain As Judah Maccabee: Why He Can Tap Into the Jewish Vote

John McCain is a New York Giant, not a New England Patriot. He has never come close to a perfect season, but like Eli Manning, he believes he can do it even if nobody else does. Super Tuesday was not quite the Super Bowl -- that comes in November. But the senator has the Big Mo, and that counts for a lot in politics as well as football. Now we'll see if he can show the Manning touch, moving down the field.

Other analogies thrive. Joe Lieberman, who was at John McCain's side Tuesday night, thinks his colleague might be Judah Macabee, a reference to the warrior whose victory over the Greeks is commemorated in the celebration of Hanukkah. "He's got that spirit," Sen. Lieberman told the Forward, the Jewish daily newspaper in New York. The Connecticut senator is credited with helping not only with the Jewish turnout for McCain in Florida, but for helping with the Cubans, who aren't Jewish, too.

Sen. McCain, lacking wide and deep support from the conservative true believers, will have to make up for it with his tested appeal to independents and Hispanics, and hope the true believers will overcome whatever impulse they have to sulk. There's one other important group he might tap into as well. Ever since FDR created the New Deal, which his critics called the "Jew Deal" because so many of his brain trusters were Jews, the Jewish vote has mostly been taken for granted by Democrats. Ronald Reagan persuaded more Jews than usual to vote Republican, but when Al Gore took Joe Lieberman as his running mate Jewish voters returned to the Democrats in droves. Now that may change.

The two senators go back a long way, working on legislative issues together, sharing the worldview that Sen. Lieberman describes as "a feeling that America has a unique role in the world, of taking the Declaration of Independence seriously[as] a universal declaration of human rights." That means "our foreign policy is always better when it's based on democratic values." The two men became even closer when the United States intervened in Bosnia and more recently in support of the surge in Iraq. Sen. Lieberman endorsed his friend before he was a front-runner, drawn by the McCain emphasis on foreign policy.

What is less well known as an element in the affinity the two senators share is an appreciation of evangelical Christians, for their evangelical support for Israel and for trying to hold a line of decency against vulgarity and the glorification of violence in the popular culture. Prying older Jews away from their loyalty to the Democrats -- Jews, like Southerners of an earlier time, are the most the loyal of yellow dog Democrats -- but younger Jews hold no such blind loyalty. FDR, like Charlemagne and Richard the Lionheart is ancient history. "Mac the Maverick" is 21st century.

Many Jewish voters, for all their loyalty to the party of the New Deal, appreciate Sen. McCain's fervent support for the surge in Iraq, understanding that it's all of a piece with a clear-eyed view of what's at stake in the Middle East. They can appreciate the McCain appraisal of Vladimir Putin, contributor of Iran's nuclear capability: "I looked into his eyes and I saw three letters -- a K, a G and a B." Transferring allegiance from Rudy Giuliani, with his national security bona fides, to John McCain might not be difficult.

Most Jews are registered Democrats, of course, and Hillary and Obama are courting them aggressively. Hillary won most of them in Florida, Nevada, New Jersey and California, but according to exit polls Barack Obama won them in Connecticut and Massachusetts. The memory of Hillary's kiss for Yasser Arafat's wife Suha in 1999, after she accused Israel of poisoning Palestinian women and children, is still fresh in the memory of many Jews.

When doubts were raised last week about the strength of Sen. Obama's resolve in the Middle East, he called several Jewish reporters to reiterate his "pro-Israel positions," his defense of Israeli security and repeated his insistence that Hamas must recognize Israel's right to exist before Washington will talk to them. He agrees that Iran with nuclear weapons is unacceptable and he has been a voice against anti-Semitism in the black community, but his pastor and mentor is a fan of Louis Farrakhan, who called Judaism either "a dirty religion" or "a gutter religion," depending on the reading of the audiotape.

But the McCain record on fighting terrorism, and his bold assertion that the fight against radical Muslims is the transforming struggle for the new century, offers Jews an alternative to both Obama and Hillary. Like everything else in this presidential campaign, old loyalties are scrambled like a plate of breakfast eggs.