You don’t get much more Jewish than the name “Ari.”
And you don’t get much more Republican than serving as White House press secretary for President George W. Bush.
Which makes Ari Fleischer a natural public face of the Republican Jewish Coalition.
|Ari Fleischer addresses Jewish Republicans at Congregation Bnai Yeshurun in Teaneck.|
Fleischer was in Teaneck last week, as a four-city “Blueprint for Victory” barnstorming tour featuring him and RJC director Matthew Brooks touched down at Congregation Bnai Yeshurun.
The session was moderated by the synagogue’s Rabbi Steven Pruzansky, an enthusiastic partisan.
“Sometimes I watch Republican spokesmen and I wonder why the response is not more forceful,” Pruzansky said at one point to Fleischer.
“Rabbi, you’d make a great press secretary,” Fleischer replied.
Jewish Republicans are rare and lonely, Pruzansky admitted, noting that the recent Pew Survey found 70 percent of American Jews identify as Democrats or leaning that way, versus 22 percent as Republican. While Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal often is seen as having created the Jewish Democratic vote, Pruzansky said it went back further – it was Warren Harding, elected in 1920, who was the last Republican to receive a majority of the Jewish vote. “Maybe because his middle name was Gamliel,” Pruzansky joked – though Ronald Reagan came close in 1980.
But in the Orthodox community, the political leanings go the other way. The Pew Survey reported that among the Orthodox, 57 percent are or lean Republican, and only 36 percent are Democratic or lean that way.
Looking back at the last election, Brooks said that for the Republican Jewish Coalition, “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”
Worst, because “the Republicans were blown out of the water across the board” with the defeat of Mitt Romney.
Best, because “it was our greatest year ever. We had the most sophisticated, largest, most expensive outreach in the Jewish community. At a time when Republicans were being wiped out across all constituent groups, we actually increased by 50 percent. John McCain got 22 percent of the Jewish vote in 2008; Romney got 32 percent in 2012,” Brooks said.
“We’ve gained market share in the Jewish community in five of the last six national elections. We’ve gone from 11 percent in 1992″ when Bill Clinton defeated George H. W. Bush. “This trajectory underscores that we’re having an impact in the Jewish community.”
But if Republicans did better among the Jews, why did they not succeed in the general population?
“I’m the child of an immigrant,” Fleischer said. “My mother got out from Hungary in 1939. Romney sent a signal that we don’t want that here. That’s in contrast to my old boss who said, ‘Family values don’t stop at the Rio Grande.’ When Bush said that, Hispanics would listen to the next sentence. Republicans won’t get the White House again unless we’re able to get a sizable chunk of Hispanic votes. Bush got 44 percent of the Hispanic vote. Romney got 27 percent.”
Fleischer, who was among the authors of a 100-page Republican National Committee post mortem released in the spring, said Romney was a flawed candidate.
“Too many people looked at that person and did not feel he represented them enough,” he said. “Did the candidate care about me, or just about the wealthy? That’s a question the Republicans have to do a better job of addressing.”
Fleischer’s report was criticized quickly by Rush Limbaugh and other leaders of the party’s right wing. Some of the internal party tensions were quietly audible in the interplay between Fleischer and Pruzansky, who at one point complained about the general “demonization” of the Tea Party movement.
“It’s very hard to compete with the party of the free stuff,” Pruzansky asked. “How do you compete against the free stuff?”
Fleischer pushed back against the premise.
“It’s not just people who are getting free stuff, the poor or low income,” he said. “It’s people from all walks of life. It’s corporations who are getting tax benefits they don’t need anymore. It’s wealthy people who get tax cuts they don’t need anymore. I don’t limit my criticism of people who get free stuff to just one group of people.
“What wins it for the Republicans is the power of aspiration. If we have that optimistic, sunny can-do candidate, with the sense of calling American to its higher aspirational self, we can win on those grounds,” he said.
In response to a question on the key differences between the Republicans and Democrats on issues of concern to the Jewish community, Brooks pointed to Israel.
“In Congress, there is strong bipartisan support for Israel,” he said. “What really worries me is what’s taking place at the grass roots level. In poll after poll, when asked who do you most side with in Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the overwhelming majority of Republicans stand with Israel. Not even a majority of Democrats do.
“What happened at the Democratic convention in Charlotte should send a chill down everyone’s spine. The leadership scrambled to get Jerusalem back into the platform to the boos of the activists in the hall. The Democrats have to do some serious soul-searching,” he said.