A future Jewish president?

Josh Shapiro, the newly elected Democratic governor of Pennsylvania, could break the glass ceiling.

Governor of Pennsylvania Josh Shapiro, Jan. 15, 2019. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Governor of Pennsylvania Josh Shapiro, Jan. 15, 2019. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Dan Schnur
Dan Schnur
Dan Schnur is the U.S. politics editor for the Jewish Journal.

A political trivia test for you: Without using a search engine, can you name the five Jewish candidates for president in the 2020 election?

The answer is at the bottom of this column, but first, let’s discuss why that question may be relevant to the upcoming campaign.

U.S. President Joe Biden has repeatedly made it clear that he intends to seek re-election. But poll numbers showing pronounced voter discomfort with a man of his age seeking another term—and the actuarial realities that confront even the healthiest octogenarians—have led to ongoing speculation of where the Democrats would turn if the president were to step aside. There is considerable nervousness in Democratic circles about Vice President Kamala Harris’s viability as a candidate, leading to a frenzy (albeit a quiet one) of speculation about other possible alternatives.

Those in California hear the name of our governor, Gavin Newsom, batted about fairly regularly. While Newsom has been emphatic that he would not challenge Biden, his heightened national profile would make him a likely contender. But voters in early primary states like South Carolina and Nevada are cut from very different ideological cloth than progressive Californians, so many party strategists look to the Rust Belt for potential candidates who have demonstrated an ability to win the type of working-class voters in contested elections that keyed Biden’s victory.

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has received a great deal of attention as a plausible successor, but over the last few months, the name of Josh Shapiro, the newly elected Democratic governor of Pennsylvania, has emerged with even greater frequency. If Shapiro did become president, whether next year or further in the future, he would of course be the nation’s first Jewish president. While several other Jewish politicians have sought the Oval Office, none have ever received their party’s nomination. (Barry Goldwater’s father was Jewish, but he was raised Episcopalian.)

Shapiro has been in office for less than six months, so it’s extremely premature to already be speculating about his prospects for a promotion to national office. But if Biden chose not to seek a second term (or four years from now if Biden does continue in this campaign), the Pennsylvania governor would enter the race not as an Arlen Spector also-ran or as a Joe Lieberman improbability—or even a Bernie Sanders-esque movement candidate—but as a genuine odds-on favorite (or co-favorite) in a way that no Jewish politician has ever achieved.

In an era of resurgent antisemitism, it’s only natural to wonder what sort of hatreds and resentments would emerge as Shapiro campaigned across the country. It may be worth looking for guidance in the examples of the three Catholics who achieved their party’s presidential nod and the changes that occurred in terms of religious intolerance over the years bridging their respective campaigns.

When Democratic New York Gov. Al Smith sought the presidency in 1928, he faced massive amounts of ugly anti-Catholic bigotry, up to and including Ku Klux Klan cross-burnings. Before John F. Kennedy was elected in 1960, he was forced to deliver a speech to several hundred of the nation’s most prominent Protestant ministers to assure them that his allegiance would be to the United States rather than the Vatican. By the time Biden ran three years ago, his Catholicism was barely noted in the campaign except occasionally in the context of his views on abortion policy.

While it’s unlikely that Shapiro would encounter the widespread prejudice that Smith endured, it would be fanciful to assume—or even hope—that his religion would be the same type of incidental footnote that it has been for Biden. Shapiro is a long way from earning Kennedy comparisons, but he (or another Jewish political leader who achieves that milestone) would almost certainly need to confront questions about his religious beliefs in an unprecedented way. But such is the challenge that comes with being a trailblazer.

(The five Jews who ran last time were Michael Bennet, Michael Bloomberg, Bernie Sanders, Tom Steyer and Marianne Williamson. Kudos to those who were able to answer without using Google or Bing.)

Originally published by Jewish Journal.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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