When pro-Israel voters held a president accountable

President George H.W. Bush’s life reminds us that character counts. But his re-election campaign illustrated what happens when pro-Israel voters get mad.

Chief Justice William Rehnquist administers the oath of office to President George H. W. Bush during inaugural ceremonies at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 20, 1989. Credit:  Library of Congress.
Chief Justice William Rehnquist administers the oath of office to President George H. W. Bush during inaugural ceremonies at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 20, 1989. Credit: Library of Congress.
Jonathan S. Tobin. Photo by Tzipora Lifchitz.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

This week is a moment to remember that character counts. The only question is how much.

The death of President George H.W. Bush (41) at the age of 94 has set off a deluge of laudatory obituaries even from many on the left who disdained him—and his son, President George W. Bush (43)—when they were in office. There are two reasons for this adulation. One is that as an individual, the elder President Bush lived an exemplary life. The other is that some of the praise is also meant as backhanded criticism for U.S. President Donald Trump.

The differences in terms of their style and personal character is fairly obvious, and those who lament the way the 45th president has helped to coarsen our public discourse and broken all the rules about politics are not wrong to point out the contrast with the 41st.

In 1988, Bush accepted the Republican Party presidential nomination saying he wanted a “kinder, gentler nation.” Trump’s rise to the presidency was made possible by the desire of many voters for a leader who would not shrink from brutal and insulting verbal combat against opponents. Though both came from wealth, Bush represented the values of old-money patricians. Trump embodies the resentments of working-class Americans who felt betrayed by the establishment the Bushes personified.

For those who are repulsed by Trump, his stands on the issues are irrelevant since they believe that no policy is worth putting up with a president that behaves as he does. But even as Bush is hailed for a life that included heroic military conduct, decades of selfless public service and a blameless personal life, we do well to remember that was not enough to ensure his re-election in 1992. A small part of that outcome involved the Jewish vote, and the retelling of that story should resonate today as we contemplate one thing the two men actually had in common: a willingness to break with traditional attitudes towards Israel, albeit in very different directions.

The elder Bush was part of the 1980 Republican ticket headed by Ronald Reagan that set a modern record by winning 39 percent of the Jewish vote. Reagan’s share of the Jewish vote declined in 1984 to 31 percent even as he won a landslide re-election. But in 1988, Bush exceeded that by getting 35 percent of Jewish votes when he won the presidency. But four years later, he received only 11 percent—a stunning rebuke not just from the majority of Jews who can always be counted on to vote for Democrats, but also from the minority that support Republicans.

Bush had a sterling record of support for the struggle to free Soviet Jewry, as well as the rescue of Ethiopian and Syrian Jews. But during his presidency, his antipathy for the Israeli government led by Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir reached levels of hostility that would not come close to being matched again until Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu squared off a generation later.

Bush and his close friend Secretary of State James Baker made no secret of their disdain for Shamir. Baker was believed to have said “F**k the Jews, they don’t vote for us,” when asked about the consequences for his attempts to pressure Israel, and that quote seemed indicative of an administration that wasn’t exactly in love with the Jewish state.

The worst moment came in 1991, when Bush opposed an Israeli request for loan guarantees to help absorb Jews from the former Soviet Union because of Shamir’s refusal to bend on West Bank settlements. When Jewish activists went to Washington to ask Congress for the guarantees, Bush complained to the White House press corps that he was “one lonely guy” standing up against “a thousand lobbyists on the Hill.” In doing so, he crossed the line from legitimate debate to the sort of invective that seemed to invoke anti-Semitic stereotypes about sinister Jewish influence.

Bush later expressed regret about that. But it wasn’t forgotten when he sought re-election in a campaign that found even many conservative Jews willing to endorse his Democratic opponent Bill Clinton because of his attitude towards Israel.

Pro-Israel Democratic Jewish voters will generally stick with their party’s nominee, even if, as was the case with Obama, he was seen as having an adversarial relationship with Israel’s government. But the level of Jewish Republicans support for their party hinges on policies towards Israel. The fact that as many as two-thirds of the Jews who voted for Bush in 1988 abandoned him in 1992 made it clear Republicans can’t take pro-Israel voters for granted.

But just as Bush departed from the standard his predecessor set about support for Israel, Trump has also broken new ground by going in the opposite direction. By moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, seeking to hold the Palestinian Authority accountable for its support for terror and withdrawing from Obama’s Iran nuclear deal, Trump has set a standard for support for the Jewish state unmatched by his predecessors.

It remains to be seen whether Trump’s frustration with the fact that, as Baker observed in a different era, the overwhelming majority of Jews still won’t vote for him will someday have an impact on his decisions. But unless such a moment arrives, many pro-Israel Jews will continue to answer Trump’s critics by saying that his policies matter far more than his character. Indeed, many argue that only an outlier like Trump would have gone so far.

That’s a point that Jewish voters will continue to debate. Yet as we recall these contrasts, even some Trump loyalists may wish that the president had more of the grace that Bush possessed. Good character isn’t everything (as Democrats were wont to say when Clinton was president), and is no defense for bad policies. But even those who opposed Bush because of his stand on Israel must respect him for standing for personal virtues, which seem to be in such short supply these days.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS — Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

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