It would seem that in recent years conservative candidates in both Israel and the U.S. have forgotten how to win an election.
To win an election, a political party needs to identify and satisfy its political base. It needs to identify and attract potential swing voters. It accomplishes the latter by identifying the strengths and weaknesses of their opponents and co-opting their strengths while highlighting their weaknesses.
One of the most difficult challenges of running a campaign is figuring out how to attract undecided voters without alienating or demoralizing a party’s base. On the face of it, doing so should be easier for conservatives than for liberals in the U.S. and Israel because a majority of voters in both countries define themselves as right-leaning.
As Karl Rove noted recently in The Wall Street Journal, the U.S. remains a center-right country. According to pre-election and post-election surveys of American voters last month, 34% consider themselves conservatives, 45% say they are moderate, and only 21% call themselves liberal.
In Israel, consistent polling shows that more than 60% of Israelis reject making territorial concessions on Jerusalem and the Golan Heights and do not believe it is possible to reach a credible peace accord with the Palestinians. Moreover, the vast majority of Israeli Jews are socially conservative; 80% of Israelis, for example, classify themselves as religiously observant or traditional.
These numbers go a long way in explaining why liberal candidates in both the U.S. and Israel seek to portray themselves as conservative hawks during electoral campaigns. In the U.S., Democratic presidential candidates from Jimmy Carter to Barack Obama have run as moderates with conservative tendencies. In Israel, leftist politicians from Yitzhak Rabin to Shimon Peres to Ehud Barak to Tzipi Livni, have all portrayed themselves as security hawks ahead of elections.
As candidates, these politicians (and their supporters) understood that to win, it was necessary for them to go the right – where the voters are. Once elected, of course, they governed as liberals — that is, until they began considering their reelection prospects.
While it makes sense for left-leaning liberals to move to the right in elections, it makes little sense for their opponents to move to the left. Yet for some reason, this is becoming common practice in both the U.S. and Israel.
As we saw in the U.S. presidential election and in the current Israeli Knesset campaign, by moving to the left, right-leaning candidates demoralize their base. Moreover, far from convincing swing voters to support them, they make swing voters feel comfortable supporting their opponents.
During the presidential campaign, Republican nominee Senator John McCain believed that to win, he needed to convince voters he was the “anti-Republican” Republican. McCain believed President Bush’s low approval ratings meant the public had rejected the Republican Party.
But McCain’s analysis was wrong. Americans had rejected Bush and his policies, not his party as a whole. Had McCain campaigned as the anti-Bush candidate by attacking his passivity on issues like illegal immigration and the Iranian and North Korean nuclear programs, and had he attacked Bush’s big government policies, he would have successfully distanced himself from an unpopular president and rallied his base.
Moreover, he would have been able to attack Obama for pushing immigration, foreign policy and economic policies identical to or even more extreme than Bush’s failed policies.By incorrectly identifying the object of both Republican dissatisfaction and swing-voter concerns, McCain demoralized his base and convinced voters it was okay to support Obama. Indeed, as polling data indicates, Obama did not move many Republican voters to his side.
What enabled Obama to win the election was not a massive voter shift from right to left.
Rather, Obama owes his victory in large part to the fact that McCain demoralized his own supporters who opted not to participate at all. As Rove reported, some 4.1 million Republicans didn’t vote. Obama’s crucial victory in Ohio came despite his having won 32,000 fewer votes in the state than John Kerry did in 2004. McCain’s anti-Republican campaign caused him to win 360,000 fewer votes in Ohio than Bush won in 2004.
In Israel, the Likud under Benjamin Netanyahu today has the advantage of running against Kadima, whose strategic and diplomatic programs have been largely rejected by voters. On the other hand, he runs against Livni, who is reasonably campaigning on her undeserved reputation for competence and her dubious public persona as a clean politician.
To win, Netanyahu and Likud should be doing two things. They should be continuously pointing out Kadima’s record of failure in office and they should be emphasizing Livni’s personal failures and the fact that she owes her political rise to her association with corrupt politicians like Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert.
Instead, Netanyahu is pointing his guns at his own party. He staged an ugly campaign against his intra-Likud adversary Moshe Feiglin. By doing so, he angered a significant portion of his political base.
Netanyahu has also tried to blur the policy distinctions between Likud and Kadima by promising to form a unity coalition with Kadima after the elections and pledging to continue the government’s negotiations with the Fatah movement toward an Israeli withdrawal from Judea, Samaria and Jerusalem. He has opted not to highlight his own oft-stated refusal to withdraw from any part of Jerusalem or the Golan Heights.
As to political integrity, rather than highlight Livni’s ties to crooked pols, Netanyahu has tried to “out-integrity” her by bringing a political enemy, former justice minister and dovish Kadima supporter Dan Meridor, back into Likud.
Far from harming Livni’s prospects, Netanyahu’s actions have increased the public’s appreciation for her supposed attributes and so made fence sitters feel comfortable supporting Kadima.
On the other hand, his actions have angered Likud’s core supporters. Many are now willing to consider other options for voting. Some are moving to other rightist parties. Some are moving to Kadima. This is why, in a period of two weeks, Likud has lost its 10-15 seat lead in the polls and is currently in a dead heat with Kadima.
Both McCain’s failed campaign for the presidency and Netanyahu’s current campaign in Israel may be partly attributable to the profound leftist bias of the media in both countries. It is possible that due to the media’s overwhelming support for left-leaning candidates, right-leaning candidates have drawn the incorrect conclusion that their societies and their potential voters lean left.
Whatever has caused the state of affairs in which conservative candidates feel compelled to turn to their political opponents for support that will never come rather than rely on their voters who comprise the majority of their electorates, it can only be hoped that both in Israel today and the U.S. in the future, conservative politicians will reverse course.
It does no one any good when voters elect politicians who do not share their views because politicians who do share their views insult and anger them.
Caroline Glick is deputy managing editor of The Jerusalem Post. Her Jewish Press-exclusive column appears the last week of each month. Her book “The Shackled Warrior: Israel and the Global Jihad,” is available at Amazon.com.