The 1988 presidential election – unlike those of, say, 1972 and 1980 – was notable for its lack of sharp differentiation between the Republican and Democratic nominees on the issue of Israel and the Middle East.
For one thing, this was the first election since 1968 without an incumbent, so neither the Democratic candidate, Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis, nor his Republican counterpart, vice president George Bush, had a record on which to run.
True, Bush had just spent eight years as second in command in an administration considered extremely friendly toward Israel, but any anecdotal evidence that leaked out during that period was not of the type to inspire confidence in him as someone with an instinctive appreciation of, and sensitivity to, the Jewish state. On Israel, as on much else, it was widely felt that Bush was no Reagan.
But Dukakis, who until he decided to run for president had given not the slightest indication that he’d ever entertained a single thought about foreign policy, also was far from reassuring to the pro-Israel community. His speeches to Jewish groups raised more questions than they answered, and he seemed to view the world through the eyes of an unreconstructed McGovernite.
Dukakis, in sum, gave every impression that as president he’d be distrustful of American military power and even more fearful of using it. Not a good sign to Jews who had come to appreciate that the anti-military isolationism that defined the Democratic party in the 1970’s and 1980’s was far from being in the best interests of either the U.S. or Israel.
As we’ve seen in earlier chapters in this series, it’s rare for an appreciable number of American Jews to vote for a Republican presidential candidate even when the Republican is clearly more sympathetic to Israel than his Democratic opponent. It therefore came as no surprise that the returns on election night showed Bush being shellacked by Dukakis among Jewish voters, 73 percent to 27 percent, at the same time that he was easily defeating Dukakis in the country at large, 53.4 percent to 45.6 percent.
Amazingly, Bush over the next four years would find a way to squander much of his measly 1988 Jewish support. By the time the 1992 presidential campaign got under way, Bush, who along with his secretary of state, James Baker, appeared to develop a bad case of gas at the mere mention of the word “Israel,” had become hopelessly unpopular even with Jews normally not averse to voting Republican.
In fact, not since the Eisenhower years had relations between the U.S. and Israel been so lukewarm, and while Bush’s record on Israel was not as grim as some sought to portray it – the administration did succeed in getting the UN to rescind its infamous 1975 resolution equating Zionism with racism – the close relationship and good feelings of the Reagan era were already distant memories.
Given the intense disappointment with Bush among supporters of Israel, it was hard to believe that it was just twelve years since Ronald Reagan won nearly four Jewish votes in 10 – a showing that triggered talk of widespread Jewish defections to Republican ranks – or four years since Bush himself had won 27 percent of the Jewish vote, a figure that now actually seemed quite large in light of Bush’s severely diminished standing in the Jewish community.
As it turned out, Bush lost almost half his Jewish support during his term in office, managing to hold on to just 15 percent of the Jewish vote in 1992. His Democratic challenger, Arkansas governor Bill Clinton, won the backing of 78 percent of Jewish voters and Ross Perot, the loony billionaire third-party candidate, picked up the remaining 7 percent of the Jewish vote. Overall the numbers read: Clinton 43.3 percent, Bush 37.7 percent, Perot 19 percent .
(Continued Next Week)
Jason Maoz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org