That Catchy ‘Maverick’ Label: It Can Go Both Ways


The race for the Republican presidential nomination has come down to the Big Dough vs. the Big Mo. Mitt Romney may have the money, but Sen. John McCain probably has the momentum. And the votes. Especially among Jewish Republicans.

McCain is the clear favorite of Jewish Republicans now that former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani has dropped out. And he has the "L"-factor — not the liberal label Romney tries to stick on him, but Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, the Connecticut Democrat turned independent who has been an effective campaigner and fundraiser among Jews.

Match that with McCain's 25-year pro-Israel voting record and you have the Republican with the best chance of returning his party to the Reagan-era level of at least 30 percent of Jewish voters pulling the GOP lever. In the last five presidential elections, it has ranged from 9 percent to 24 percent.

While Jewish Democrats have reason to be worried about McCain, they also have ammunition to muster against him.

Whereas McCain and Lieberman are in lockstep in their support for the Iraq war and hard line toward Iranian nuclear ambitions, most Jewish voters strongly oppose the Iraq war and don't want one with Iran. Lieberman has said that he and McCain are cool to the Bush-administration's Mideast peace initiative, although polls indicate that most American Jews would like to see a more activist American approach.

Democrats can be counted on to remind voters that McCain has said that we could be in Iraq for another 100 years, while they want to start bringing home the troops in the first 100 days of the next presidency.

Even more upsetting to many Jews will be his promise to use Bush Justices John Roberts and Samuel Alito as his models for appointing "strict interpretation" judges to the federal bench.

With the judiciary already tilting toward the far right, that could have a dramatic impact on a range of issues that most Jewish voters care about, including church-state separation, abortion and civil liberties.

Unlike recent Republican nominees, McCain appeals to Jewish voters on issues that have earned him the enmity of his party's conservative base — immigration reform, campaign finance reform, stem-cell research, climate control and torture.

Those issues and his reputation for candor have identified him as a maverick, and have obscured his otherwise staunchly conservative record, which he has stressed in appearances before the party faithful. Once he locks up the nomination, that record will prove an inviting target for Democratic strategists — particularly Jewish Democrats.

Conservatives may have no problem with his positions on the 3-G's — guns, gays and God — but most Jews will. He's against gun control, opposes same-sex marriage and has said that "the Constitution established the United States of America as a Christian nation."

Another critical factor will be who the Democrats nominate. The hard-core right may intensely dislike McCain, but they harbor an irrational, visceral hatred for Sen. Hillary Clinton. Republican leaders expect — and some Democratic leaders fear — that her candidacy could unite the GOP behind McCain.

After the disastrous experience with Dick Cheney, voters are likely to take the vice-presidential selection a lot more seriously this year. In addition, if he wins, McCain would, at 72, be the oldest man ever elected president. He brushes off criticism of his age by trotting out his 95-year-old mother, but his grandfather and father, both Navy admirals, died at 61 and 70, respectively.

McCain could pick former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee — 19 years his junior — whose greatest strength (and McCain's greatest weakness) is among Bible Belt conservatives. Indeed, picking Huckabee could give McCain a major boost on the religious right; then again, it could cost him dearly among Jews, especially moderate swing voters.

The former Baptist preacher, who has said that he does not believe in evolution and would like to change the Constitution to reflect God's law, has been running interference for McCain on the campaign trail by siphoning off conservative votes from Romney.

Lieberman, who was the Democrats' 2000 vice-presidential nominee, is not interested — been there, done that, he's said. Besides, his domestic social voting record is far too liberal for the GOP.

McCain worries Jewish Democrats — and with good reason — but they also have strong weapons in their arsenal as they prepare to fight a highly conservative Republican "maverick."

Douglas M. Bloomfield is a Washington, D.C.-based columnist.


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