A Tough Choice for Lakewood Voters
Frum voters in New Jersey faced what was in many ways a wrenching decision in last week’s gubernatorial election. On the one hand, the incumbent Democratic governor John Corzine had proven to be highly responsive to the concerns of the Torah community in his first term in office, a fact attested to by Agudath Israel of America’s New Jersey representative and the endorsement of the Lakewood Vaad and senior figures in Bais Medrash Govoha in their private capacities.
Given Corzine’s record on matters of immediate concern to the Torah community, including school funding, there was a strong argument to be made that he deserved the community’s support as an expression of the basic Torah middah of hakaras hatov. Even leaving aside any ruchnios considerations, the Torah community has an important practical interest in being seen as a community that remembers its friends. And that consideration applied even though the Republican candidate Chris Christie led throughout the campaign. Those who are seen as fair weather friends will end up not being trusted by either party.
Once the Lakewood Vaad endorsed Corzine, there was yet another practical consideration in favor of supporting the incumbent. The more that community leaders are perceived as being able to deliver a bloc of voters, the greater their pull in the corridors of power. That ability to deliver a bloc of voters is why, for instance, Hillary Clinton so assiduously courted Skver in her first run for the Senate from New York.
On the other side, there were a number of factors in favor of Christie, or, perhaps more accurately, against Corzine. As a liberal Democrat, Corzine staked out unambiguously anti-Torah positions on a host of social issues. Nor was his conduct in his private life anything to hold up as a model for our children.
I am neither a citizen of New Jersey nor the son of a resident of New Jersey, so I have little to say about local issues. Suffice it to say that Corzine started the campaign with extremely low approval ratings, even in a heavily Democratic state, in large part due to the nation’s highest property tax rate and increases in tolls on the state’s highways. The latter issues are of no less concern to homeowners in Lakewood than any other New Jersey resident.
COMPLICATING MATTERS FURTHER was the fact that the New Jersey gubernatorial contest was not just a local one, but was being touted as referendum on President Barack Obama’s term to date. With only two gubernatorial races on the 2009 ballot, those in New Jersey and Virginia were being closely watched for portents about the 2010 midterm elections and as an indication of voters’ feelings about the policies of the current administration.
And by no one were the results being so carefully watched as the more than eighty congressional Democrats representing districts that were carried by George W. Bush in 2004 or John McCain in 2008. To the extent that the fiscally conservative Blue Dog Democrats detected voter anger over the most ambitious attempt to transform the American economy and society since the New Deal, the less likely they would be to support the administration’s ambitious healthcare reform and cap-and-trade bill on carbon emissions, both of which come with a huge price tag in terms of taxes and likely job loss.
The Virginia electorate more closely resembles the make-up of the Blue Dog congressional districts than did that of New Jersey, and national issues played a much larger role in Virginia. But by election day it was a foregone conclusion that Republican Bob McDonnell would claim the Virginia statehouse (though the magnitude of his victory was still a shock). Thus all eyes were focused on New Jersey.
Because of Governor Corzine’s deep unpopularity, voters knew that the Obama team would have little trouble spinning a Democratic loss in New Jersey as a vote on local issues rather than an expression of dismay with Washington D.C. Still, the election had major national implications. If Corzine somehow managed to eke out a victory, after President Obama campaigned for him in the state three times in the last two weeks, it would be taken as a sign that the President retains his star quality and still has the coattails to aid Democratic candidates. That too would be an important factor for the Blue Dog Democrats to consider.
I think it safe to say that if most frum voters in Lakewood were given the chance to vote in a referendum on the Obama presidency to date, the vote would be overwhelmingly negative. And it is clear that many Lakewood voters did view the New Jersey governor’s race through that prism, as an extremely articulate letter to the American Yated Ne’eman from “A Working Stiff” the week before the election emphasized.
Obamacare can only result in severe rationing of medical care, particularly for the elderly. (In Britain, National Health will not pay for an arterial stent for anyone over 59, no matter how healthy he or she otherwise is.) One of Obamacare’s chief architects, Dr. Ezekiel Rahm, brother of the White House Chief of Staff, is not inappropriately nicknamed Dr. Death. He has written extensively on the lesser claims to health care of older citizens. Rationing will confront Orthodox Jews with many heartrending halachic shaylos.
Similarly, there is widespread skepticism in the Torah community about the global warming alarmism of the Obama administration, and certainly about the wisdom of the proposed cap-and-trade bill, which would constitute a massive hidden tax and lead to the loss of tens of thousands of jobs, at a time when the real unemployment level in the United States is approaching 20%.
Though House Speaker Nancy Pelosi managed to ram through a 220-215 House vote on Obamacare, even after the election results had been digested, 39 House Democrats deserted her. Obamacare is expected to have a much harder time gaining passage in the Senate, and the impact of the election results will be felt there. Cap-and-trade legislation was already bottled up in the Senate, after having passed the House, and the election results certainly reduced its prospects of eventual passage.
THE STRONGEST FEELINGS OF LAKEWOOD VOTERS about President Obama’s job performance, however, concern his foreign policy, particularly that towards Israel. From nearly its first day in office, the administration, including both the President and Secretary of State Clinton, adopted a confrontational tone with Israel diametrically opposed to its velvet outreach to the Muslim world. Indeed, distancing himself from Israel was the olive branch held out by tPresident Obama to Muslims. The administration called for an absolute freeze on Israeli construction beyond the 1949 armistice lines, including construction in Jerusalem. In another extremely worrisome step, which has gained too little attention, the administration put the legitimacy of Israel’s nuclear program on the table. Only tiny Honduras – whose constitution the State Department interpreted differently than Honduras’s own supreme court – has endured the same degree of American pressure.
The administration’s push for a quick Israeli-Palestinian settlement has only made the achievement of any such settlement less likely than ever. All Obama succeeded in doing was convincing the Palestinians that they need do nothing to achieve their maximalist demands because the United States will deliver Israel on a platter.
Even more scary to most of those in Israel – where President Obama’s approval ratings hover in single digits – is the total failure of the administration’s policy of engagement with Iran. Iran is ten months closer to achieving its nuclear enrichment goals, without having felt the first taste of American pressure and after having snubbed every American overture. Even the ruthless suppression of widespread demonstrations, after Iran’s stolen presidential election, aroused only a belated and timorous response from President Obama. American passivity has made Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons, or the necessity of Israel undertaking a highly risky attack on Iranian nuclear facilities, almost a near certainty.
On the domestic front, the administration has closely allied itself with the new “pro-peace” group J Street. National Security Advisor General James Jones was the keynote speaker at the organization’s inaugural conference, where he promised that the administration would be an enthusiastic participant in all future J Street conferences. Just a few days earlier, Jones gave a flat address at an AIPAC conference, which left delegates sitting on their hands.
Though J Street sometimes claims to be “pro-Israel” (its campus wing has dropped that designation), it would be hard to think of one thing it has done to earn the title. It enthusiastically supported the U.S. administration’s call for a settlement freeze, including Jerusalem; has opposed every sanction resolution or bill aimed at putting pressure on Iran; and even hosted a staging of Caryl Churchill’s anti-Semitic play Seven Jewish Children, which draws an explicit parallel between Israel’s actions today and Nazi atrocities.
While considerations of the security of nearly six million Jews in Israel appear to have played a large role in the vote of Lakewood residents, it is far from clear that their votes will have the same impact on the implementation of Obama’s policies as they will have on the administration’s domestic agenda. Even weak presidents have much more control over foreign policy than over domestic policy, where Congress can be a restraining influence.
Ironically, by lessening the chances of the administration pushing through the most ambitious parts of its domestic agenda, voters may have actually increased Obama’s chances of being re-elected in 2012. Were the true implications of cap-and-trade and Obamacare to be fully appreciated by voters, they would constitute an electoral albatross around Democrats’ necks. But if these bills are defeated, Obama can run again in 2012 as a moderate conciliator, just as Bill Clinton did in 1996, after the early defeat of his health care proposals.
THOUGH I’M FAR FROM CERTAIN OF THE impact of the New Jersey results on the administration’s future Middle East policy, I must confess that as a Jew living in Israel I am heartened by the fact that so many of my fellow Torah Jews in Lakewood took our fate into consideration in casting their ballots. Christie carried every precinct in which Torah Jews are found in large numbers. From those who voted for Christie, out of a desire to protest the Obama administration’s foreign policy, I learn that those same concerns were felt even by those who voted for Corzine. The latter had perfectly valid reasons – the desire to express hakaras hatov to Corzine against the uncertain impact of a protest vote for Christie (ein safek motzi m’dai vadai.)
One of the hardest things about the past year in Israel has been the apparent indifference of the vast majority of American Jews to the threat to our existence. American Jews are the last group in America to have awakened from Obamamania. As I have quoted many times, half of Jews under 35 say that the destruction of Israel would not constitute a personal tragedy. Recently, the Forward carried a widely discussed piece by a young Jew who whines that it has simply become too fatiguing trying to defend Israel to his liberal friends.
To have detected such indifference and fatigue among Torah Jews would have been heartbreaking for those of us living in Israel. Baruch Hashem, we were spared. Thanks.\
Yated Ne’eman, November 11, 2009