Why Specter quit: no room for middle ground in party

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

Sen. Arlen Specter's decision last week to suspend his campaign for the 1996 GOP presidential nomination was officially about money. Specter, like several fellow long-shot contenders, found it almost impossible to raise the megadollars it now takes to mount a winning primary campaign.

But a more basic reason is that the former prosecutor made a faulty political calculation. Specter was betting that the GOP still was home to many fiscal conservatives who were also social libertarians — a "silent majority" that would rise up and cast off the Christian Coalition activists and radical right idealogues who seem to be in control of the party.

His failed campaign suggests that Specter was wrong. And that fact is full of implications for Jewish political activism in 1996 and beyond.

At a time when more Jews might be inclined to accept traditional Republican fiscal ideology, the party is veering off in the direction of a harsh new brand of conservatism.

That ideology takes the traditional conservatism that Barry Goldwater brought into the sunlight in 1964 and uses it as the vehicle for other agendas that many Jews regard as anything but "conservative."

So cutting the deficit, a goal many Jews can enthusiastically support, is used by some as an excuse to punish welfare recipients; curbing lobbying abuse becomes a tool to turn the screws on groups representing the special interests of the elderly. And paring back government is the justification for tax breaks for the rich, which will force even bigger cuts in programs serving the middle class and the poor.

That shift in focus has been spurred by the rise of Christian right groups that often seem bent on moral vengeance, not just political change.

Organizations like the Christian Coalition have worked with remarkable skill to reshape the Republican party at the local and state levels, and to change nominating procedures in ways that favor their own candidates.

They, in turn, have made common cause with yet another kind of conservative — those whose ideology consists of a single tenet: giving full rein to business, regardless of the social cost.

The only Republican presidential contenders with a chance in 1996 are those who already have the support of this potent coalition, like Texas Sen. Phil Gramm and political columnist Pat Buchanan — or those who are willing to change almost any position to curry favor with these groups, like Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.), the faltering frontrunner.

Specter ran a campaign aimed directly at the Christian Coalition; over and over again, he baited the group's founder, the Rev. Pat Robertson, and its executive director, Ralph Reed.

That made for wonderful political theater. But it failed to produce the results Specter had hoped for — a groundswell against the new Republican conservative coalition.

That same factor helped seal the fate of California Gov. Pete Wilson after an embarrassingly brief campaign; it was part of the equation that convinced retired Gen. Colin Powell not to run as a Republican moderate.

And herein lies a problem for Jewish voters, who continue to buck the trend among middle-class whites by voting for liberal Democrats.

Part of that stubborn loyalty is a genuine commitment to the core values of compassionate liberalism and a belief that only a strong and active government can protect minorities.

But more and more, that loyalty is also based on a fear of extremism, and specifically of the religious extremism that seems to exert an ever-stronger pull on the Republican party.

A noted Jewish neoconservative put it to me this way last year: "Today, the political values of many Jews are closer to the values of the Republican party," he said. "But Jewish emancipation was made by liberals, not by conservatives — and not by Christians, but by secularists. As a result, Jews have always felt more comfortable with secularists and liberals, which is perfectly understandable."

So Jews may be increasingly attracted to the idea of fiscal conservatism, and maybe even to some of the social theories favored by House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.). But they are unlikely to bolt from the Democrats because of their fear of Pat Robertson and the even more far-out evangelical leaders who have found an inviting home in the GOP.

Similarly, many Jews share the view that business is overregulated, and that economic growth is stifled by too-high taxes. But few are willing to endorse the laissez-faire extremism of some of the new GOP congressional upstarts. As people with a stronger-than-average appreciation of history, Jews remember too well what happened the last time the nation gave in to that kind of ideology.

All of that is good news for the Democrats, but it could be bad news for a Jewish community that may be increasingly irrelevant in the nation's political calculus.

The Democrats can afford to largely ignore a Jewish community that is unlikely to pick up its votes and go over to the GOP. Undecided votes are power; when a group's votes are pretty much guaranteed, clout inevitably declines.

More importantly, a kind of political estrangement is taking place as Jews see a Democratic Party that often seems to promote positions that are no longer consensus positions for the Jewish community — but who feel that they can't join the Republicans because of the religious and ideological extremists who wield so much power in the party's inner sanctums.

Jews are middle-of-the-road voters; increasingly, there is no middle of the road in the Republican party, a fact Arlen Specter learned after a grueling 10-month campaign that produced almost no tangible results.

In 1995, many Jewish voters feel bound to the Democrats not by ideology, but by fear — a special kind of political disenfranchisement that is likely to grow as the nation becomes more polarized.