In 2000 I was enamored with the “insurgent” candidacy of John McCain for President. Although his image took a beating in later years, back then his maverick reputation had earned him accolades in the press and in popular culture. So I went online and made a donation. The campaign also sold me what it must have thought would secure my commitment: a bumper sticker reading “Jewish Americans for McCain” and featuring a martial five-point star in tribute to Sen. McCain’s distinguished military service.
Upon closer inspection, the sticker felt a bit creepy. While a Star of David would have made more sense, it wasn’t the star that seemed misguided. Rather, the well-intentioned “swag” rubbed me the wrong way because I had never called myself a “Jewish American.” The designation awkwardly lined me up with all the other hyphenated ethnic and racial designations bandied about by professional liberal activists. To be sure, I am a proud Jew and a proud American, and I belong to countless American Jewish organizations. What drew me to Sen. McCain, however, was his extraordinary biography and commitment to American leadership in the world. Then as now, his principles stood for shared American values that transcend special interests. For this reason, I eagerly lined up behind the senator, albeit as a nondescript “McCainiac” rather than a “Jewish American for McCain.”
McCain’s clumsy appeal to ethnicity was a sign of the times and seemed to augur the rise of the so-called Emerging Democratic Majority (EDM). Originally coined by Ruy Teixeira and John Judis in their 2002 book by the same name, the EDM thesis postulates that the Democratic Party will come to dominate national elections because of the changing demographic landscape. Specifically, whites are declining as a percentage of the electorate as racial minorities are rising. This fact, together with the relative strength of Democrats among minorities and other demographic “voting blocs,” apparently spells doom for Republican prospects. Just last week, however, Judis himself pulled a 180 with a piece in National Journal, where he explains how Republicans are set to dominate elections after all, due especially to their rising hold on middle-class voters. Politicos of all stripes have been breaking down the arguments, often to suit their own agendas.
Lost in all the beltway chatter is the sad premise that U.S. elections turn on capturing the disconnected hearts and minds of this segment or that one, be it Hispanics, blue-collar workers, senior citizens, millennials, gays, soccer moms, veterans, unmarried women, urban professionals, or — dare I say — Jewish Americans. True, it was the machinations of Karl Rove which introduced the power of micro-targeting to the campaigns of George W. Bush. But President Obama’s second Presidential campaign took identity campaign politics to an unprecedented level. From the beginning Obama for America was really a conflation of building blocks — Obama for blacks, Obama for Hispanics, Obama for gays, Obama for labor unions, Obama for pro-choice activists, Obama for gun-control activists, Obama for trial lawyers. Stack ’em all up and they totaled more than the would-be coalition for Romney. Gone was even the lip service to the 2008 rallying cry of “not a collection of red states and blue states… the United States!”
I wasn’t too politically aware when Reagan held the White House, but one thing I remember clearly was his sunny demeanor and his message of bringing freedom and prosperity to Americans from every walk of life. Likewise Bill Clinton worked hard to weave a thread of shared purpose in “a bridge to the 21st century.” Appealing to our common American values should be the centerpiece of a Presidential campaign. The motto of our nation’s Great Seal is e pluribus unum. That means “one from many” not “many from one.” Instead of littering their speeches with trite anecdotes illustrating one interest group or the other and instead of manufacturing soothing but shallow catch phrases like “middle-class economics,” our leaders should be delving deeply into what makes America truly special and rallying the population around it. They may be surprised how many [insert label here]-Americans break out of the molds predetermined by cynical political strategists.
As the 2016 campaign begins to take shape, I hope we see a fresh approach from the Republican field and the presumed Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. For her part, Clinton is working hard to articulate a substantive rationale for her prospective candidacy. A good place to start would be to enunciate principles for boosting the economy and countering our nation’s enemies abroad. Democrats and Republicans may not agree on policy, but we should be able to agree on the end goals.