The battle to succeed Speaker John Boehner following his sudden but not unexpected resignation will move the House GOP leadership farther to the right and away from the overwhelming majority of Jewish voters.
When it comes to the Jewish community, Republicans are essentially a one-issue party. Boehner, like many in his caucus, has been a strong supporter of Israel, but on the domestic agenda there’s a precipitous drop in appeal.
Take the immediate issue that prompted Boehner to move up his departure. His nemesis, the GOP’s far right, was willing to shut down the government in order to cut off federal funding for Planned Parenthood and threatened to depose the Speaker unless he went along.
By three-to-one margins, Jewish voters support a woman’s right to abortion, contraception, and family planning. Although not a federal cent going to Planned Parenthood pays for abortions, that was irrelevant to the conservatives who decided to make it their big wedge issue against Democrats.
The influential “values voters” of the religious right are demanding that the next speaker and the next GOP presidential candidate share their uncompromising views on abortion, gay marriage, and other hot button social issues.
Similar wide gaps also exist on issues like global warming, environmental and consumer protection, health care reform, Medicare and Social Security funding, immigration reform, aid to education, food stamps, and more.
The far right “Freedom Caucus” may only have about 50 of the 247 House Republicans but they hold many of their colleagues hostage with threats of primary challenges. For proof they point to Eric Cantor, the House majority leader who wasn’t conservative enough for the tea baggers and was soundly defeated by a GOP primary challenger from the farther right, David Brat. That left his colleagues stunned and scared of similar fates.
Ironically, had Cantor paid more attention to his Virginia district, he might have become the first Jewish speaker in history. He was the only Jewish Republican in the 113th Congress and the highest-ranking Jew ever in either the House or Senate.
Cantor echoes Boehner’s assessment that their party’s far right is unrealistic. “The tragedy here is that these voices have not been honest with our fellow conservatives,” Cantor wrote last month in the New York Times. “They have not been honest about what can be accomplished when your party controls Congress, but not the White House.”
Publicly, Boehner referred to his critics as “false prophets” who promised more than they could deliver. Privately he used words like “knuckleheads” and “jackasses.”
A change of leadership won’t heal the wounds in the GOP or broaden its national base, only reinforce the grip of the extremists. Moderate Republicans are near extinction in the House, with the party split between the far right and the extreme right.
The man most likely to succeed Boehner, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California, is considered amiable but weak. He has better relations with the Freedom Caucus than Boehner but it won’t take long for him to be caught between the “no compromise” extremists and the reality of governing.
Israel is not atop the agenda for most Jewish voters, but for Republicans it is their best appeal to Jews, especially those with deep pockets like Sheldon Adelson. That is behind the party’s intense campaign to portray Barack Obama and Democrats as enemies of the Jewish state. They partnered with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his ambassador, himself a former Republican operative.
Boehner will be remembered as the Speaker who secretly invited the Israeli leader to speak to Congress in order to boost the Republican campaign to defeat the Iranian nuclear agreement negotiated by Obama. Anyone who doubted the opposition to the Iran deal wasn’t overwhelmingly partisan should consider that Republicans voted unanimously against it, many announcing their opposition from the outset and few even bothering to read the final documents.
“The Speech” did great damage to Democratic support for Israel on Capitol Hill and made the Israeli ambassador virtually persona non grata at the White House. JTA reported that Congressional Democrats are “no longer eager to return calls from the Israeli embassy.” Polls show Democratic support for Israel in Congress slipping, particularly in view of Netanyahu’s alliance with Republicans, his antipathy toward the Democratic president, and his lack of progress toward peace.
That may be bad news for Israel but it’s good news for Republicans, who are eager for support from Israel-focused big givers and the party’s larger, more influential evangelical base.
The GOP can count on a substantial segment of Orthodox Jewish voters, a small but growing minority who identify with their hardline positions on Israel and on domestic social issues. But it remains to be seen how much farther the party can move toward the extreme right and still retain support of wealthy Jewish conservatives.