AJC Analysis: Implications of the 2012 Election

By Jason Isaacson, Richard Foltin and Julie Fishman

November 7, 2012


A long, expensive and often harsh campaign that revealed the razor-thin national division between Democratic and Republican voters – and deep regional, generational, ethnic and gender fractures – ended in an election that changed a few seats in Congress but maintained the essential status quo of the last two years. President Barack Obama, facing former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, won a second term with a smaller margin than in 2008 – but made history by succeeding in the face of continued high (though gradually declining) unemployment, in the context of widespread disaffection with government, and in a period of international turbulence.

Billions of dollars – and more than 1 million television advertisements – later, Election 2012 found a polarized electorate fashioning the same division of the federal government it had inherited and found disappointing: a Republican House, a Democratic Senate (with a bolstered majority – but not bolstered enough to halt filibusters), and a Democratic executive branch. The central political challenge facing the president and the 113th Congress will be whether divided government continues to mean paralyzed government – dooming efforts to achieve budget discipline, a rational energy policy, and long-needed immigration reform, among other urgent priorities – or can be shaped by wise leadership to yield a new spirit of pragmatic cooperation and compromise.

Although economic issues were dominant in the presidential and congressional contests, and uppermost in the minds of voters, candidates grappled throughout the campaign with a range of concerns of special interest to the Jewish community, and to its interethnic and interreligious coalition partners. Whether and how the winners at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue address these issues – collectively – will determine the direction and success of foreign and domestic policy in the years ahead. As always, AJC will seek to make nonpartisan common cause with the administration, members of Congress of both parties, and fellow civil society activists to advance our advocacy agenda.

The demographic context in which AJC pursues its objectives produced on Election Day 2012 an electorate that had a greater minority concentration and a smaller white vote than in 2008. With close to 2 percent of the national population, Jews – with dramatically high participation rates – have been estimated in recent years to make up as much as 4 percent of the vote – though with wide geographic variations. In swing states – including Florida, Ohio and Virginia – the percentage is especially significant, and this year’s election saw extensive efforts by both parties to retain or expand their Jewish support. Recent presidential elections have seen Democrats averaging between 65 and 80 percent support from Jewish voters; Obama won an estimated 78 percent (later recalculated at 74 percent) of Jews’ votes in 2008, and different Election Day 2012 exit polls had him slipping to 69 or 70 percent – a drop that kept him solidly in the Jewish political tradition but with enough movement to suggest that targeted communal appeals can yield results. (The final pre-election AJC national survey of Jewish voter sentiment had found a 65-24 split for the president, with 11 percent undecided; factoring in those fence-sitters yielded precisely the result exit polls reported on Election Day.)

Foreign Policy Differences and Expectations

Appeals to Jewish voters by, and on behalf of, Romney stressed policy differences between the Obama administration and Israel on the best way to assure Israel’s security in the face of political upheaval across the Arab world, continued conflict with the Palestinians, and mounting threats from an aggressive Iranian regime pursuing nuclear weapons capability and sponsoring terrorism. In his Aug. 30 nomination acceptance speech, Romney said Obama “has thrown allies like Israel under the bus” and permitted Iran to make steady progress toward a nuclear weapon; he and his aides and surrogates portrayed the president as either indifferent to Israel or naïve about the perils it faces. The Obama campaign, with support from administration national security and outreach aides, portrayed a vastly different picture – of a president dedicated to Israel’s security and well-being, strengthening military-to-military cooperation, adding to the state’s missile defenses, protecting Israel against political attacks in international forums, and resolutely tightening international sanctions against the Iranian regime.

In the midst of the political back and forth, public disagreements were occasionally aired between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Obama administration – most recently over whether Washington should announce “red lines” that would trigger an American military response to Iran’s continued nuclear provocation; the prime minister urged such an announcement, only to find it publicly rejected by the president. But Obama was vociferous in the final presidential debate in declaring American resolve to “stand with Israel” if the state were attacked, and in stressing the danger of a nuclear Iran and his commitment to preventing it from acquiring such weaponry. Romney was no less firm in that final debate in his defense of Israel and his dedication to blocking Iran’s nuclear ambitions, and he pointed repeatedly to the dangers of Islamist extremism on the rise in the Arab world. The attention devoted to Middle East issues – specifically to Israel’s security – was substantial, and offered further evidence of the centrality of these Jewish communal concerns to both campaigns.

With the president’s reelection, questions naturally will be raised – in the community, among friends of Israel in both parties on Capitol Hill, and internationally – about the future course of U.S. Middle East policy; in fact, critics of the Israeli government have been saying privately and often publicly for months that they are hoping for a sterner Obama approach toward Jerusalem, while some in the pro-Israel community have expressed fears that a second-term president of uncertain fidelity could grant those critics’ wishes. Similar fears have been expressed about Iran policy – and whether the president’s repeated rejection this year of “containment” as an option to confronting the nuclear threat might be reexamined after the voters had had their say. There is no evidence that either scenario is the likely course for the second Obama term; frayed relations between Washington and Jerusalem did not advance the cause of Middle East peace or other U.S. strategic interests in 2009 and 2010, nor could they be expected to help America and its allies cope with a rapidly changing and still volatile region in 2013 and beyond. But, as ever, AJC will be in continuous contact with policy makers, in the administration and Congress, to assure the consistent defense of American interests and American democratic ideals – in the Middle East and around the world.

International Reaction

While America was nearly evenly divided on Election Day 2012, international opinion about the presidential race – sampled in poll after poll among citizens of friendly and less-friendly nations – revealed almost universal support for the reelection of a president seen as committed to multilateral rather than unilateral approaches to world problems, from Middle East upheavals and human rights atrocities to counterterrorism and climate change. (In private, world leaders were not always as complimentary.) In reaction to the Obama victory, good wishes from world capitals were showered on Washington – some bearing challenging agendas. Prime Minister Netanyahu congratulated the president and affirmed that the U.S.-Israel alliance is “stronger than ever,” and Israeli President Shimon Peres thanked Obama for his “unprecedented commitment and support for the security of Israel.” Middle East envoy Tony Blair greeted the president’s victory with a call to restore peace negotiations “with a renewed sense of momentum.”

Among others offering their congratulations were Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, who greeted the media with her hands in the shape of a heart, and Chinese President Hu Jintao, who voiced hope for “positive progress” in all bilateral sectors. In India, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh saw a chance to “advance peace and stability, expand mutual economic opportunities, harness the potential of science and technology, innovation and higher education.” Turkish President Abdullah Gül said he was committed to preserving “our model partnership and the positive atmosphere in our multi-dimensional relations.” Russian officials spoke of a new start for U.S.-Russia relations, while French President François Hollande called the election “an important moment for the U.S., but also for the world.”

Not all reactions were positive. A Hamas statement demanded an immediate end to U.S. support for the “Zionist regime.” Election news was greeted coolly in Tehran; Sadeq Larijani, leader of the Iranian judiciary, expressed skepticism of Obama’s intentions to resolve the nuclear standoff diplomatically, saying: “Americans should not think they can hold our nation to ransom by coming to the negotiating table.”

Implications for Congress

In contrast to the partisan gridlock that has characterized so much of Congress’s work these last years, bipartisan support for Israel and for vigorous sanctions against Iran –consistent with the unity of purpose on these issues expressed by President Obama and Governor Romney – has continued to be reflected in overwhelming votes on pertinent legislation and resolutions. Thus, in August, the Senate passed by unanimous consent, and the House passed 421-6, the Iran Threat Reduction and Syria Human Rights Act (ITRA), a bill that closed several loopholes in the sanctions regime and provided for additional penalties against entities that aid Iran's petroleum, petrochemical, insurance, shipping, and financial sectors. Significant as this legislation, subsequently signed into law by Obama, was, it did not contain language offered by Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL) in the Senate and Reps. Ted Deutch (D-FL) and Robert Dold (R-IL) in the House that would have provided for even further tightening of energy-sector and financial-sector sanctions on Iran. Absent an unexpectedly forthcoming Iranian regime, it is quite likely that the coming Congress will return to these provisions left on the table – and very likely that such enhanced measures will find the broad bipartisan support that was extended to ITRA.

On the domestic front, with the failure to achieve bipartisan cooperation increasingly getting a bad name, this year’s election opens the door to movement on immigration reform – certainly on the DREAM Act, for which Obama has been a strong advocate, if not the more comprehensive reform also supported by the president. Unlike virtually every other demographic category (including Jews), President Obama increased his share of the Latino vote as compared to 2008, with every reason to believe that Latino voters were alienated by the GOP’s tough stance on immigration, not to mention the strident rhetoric often employed by proponents of restrictionist immigration policies. Against the background of the president’s campaign promise that immigration reform will be a priority early in his second term, and talk on both sides of the aisle as to the imperative to now find common ground on immigration, there is hope for progress in this area. Even if that is the case, however, pro-immigration groups are likely to be faced – as they were in 2006 and 2007 – with difficult choices on compromises that may be necessary to bring immigration reform across the finish line.

Ongoing extreme weather events – not least Superstorm Sandy, which hit the Northeast just one week before Election Day – have led environmental advocates to urge that the time has come for the president and Congress to direct their attention to the negative effects of greenhouse gas emissions. However, given what turned out to be a status quo election and the lack of attention to environmental issues in the course of the campaign, the political dynamics that led to climate change being placed on the back burner over the last four years – following an initial feint early in the Obama administration – have not changed.In sharp contrast, both President Obama and Governor Romney spoke of the need to address U.S. dependence on foreign oil, with the newly reelected president having committed to making domestic production of oil and natural gas part of the energy mix. Against a background of significant bipartisan cooperation in the Senate on energy security (as one example, Senators Ron Wyden and Lisa Murkowski – expected to be chair and ranking member, respectively, of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources in the next Congress – traveled together to Alaska in August to view that state’s energy resources), energy security measures that promote alternative fuels and technologies, and efficiency and conservation – along with development of domestic resources – have great promise as an area in which progress can be made.

The president’s reelection leaves in play challenging religious liberty questions that would have been mooted had Romney taken the White House (although a Romney administration would doubtless have presented other challenges in this area). The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and like-minded organizations will continue to assert that the contraceptives-funding mandate promulgated under the health care law fails to make adequate provision for employers with religious objections to providing such coverage, with legislative initiatives directed at this issue – accompanying litigation that is already pending – likely to move through the House. In addition, while the first-term Obama Administration took important steps in reforming the faith-based initiative so as to safeguard church-state separation and religious liberty, there remain important unresolved issues, not least the Bush-era policies, still in place, that allow religious employers to discriminate on the basis of religion even with regard to persons whom they hire to work within government-funded projects.

Following successful action during the 112th Congress on free trade agreements with South Korea, Panama, and Colombia – agreements AJC strongly supported – there should be opportunity for further cooperation between the Democratic president and Republican congressional leadership on such compacts. While Republicans tend to favor such agreements more than Democrats, divisions on free trade often follow regional interests and ideology as much as party lines. Presidential leadership can make a big difference in moving this agenda forward.

Other issues with which the returning president and the next Congress will have to grapple include the ongoing challenge, on several fronts, of dealing with the threat of international and domestic terrorism and, at the same time protecting the civil rights and civil liberties, and more broadly universal human rights, that are at the core of American identity and values. Among the issues that will bring the need to reconcile these priorities to the fore are responses to cyberterrorism (with legislation intended to address this threat having failed to move forward in the 112th Congress), mass data collection by law enforcement and intelligence authorities, safeguarding of our ports of entry, and the use of drones and other instruments of targeted killing directed at persons abroad who would do us harm.

An early test of Congress’s ability to move beyond gridlock will be posed as the House and Senate return for a lame duck session in which they will seek to avoid going over the “fiscal cliff” of across-the-board sequestration associated with last year’s budget deal. As Congress weighs how to avoid that result, AJC will urge that budgetary decisions be made in a fashion that gives due regard to the national imperative to maintain robust foreign aid; preserve crucially needed funds for immigration and refugee programs; continue to invest in technological innovation targeted at investing in America’s future energy security; and support a critically needed nonprofit sector by maintaining the ability of donors to deduct charitable contributions from their taxes.

Finally, with four members of the Supreme Court in their seventies and a proliferation of unfilled seats throughout the federal judiciary, it is difficult to overstate the potential impact for the judiciary branch of the coming second term for the president. The Democrats’ increased majority in the Senate majority notwithstanding, the question remains whether we will continue to see the pattern of obstruction of confirmations of judicial and other nominees that we saw over the last four years – or whether the administration and Republican senators will be able to find a modus vivendi that allows the process to move forward.

Of course, there were critical developments at the state level as well, with voters in four states either approving marriage equality or rejecting measures directed at forestalling same-sex marriage; Maryland voters approving an initiative that allows DREAM-eligible students resident in the state to have the benefit of in-state college tuition; and Florida voters rebuffing a referendum that would have allowed public funding of religious schools.

Congress by the Numbers

As the 112th Congress got under way, the common wisdom was that Republicans were likely to retake the Senate in 2012 – if for no other reason than that 23 Democrats were retiring or facing reelection, compared with only 10 Republicans. To the contrary, 2012 balloting kept the Senate solidly in Democratic hands; in fact, Senate Democrats even picked up two seats. The House also maintained the status quo, remaining under Republican control, although as of this writing it appears that Democrats will achieve a net gain of several seats.

Despite the fact that the House and Senate will largely look the same in terms of control, with relative stability in partisan division, Capitol Hill will still welcome dozens of new faces in January 2013. In a massive wave of retirements, 19 Democrats and 15 Republicans elected not to run for reelection. In addition, five incumbents were voted out of office in primaries, denying them the opportunity to campaign in the general election for the seats they previously held.

As a result of retirements, electoral losses, and other issues, the number of Jews in both the House and Senate will decline. In the Senate, both Herb Kohl (D-WI) and Joe Lieberman (I-CT) are retiring, and will complete their terms in January 2013.While there were three new Jewish candidates for Senate seats – Rep. Shelley Berkley of Nevada (D), former Gov. Linda Lingle of Hawaii (R), and Ohio State Treasurer Josh Mandel (R) – all lost their bids. Three Jewish senators up for reelection – Ben Cardin (D-MD), Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), and Bernard Sanders (I-VT) – kept their seats, bringing the total number of Jews in the Senate down from 12 in the 112th Congress to 10 in the 113th. (Some tabulations add Sen. Michael Bennet, D-CO, whose Jewish mother survived the Holocaust; he does not identify his religion.)

At the beginning of the 112th Congress there were 27 Jewish members in the House of Representatives, but along the way Jane Harman (D-CA) resigned to head the Woodrow Wilson Center, Anthony Weiner departed abruptly in the wake of scandal, and Gabby Giffords – after a valiant effort to remain in Congress notwithstanding grievous injury from a violent attack – stepped down; Gary Ackerman (D-NY) and Barney Frank (D-MA) – national leaders in foreign affairs and financial services regulation, respectively – announced their retirement as of the end of the current Congress; and Bob Filner (D-CA) and the aforementioned Rep. Berkley of Nevada sought other public offices. (Filner’s campaign was successful; he will be San Diego’s next mayor.) Finally, in a fierce and closely watched contest, House Foreign Affairs Committee ranking member Howard Berman was pitted, as a result of consolidation of Los Angeles-area districts arising from redistricting, in a battle with fellow committee member Brad Sherman; both congressmen are Jewish. Sherman won the seat. It is safe to say that, regardless of how that race had been decided, AJC would have – and now has – lost a close friend and important ally in advocating for a strong U.S.-Israel relationship and biting Iran sanctions.

Accompanying these departures, there will be new Jewish House Members when the Congress reconvenes in January. Alan Grayson (D-FL) will return after losing his seat in 2010.He will be joined by Lois Frankel (D-FL), who competed against another Jewish candidate, Adam Hasner; Alan Lowenthal (D), a California State Senator, will represent the state’s new 47th District; and Brad Schneider (D-IL) defeated the aforementioned Rep. Dold in Illinois’s 10th District. All four new Jewish Members are Democrats, leaving Majority Leader Eric Cantor, once again, as the only Jewish Republican in either house of Congress. The net result for the 113th Congress: 22 Jewish representatives (down from the current 24) – about five percent of the House.

We note Rep. Dold’s departure with regret. He has been an outstanding advocate for Israel, as well as the author of important and effective Iran sanctions legislation. At the same time, we look forward to working with Rep.-elect Schneider, an active member of AJC Chicago’s board of directors. Also entering Congress is another longtime friend of AJC, Joe García (D-FL); in addition to being the first Cuban American Democrat in Congress, Garcia is an alumnus of AJC Project Interchange and a friend of AJC’s Latino and Latin American Institute. (Other Project Interchange alumni in Congress include House Majority Leader Cantor, Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, and Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri.)

In developments affecting communities with which AJC has long partnered, Latinos saw a significant increase in their Congressional representation as a result of this election – up to 29 from 24 in the current Congress, including Texas Republican Ted Cruz, the first Latino U.S. Senator from Texas (which brings to three the number of Latinos in the Senate). Asian Americans, the fastest growing minority in the United States, also made significant gains. The 2012 election saw more than a tripling of the number of Asian Americans running for Congress – to a record 36 candidates this year, up from 10 in 2010. Of those 2012 candidates, 21 won primary competitions and thus competed in the general election; five were elected to Congress, with former Rep. Mazie Hirono (D-HI), becoming the first Asian American woman elected to the Senate, as well as the first Buddhist. One race, pitting Democrat Ami Bera against incumbent Republican Dan Lungren for California’s 7th District, was too close to call as of this writing.The incoming five (or six) Asian elected officials will join eight other Asian Americans in Congress.

Congress became more diverse religiously as well. Tulsi Gabbard, a Democrat from Hawaii, will become the first Hindu member of Congress. The two remaining Buddhists in the House (with Rep. Hirono’s departure for the Senate), Rep. Hank Johnson (D-GA) and Rep. Colleen Hanabusa (D-HI), both won reelection. Congress also has two returning Muslim members in Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN) and Rep. Andre Carson (D-IN).

As always, AJC will seek out minority groups with common interests to advance our joint agendas. And, to be sure, even with slightly diminished numbers and significant departures, Jewish incumbents in both chambers retain significant clout. For example, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) is the only senator to preside over two committees simultaneously; she chairs the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works and the Select Committee on Ethics. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) chairs the Select Committee on Intelligence. Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI) is Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) is the third ranking Democrat in the Senate and the Chair of the Senate Democratic Policy Committee. In the House, as noted, Rep. Cantor (R-VA) serves as Majority Leader. Rep. Nita Lowey (D-NY), a longtime friend of AJC, is the ranking member on the Appropriations Subcommittee on State and Foreign Operations. Rep. Brad Sherman is the ranking member on the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Terrorism, Non-proliferation, and Trade, and stands to gain additional seniority and clout in the full committee. Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz (D-FL) chairs the Democratic National Committee. Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA), the most senior Jewish member of the House, is ranking on the Energy and Commerce Committee. The list goes on.

While AJC will sincerely miss congressional friends who were unsuccessful in their races or who chose to retire, we remain poised for effective legislative advocacy in the 113th Congress that will build upon our strong relationships with members – of every faith, ethnicity, region and party – in the House and Senate.
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