When Americans head to the polls in November, President Barack Obama's likely opponent will be former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney. The departure of Rick Santorum from the Republican primary means Romney's path to the nomination is all but guaranteed, barring another improbable surge from Newt Gingrich or a last-minute challenge from an undeclared candidate.
With the campaign pivoting away from their Republican rivals and toward President Obama, one of Team Romney's senior advisers on Jewish and Israel issues is helping his candidate make a case to Jewish American voters.
Tevi Troy is a prominent Jewish Republican who served as the deputy secretary of the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) under former President George W. Bush. Before that, he worked in the White House as a domestic policy adviser and as liaison to the Jewish community. Troy, who holds a PhD from the University of Texas at Austin, is a member of the Romney campaign's healthcare advisory task force and advises the former Massachusetts governor on issues of concern to the American Jewish community.
The Times of Israel asked Troy how his candidate plans to appeal to Jewish voters in the fall.
Tevi, let's start with your 'elevator pitch.' What would you say to an undecided American Jewish voter?
Tevi Troy: Well, four years ago, the pitch John McCain made was to stress that here you have someone with a 30-year pro-Israel record running against an unknown [Obama]. For the most part, the American Jewish community decided to go with the unknown. But now, President Obama's record is no longer unknown. His coldness to Israel is manifest. He's had a very difficult relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. And they rebuke Israel every chance they get – at least they did during the first three years. They've quieted down in the past year as we enter an election cycle. The administration's approach to Israel is not just extremely problematic to American Jews, but to supporters of Israel around the country and around the world.
Romney, in contrast, is a staunch supporter of Israel. He's a close friend of Netanyahu going back decades. He said his first trip would be to Israel and he views the peace process as one in which you let Israel know that America has Israel's back.
President Obama's supporters would no doubt reject this "coldness" you say he has toward Israel. They could cite, for example, his veto of the UN Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlements last February or the administration's successful thwarting of the Palestinian unilateral bid for independence at the UN last September.
True, but I'd actually be terrified if we had a president who seriously contemplated not doing those things. But it is true, some of those things have happened more recently. But the first three years of Obama's tenure were very rocky. Also, I think the Palestinians misplayed their hand at the UN and forced the administration to confront the issue and left them no other choice.
Overall, I don't think anyone would deny it's been a difficult relationship over the first three years. And with Obama's 'hot mic' comments about Bibi with the French President and then the 'hot mic' comments he made [to Russian President Dmitri Medvedev] about what he would do with more flexibility in the second term, American supporters of Israel should be very worried about what Obama would do when unbound by the electoral cycle in a second term.
Obama won 78 percent of the Jewish vote in 2008. Is there a certain number that Romney needs to win the general election?
It seems to me that, over the past 40 years, there's been a range of where the Jewish vote has gone – 11 percent was the low point for George H.W. Bush in 1992 and the high mark for a Republican receiving the Jewish vote was Reagan in 1980 when he got 39 percent. So there's this 28 percent spread, which I like to think about in terms of its Hebrew gematria (numerology), which is 'koach,' meaning 'strength.' This 28 percent shows the disproportionate strength of the Jewish vote given its relative numbers.
If a Republican candidate gets in the 30s, they're almost certain to win election. If they get under the 20s, they're almost certain to lose. We'll see what happens this time, but I can't imagine Obama getting more than the 78 percent he got in 2008, which, of course, translated to 22 percent for the Republican ticket.
So if Obama loses eight percent of the Jews who voted for him, he's in trouble?
All I'm saying is that there are swings among ethnic groups in elections that can have a huge electoral impact. We saw in 2004 a five or six percent shift from what Al Gore got from Jewish voters in 2000 to what Kerry got in 2004. In other words, Kerry did five points worse in the Jewish community, Bush did five points better, and it had a huge impact in states like Florida and Ohio.
Did it really? Did this five percent shift in such a statistically small ethnic population make that much of a difference?
Yes, the idea is that certain electoral districts that are heavily Jewish in which Democrats historically do very well are the districts that Democrats need in order to hold certain states. The Democratic electoral margins in Cuyahoga county in Ohio and districts in South Florida were lower than they usually were and that allowed Republicans to take the states based on high voter turnout in other parts of the state. The speculation is that the Jewish vote — particularly the Orthodox vote which went from 40 percent for the Republicans in 2000 to 70 percent in in 2004 – made a real difference.
You've said that former New York City mayor Ed Koch is a 'canary in the coal mine' when it comes to predicting the American Jewish vote.
Yes, Ed Koch, a Democrat, is a canary in the coal mine. Look at the Bob Turner race in New York. When Koch, a Democrat, actively went out and campaigned for the Republican specifically because he wanted to send a message to the Obama White House on his problematic Israel policies, voters responded. In fact, Turner defeated an observant Jew and staunch Israel supporter. But they wanted to send a message.
I think that incident really scared the Obama administration. When Ed Koch deserts the Democrats, it's usually bad news for the Democrats, and it's usually on the Israel issue. After the Turner race, the Obama administration began a full court press to get Koch's support. They invited him to a State Dinner and arranged a direct meeting between him and the president. And I know that Koch has since said he'd support Obama for now, but that's kind of an expensive approach. You can't do that with every disaffected Jewish voter.
You mentioned Romney's friendship with Netanyahu and his generally supportive approach to Israel, but what kind of specific policy differences would we see in a Romney administration? Would he, for example, move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem?
He's supportive of that, but he's said that he'd do things in conjunction with the government of Israel, so I think a President Romney would have a conversation with the Israelis about what's the best way to move forward on that.
As I said, I think you'd see a more supportive approach when it comes to the US-Israel relationship. I think you'd see a president in Romney who's more concerned about Iran building nuclear weapons than Israelis building apartment buildings in Jerusalem.
You think Obama has been too easy on Iran?
I think they certainly rebuked the Israelis pretty heavily on building in Jerusalem, whereas when the Green Revolution took place in Iran, there were people begging for Obama to weigh in and he was silent and that was a mistake. Especially since we saw later with the Arab Spring that they were more than happy to weigh in with Mubarak and Egypt. So that's a strategic mistake and I don't think it's one Romney would make.
What about Obama's Iran sanctions? Do you give the administration credit for aggressively pursuing a robust sanctions regime?
We won't know how effective the sanctions are until we can see if we can actually stop Iran from doing what we all fear. Romney has been very explicit in saying that stopping Iran from getting a nuclear weapon is a top priority.
Let's shift to healthcare for a moment, which will be one of the dominant issues of the campaign. You were the Deputy Health Secretary, so it would be a shame not to get your thoughts on the issue. It's been said that Obamacare is modeled after Romney's plan in Massachusetts. Yet candidate Romney has vowed to repeal Obamacare. Why is what's good for Massachusetts not good for the rest of the country?
First, I reject the notion that the plans are the same thing. The Romney plan does not cut Medicare by $500 billion, the Obama plan does. The Romney plan does not have an independent payment advisory board which will curtail the practice of medicine and limit the therapies that people can have access to. The Romney plan does not raise taxes, the Obama plan does. Also, Massachusetts is one of the more liberal states in this country and just because one state chose that system does not mean it's a vision for the rest of the country and a President Romney would recognize that.
Also, the reason he is so staunchly opposed to the Obama healthcare law is that it would not bend the cost curve down as the president promised. In fact, costs are going to go up. It will not allow individuals to keep their healthcare if they like what they have because there will be tons of employers dropping coverage, as numerous studies have indicated. And then, in terms of access, the way they're going to increase access is by the individual mandate, which the Supreme Court may soon deem unconstitutional. Even in 2019 under the Obama plan, there will still be over 20 million Americans without any coverage. So the Obama plan doesn't meet its own tests for success. We've seen polls that the American people don't like it. Too costly, too burdensome, too intrusive, and a President Romney has promised that he will repeal it.
So what's the alternative to making sure as many Americans as possible have health coverage?
Coverage is essential. Reducing costs is essential. One of the best ways to achieve success is working closely with the states and allowing experimentation on the state level to flourish. I think what we've seen from the Obama plan is that these overly ambitious plans to remake everything don't work. You'd see a smaller, wiser, and more focused approach on health care from the Romney administration.
Circling back to the Jewish/Israel issue, is there any anecdote or something personal about Romney that you think Jewish voters should know?
I do know that, during one trip to Israel, Romney was touring the security barrier that protects Israelis from terrorist attacks. The Israeli soldier showing him the barrier was a little defensive about it – clearly, he had been used to foreign visitors grilling him about it. Romney stopped him and said, I'm paraphrasing, 'You don't have to explain it to me. In America, if we had this kind of problem, we'd build a 50 foot high wall.' Romney gets it. He knew intuitively that that the security barrier is necessary for Israelis to defend their citizens.