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General Alarm for Rudy

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But Giuliani’s success has been about more than being blessed with subprime opponents. It’s been about his ability to frame both his candidacy and the contest in terms favorable to him. Forget about the social issues, he says, in effect, and focus on what matters: foreign terrorists and homegrown liberals, the two enemies that unite all of the factions of the GOP, which views them both as mortal threats to civilization. The core of his pitch is that only he is rough enough, tough enough, and mean enough to combat the threat of Islamofascism. And only he has the balls to keep the White House out of Clinton’s clutches. The image he offers of himself as president is badass-in-chief.

Giuliani says that his role model in all this is Ronald Reagan, but the analogy is flawed in a way that begins to suggest the troubles that he’d have in the general election. No doubt, Reagan’s character was marked by resoluteness, especially about the Soviet Union. But Reagan was, above all, a congenital—indeed, often mindlessly sunny—optimist. Giuliani, by contrast, is a pessimist from the top of his sweaty bald pate to the toes of his black wingtips. His vision of the world, as it was of New York, is dark, dark, dark. He conceives of the war on terror as a multifront conflict stretching out for decades, in which the only sane course is to be perpetually “on offense,” not least militarily.

In truth, Giuliani’s outlook resembles George W. Bush’s more than Reagan’s. If anything, his line on foreign policy is even harder, more impudent, than that of the current president (oh, how the mind doth reel). Giuliani assails the United Nations as “weak, indecisive, and outright corrupt.” He threatens to “set [Iran] back five or ten years” if it comes close to acquiring nukes. With his broadsides against MoveOn and Clinton—“the left of the left”—he is singing straight from Bush’s hymnal. Any number of his advisers, such as Chris Henick, a protégé of Lee Atwater and Karl Rove, are masters of polarization. And then there’s the 9/11 thing, Bush’s trump card and now Giuliani’s. It’s fair to conclude that, with Rudy as the Republican nominee, 2008 could look very much like 2004 all over again.

A lot has changed on the political landscape in the past three years, however. The collapse in support for the Iraq war is the obvious example, and one that makes Giuliani’s bellicosity seem particularly ill-suited to the times. (I mean, really, how many voters in either party are in favor of less diplomacy than there’s been in this administration?) In 2006, the swing of independent voters from Republicans to Democrats cost the GOP control of Congress. With the economy looking iffy, the concerns of those voters have shifted to such issues as health care, about which Giuliani has nothing—apart from witlessly railing against “socialized medicine”—to say. With its assault on immigration, the GOP has alienated Hispanics, one of the groups that pushed Bush over the top in 2004. How will Giuliani’s tilt toward restrictionism play with them?

As for 9/11, anyone who’s read the book Grand Illusion, by Wayne Barrett and Dan Collins, will tell you that the evidence is quite compelling that Rudy’s performance on that awful day—and, crucially, before it—wasn’t all it’s been cracked up to be. And with critics like Riches and Jerry Hauer, Giuliani’s adviser for emergency preparedness, spoiling for a fight, Rudy’s glossy image as a hero could be in for some paint-peeling revisionism.

The broader point is this: For Republicans to have a chance in 2008, they will need a candidate willing to make a “clean break” with Bush and his policies, including on Iraq. That’s not me talking, it’s Newt Gingrich, though I couldn’t agree more. What Gingrich doesn’t say is that, for the GOP, falling back on polarization wouldn’t just be lazy but ill-considered. If Clinton does wind up the Democratic nominee, there will be an opening for a calm, coherent, pragmatic Republican to seize the center, which remains profoundly wary of her.

Giuliani’s adherents argue that he can do just that, as demonstrated by his repeat mayoral victories in this bluest of cities. Yet for all his moderation on cultural matters, Giuliani’s wins here weren’t built on a purplish appeal. His shtick was divide and conquer, polarize and demonize. And so it remains today. To the red-meat munchers who vote in Republican primaries, that might not sound so bad—especially when the alternatives are clowns or empty suits or both. But to the rest of the country, it will likely sound like a recipe for four more years all too much like the past seven.

E-mail: jheilemann@gmail.com.


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