An air of aching familiarity hovered over the anti–Rudy Giuliani rally staged last week on Park Avenue by an array of aggrieved 9/11 families, firefighters, and rescue workers. This was, after all, the fourth time the group, led by Deputy Fire Chief Jim Riches, who lost a son in the conflagration, has leveled its passel of 9/11-related charges—the comprehensive lack of preparedness, the faulty radios, the placement of the emergency command center in the WTC complex even after the 1993 bombing—against the former mayor. But familiar or not, the protest afforded Riches the chance to announce his long-term objective: “We intend to Swift-boat Rudy the way they Swift-boated Kerry,” he told the Daily News.
A normal presidential candidate would regard such a threat as at least mildly unnerving. But Giuliani more likely takes it as a kind of compliment—a sign that he has crossed the threshold, that he’s now the man to beat in the Republican presidential race. (Who would waste any energy plotting to Swift-boat Sam Brownback?) Projecting an image of presumptive nomineehood, in fact, has lately been at the center of his strategy: his trip to London, full of foreign-policy pronunciamento and saber-rattling toward Iran; his feral attacks on MoveOn.org over the Petraeus-Betray-Us ad; his declaration that 2008 will boil down to “Who does America want for their [sic] future, Rudolph Giuliani or Hillary Clinton?”
In political circles, the reaction to the notion that Giuliani—with his record of out-front social liberalism, soap-operatic personal life, and dabbling in transvestism—might actually become the GOP standard-bearer has long been McEnroe-esque: You cannot be serious! Yet Giuliani has led in virtually every national poll since he declared his candidacy. The entry of Fred Thompson, who has come across more like Deputy Dawg than a plausible Rudy-slayer, has done little to change that. And although Giuliani trails Mitt Romney by double digits in Iowa, he’s within striking distance of first in New Hampshire and South Carolina, and he tops the field in Florida and California. Translation: It could happen.
Even so, Giuliani remains a highly problematic candidate, just not in the ways that so many assume. The received wisdom has always held that Rudy would make a formidable general-election contender yet a prohibitively weak one in the Republican primaries. Eight months into the campaign, however, it strikes me that the reality might prove precisely the opposite—that Giuliani may be the candidate most in tune with the GOP primary electorate, but that the very qualities that have served his cause best so far would cripple his chances in the general.
I caught up with Giuliani recently in Washington, where he’d come for his much-anticipated audience before the National Rifle Association. By now, you will have already absorbed the highlights of the occasion: Rudy’s awkward stabs at tension-defusing humor (“It’s great to be in England,” he said at the outset), the rank intellectual incoherence (the claim that 9/11 “cast somewhat of a different light on the Second Amendment”), and, of course, the freaky-deaky cell-phone call from Judi. What the press reports failed to convey, however, is the sheer discomfort that Giuliani conveyed at being in front of this crowd, the way that his body language seemed to be harrumphing “If I must.”
And yet he came. He made the effort. And although he manifestly didn’t conquer—I’d wager that he didn’t win a single convert in that room—he emerged without even a flesh wound. He paid respect and gained some, too.
Giuliani’s campaign has not been replete with Sister Souljah moments, and far from challenging the NRA, he engaged in some flip-floppery, disowning the lawsuit he filed as mayor against gun manufacturers. On immigration, too, he has thrown his transmission into reverse (1994 Rudy: “Some of the hardest-working and most productive people in this city are undocumented aliens”; 2007 Rudy: “People that come in illegally, we’ve got to stop”). But by the standards of, say, Romney, whose wholesale abandonment of his past persona—soon, I expect, he’ll be telling us he’s realized that he’s a Baptist and not a Mormon—has been mind-boggling in its totality, Giuliani has been a model of consistency. He has stuck with his stance in favor of a woman’s right to choose an abortion. Ditto on domestic partnerships.
That Giuliani has suffered so little for his heresies owes much to the ineptitude of his rivals. Consider the kid-glove treatment of the horror-cum-burlesque show that is Rudy’s personal life. The other day, Romney attempted to score points here—but instead of going for the jugular, he lunged for the capillaries, observing that “when it comes time to run against Hillary Clinton,” the Republican nominee will need “to bring all their family together as I have on the campaign trail.” Now, contrast this with the words, a few days earlier, of former Iowa governor and current Clinton co-chair Tom Vilsack: “I can’t even get into the number of marriages … and the relationship he has with his children,” he said, grinning. “He’s got a very interesting past.” Republicans, N.B.: That’s how you serve up chin music in the major leagues.
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.