Long Shot

So we’ve learned that Mike Long, the head of New York’s Conservative Party, doesn’t have much use for Rudy Giuliani. He (Long) will not steer his party’s nomination in the direction of a man inclined toward defense of late-term/partial-birth abortions. The mayor, so inclined, is disinclined to tailor his views on the matter. So, it appears, no Conservative Party ballot line for Rudy. And this, the chorus agrees unanimously, is a disaster for the mayor.

But has anyone stopped to think: Maybe the mayor doesn’t want the Conservatives’ endorsement?

It’s just a theory. Could be wrong. But let’s mull it.

“Hmmm,” says political consultant Norman Adler. “You know, we have a tendency to invoke the same mantras in politics until they’re disproved, and then we invoke them for a few years more anyway.” Alas, too true. And the mantra this year is: No … Republican … can … win … statewide … office … without … the … support … of … the … Conservatives. The mantra’s explanatory sentence is that no Republican has done it in 25 years – the late senator Jacob Javits, who used to run as a Republican-Liberal, won his last election in 1974 (then Rocky died, Reagan came, Alfonse beat Javits, and you know the rest). And there the conversation stops.

But there’s a next question that no one ever asks: Why hasn’t anyone done it? Well, it could be, perhaps, that their shoes were too tight. It could be their heads weren’t screwed on just right. But I think that the most likely reason of all is … no one’s tried.

Okay. There is a more valid reason, to which I allude in the above parenthetical – the country moved to the right after 1980, and the Conservative Party became ascendant, at least by the standards of a minor party. Since then, Republicans and Conservatives have worked, with one or two exceptions, in concert. A Republican running for statewide office gets, say, 2.5 million votes on the Republican line, and perhaps 300,000 or more on the Conservative line – an insurance policy that can come in rather handy in a close election. That’s the mold.

But if there’s one thing Rudy likes to break, it’s the mold. So think about this: Undoubtedly, Hillary Clinton would do nicely with the mayor’s accepting the Conservative line. It helps her make the argument that Rudy equals Trent Lott equals Jesse Helms. This is exactly the case she wants to make: She has the left and the center and pushes the mayor to the right. That’s a race that, in this state, a competent Democrat (this assumes, of course, that she becomes one) wins.

But say Rudy doesn’t take the Conservative line. Then it becomes a little harder for Mrs. C to tar him with the brush of Lott. “Well, the fact is that he is on the right,” says her spokesman, Howard Wolfson. “He’s been running to the right since the day he thought about running in this race.” Wolfson ticks off the litany – the mayor’s tentative stance on a patient’s bill of rights, opposition to the test-ban treaty, support for the GOP Congress’s budget and tax-cut proposal, recent hosannas to Reaganomics.

“‘He probably thought he would be so big and so powerful that I would just leave the line blank. Know what? I’m not doing it,’ Conservative Party leader Mike Long says of Giuliani.”

All true. But this is where the Liberal Party comes in. The Liberal line, bequeathed him in three mayoral races by Ray Harding, is the mayor’s for the asking. A Republican-Liberal Giuliani would be harder to paint into a conservative corner and would be able to stake a claim to the middle and push Mrs. Clinton to the left.

This would be smart politics. And it would certainly be in keeping with his character. He’s not a man who bends, for anybody. Something happened a few weeks ago that few people noticed. The Brooklyn Museum maelstrom was at its crescendo; everybody was writing about how Rudy was Hail Mary-
ing to curry favor with Long, a Catholic father of nine children. Then, that very Saturday, what does Rudy do? He goes on Evans and Novak’s CNN program and vows that he will never change his position on partial-birth abortions. Take it or leave it. Even Mike Long – whom a source once described to me as “the only man who’s ever told Al D’Amato to go fuck himself” – has to eat dung off Rudy’s plate.

“What he’s doing so far fits with his personality,” says an insider who knows the mayor well. “He goes with the people he trusts. And he just doesn’t trust the Conservatives.”

Some observers believe Rudy may be offered the Conservative line. By this they mean that Long will soften, maybe at the governor’s behest. But they do not mean that Giuliani will change his position on abortion. “I think if the mayor had his druthers, he’d take their line, as long as he didn’t have to do much for it,” says a Democratic operative. “But if he has to flip on abortion, he won’t take it, and he’ll turn it into a principled stand.”

Rudy’s inflexibility is often more characterological than ideological, so his position is in truth some combination of principle and stubbornness. But still, it won’t be hard for him to present it to voters as a position of abiding principle. Which plays to his greatest strength, the man of conviction who does what he thinks is right and not what the polls or party people tell him to do. That will sell.

That’s the upside. The downside is this: The Conservatives will run someone. “He probably thought he would be so big and so powerful that I would just leave the line blank,” Long says. “Know what? I’m not doing it.”

The question is how many votes that candidate gets. (By the way, a source says the two potential candidates to whom Long is speaking are not elected officials: One’s a wealthy businessman, and the other is “on the periphery” of politics; Long adds that he now has a third potential candidate-in-waiting). Conventional wisdom says around 300,000. The Liberal line, by contrast, is worth 100,000 votes at best. But my theory depends on Giuliani’s picking up a few hundred thousand more from Independents and Democrats, which is entirely plausible.

Others say 300,000 is lowballing it, that the number could be twice that or more. A woman named Barbara Keating ran against Javits in 1974 and scored around 820,000 votes.

But that was 1974. Things have changed. The Conservative Party is powerful, but no one really knows how powerful because no serious candidate has tested its perimeter. Besides, with George W trotting toward the center and Newt Gingrich reduced to delivering lectures on nutrition (it’s one of his new issues, apparently), small-c conservatism is scarcely the roaring lion these days that it was just a few years ago. Mantras, like molds, are made to be broken. Maybe Rudy understands this.

Long Shot