Right after the revolutionary war, George Washington’s popularity had reached such frenzied heights that he could automatically have declared himself the military ruler of America. Patriots and pamphleteers of many stripes were pleading with him to do so. The peasants, of course, would have bowed down in obeisance before the mighty man. He was, any way you measured it, polling extremely well.
You can certainly say that America, at that exact moment, had just been through a crisis. You can further say that the country at that point needed a steady hand, and that the desire for leadership was so pressing that authority, more than democracy, was called for. If this is sounding familiar, well, it’s supposed to.
King George III, watching from London, was heard to say, according to Washington biographer Willard Sterne Randall, that if Washington could give up power, “he would indeed be the greatest man of the eighteenth century.” So what did Washington do? He was in Philadelphia when the hosannas reached a fever pitch. But rather than stay in the city and assume control, he mounted his horse and rode back to Mount Vernon, making a point to stop along the way in Annapolis to resign his military commission. End of frenzy. Beginning of Constitutional Convention and the process that led to his election – five years later, but right on schedule – as the nation’s first president. And that is why we call him the father of the republic.
So what, in this context, do we call Rudy? Let’s give him this much. He may not understand what gracious men, to say nothing of small-r republicans, do; but he does understand, as few politicians I’ve encountered understand, the uses to which a tremulous and uncritical public sentiment can be put. His greatest skill as a politician has always been that he knows exactly how regular voters hear words and how they’ll respond to them emotionally. So, for example, when he advised the day before the primary that “people decide on their own whether they want to vote or they don’t want to vote,” he understood that listeners who know how politics really works would realize he was trying to depress turnout, create confusion, and ultimately boost the chances that state and city legislators would feel more pressure to repeal the term-limits law and hand him a third term. He also knew, however, that regular voters would get none of that, and would only hear a guy who was just expressing the natural ambivalence that most people felt about the primary.
The calculus for his short term-extension gambit was the same. To the average person, a mere two or three months to smooth the transition sounded reasonable – humble, even. To those who gave the question more serious contemplation, the unspoken motive was clear enough. The basic choice that Mark Green, Fernando Ferrer, and Mike Bloomberg faced was this: Give me my three months, or I’ll go back to the State Legislature and get term limits repealed, and I’ll run, and then you’ll have me for four years instead of three months. Thus the coercive perversion, supported by a full-throated mob and a cheerleading Fourth Estate, of a law that voters passed two times. I can’t summon another example of a public official treating his constituents with such heart-melting dignity during a crisis, only to turn around two weeks later and treat those same constituents with such icily calibrated contempt.
So we’ve learned something in the last two weeks about Rudy. And what have we learned of the three men aforementioned? Easiest case first. Of Mike Bloomberg, we learned, much as we had been learning, that there’s nothing there. Bloomberg was the first to agree to Giuliani’s extortionate “deal,” undoubtedly because he has been yelping like a puppy for the mayor’s endorsement. He did what it made sense for him to do, but if term limits are repealed, he will learn the hard way Rudy Giuliani’s definition of friendship. If Rudy is in the race, virtually all Bloomberg voters, who were for him because he was ersatz Rudy, will go back to the real article. His $20 million will have bought him 2 percent of the vote.
In Mark Green’s case, it gets a little more complicated. Green was in a unique box, easily the most difficult position of the three. If he had said no, Giuliani would have hammered him until the October 11 runoff. Green had just received the scare of his life, finishing second to Ferrer in the primary; he knew that to win that runoff, he would need a higher and more enthusiastic turnout from white voters, and he knew also that these were exactly the voters Giuliani had the power to keep away from the polls with a choice word here or there. I have little doubt that Green wanted to say no on principle, but he chose to make a tactical decision instead. I don’t mean this as derogatorily as it sounds – there are times in politics when tactics grant victory and principle leads to defeat, however noble that defeat may be.
Which brings us to Ferrer. I confess that I consistently underestimated his campaign. I knew it was well run, but I didn’t see the groundswell. I had trouble assimilating his journey, in four short years, from being New York’s Zell Miller (pro death penalty and fingerprinting of welfare recipients) to being its Maxine Waters. And while I never found the “two New Yorks” mantra explicitly divisive, I objected to a campaign that basically ignored an entire voting bloc (Jews). His strategy was about taking the easiest path – against three white guys, line up the minority vote, make the runoff, and hope for the best.
Well, saying no to Rudy certainly wasn’t taking the easiest path. In a very, shall we say, challenging context, he stood up and said this emperor has no clothes. There isn’t much doubt that we can call that principled. We can also call it a huge roll of the dice. Is he thinking, first of all, that his nyet will energize his base more than the white voters, who may now come out in larger numbers to stop him in the runoff? Is he betting that the votes don’t exist in the State Legislature for term-limits repeal? Or is he gambling that, even if they are repealed and Rudy runs on the Conservative Party line, he can actually beat him? Ferrer might think that, but not many others do, and it would be ironic indeed – or, to his voters, something worse than ironic, I suspect – if his principled stand ended up putting Giuliani back on the ballot and giving the city Rudy for another four years instead of an extra three months.
That could well happen. But if it does, we should remember that it wasn’t Ferrer who politicized the issue in the first place. That responsibility rests squarely with the man who should be reading about Washington, not Churchill.