Wednesday, March 14, 2007

The Giuliani temptation


I'll confess, like many conservatives, I'm charmed by Rudy Giuliani. "America's mayor" is not my kind of Republican presidential candidate. He's pro gay rights and not pro-life; he has an exceedingly messy, and public, private life that poses moral as well as political problems.

But, then again, Americans don't elect presidents on paper. There is the Rudy the U.S. attorney who decimated the Mafia. There is the Rudy who turned New York City around with tax cuts, welfare reform, tough-on-crime action and zero tolerance for politically correct cant. There's Rudy 9/11, the mensch of Manhattan and, in the process, America. And there is Rudy the presidential candidate, stressing common ground with GOP traditionalists—strict constructionist judges from John Roberts to Antonin Scalia, democratic instead of judicial fixes to controversial issues—and treating them with a respect they didn't get from past intraparty foes. And putting up big numbers in the polls.

My own openness to Rudy surprises me. Many other social conservatives probably know the feeling.

I suggest we all take a cold shower.

There's a long way to go until the first primary. Today's polls showing Giuliani over John McCain reflect name recognition more than anything else, and Giuliani's name ID is chiefly about 9/11. Between now and the first primary, Rudy 9/10 will get as much attention as Rudy 9/11. For some voters, this will be a reminder. For many more, it will be new information. Not all of it will be pretty.

He will have to answer pointed questions about his new and old positions. He'll have to square past statements with more recent pronouncements. How does his current opposition to activist judges jibe with his past belief that Roe v. Wade is "good constitutional law"? Is his recent embrace of a ban on partial-birth abortion inconsistent with his past opposition? What about his past support for McCain-Feingold's assault on free speech in campaigns?

Giuliani may have answers to all these questions, and many more to come. Terrific. But it's far too early to throw in with Rudy. It's critical to hear from other announced candidates with less name ID (Mitt Romney) or conservatives with equal name ID who may get in (Newt Gingrich, Fred Thompson).

Are social conservatives ready to shortchange stands they've championed for decades because of Giuliani's 9/11 performance or poll numbers? Or a few promising words or winks? What makes social conservative leaders so sure he will live up to his part of any deal after he's won the nomination or White House? Or that the party's pro-life, traditional-values base will stick with an abortion-rights, gay-rights standard bearer? Are post-2006 social conservatives so keen on winning that they'll sign on with a candidate who opposes them on key cultural issues? What would a Giuliani candidacy do the GOP's largely successful "brand"?

These are not loaded questions. They're questions I wrestle with these days. I want a president who is committed to fighting radical Islam and can articulate why we're doing all we can under the Constitution to crush this enemy. Rudy's clearly one among many GOP candidates who fill the bill. But he comes with many unanswered questions.

Answer these questions in Giuliani's favor, and questions about his personal history remain. Yes, it's his private life. But he himself put his private life on gaudy public display as mayor. We'll see reruns of the tawdry soap opera that was the simultaneous end of his marriage to Donna Hanover and his about-town affair with Judith Nathan as surely as we'll see his comforting and inspiring 9/11 footage.

It's odd. Many conservatives who properly dismiss the electric, conservatively correct Gingrich because of his two divorces and "marital issues" are open to a Giuliani equally burdened by libido and ego. Forget the moral questions here. Somehow I doubt Democrats will give Rudy 9/10 a pass on this if the GOP picks him.

Was 9/11 so psychologically searing—and Rudy's healing role so central—that some social conservatives are no longer thinking clearly. Or is the trauma of Election Day 2006 to blame? Or today's polls?

How else to explain their premature openness to a GOP presidential candidate whose social liberalism and liberal social life that would have once made such a candidacy unthinkable.


David Reinhard is the associate editor of The Oregonian in Portland, Oregon.

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