Friday, March 02, 2007

Rudy wraps himself in Reagan

Rudy Giuliani’s sales pitch to Republican conservatives boils down to this: Ignore the stuff about me that makes you uncomfortable – like my past support for gun control, gay rights and abortion rights – and simply view me as the 21st century version of Ronald Reagan, a resolute optimist who will vanquish the terrorists just as the Gipper took down the communists.

This was the gist of Giuliani’s noontime talk to the Conservative Political Action Conference, the annual Washington gathering of activists who, thus far, have been looking largely in vain for a properly credentialed Leader to replace the lame-duck Decider. Giuliani was auditioning, in the literal sense; he had been barred from addressing CPAC just two years ago, because the organizers didn’t see him as a true conservative.

Many are still wary of him. But now that the right is feeling gloomy – what with the Democrats running Congress, Hillary and Obama looming as credible White House candidates, President Bush forever in free fall (29 percent approval in the latest national poll), and the GOP ’08 field littered with flip-flopping panderers – Giuliani doesn’t seem nearly so bad anymore. That’s what the polls say, anyway. In recent weeks he has opened a stong lead against John McCain, reportedly because a lot of white evangelical Protestants now seem willing to ignore those pesky social issues and focus on his tough-guy credentials.

Giuliani hit that theme today, inviting everybody to keep ignoring what they don’t like. At one point he declared: “Ronald Reagan used to say, ‘My 80 percent ally is not my 20 percent enemy.’ What he meant by that is, ‘We don’t have to see eye to eye on everything….I don’t agree with myself on everything. The point of a presidential election is to figure out who you do believe the most, and what you think are the most important things for this country at this particular time. We do believe in many of the same things, I’m sure,” such as the Republican principles of promoting freedom and cutting taxes.

That was basically how he dealt with the abortion issue – by not mentioning it. (He has said elsewhere that he still supports the legal right to choose, although he does seem to be "adjusting" his stance on partial birth abortion. Now he seems to be against it, after first being for it.) Rather, his overall message is that if tolerating disagreements was good enough for Reagan, it should be good enough for the conservative grassroots.

(By the way, check out the line where he said, “I don’t agree with myself on everything.” If Hillary Clinton had said those same words, the Republicans would have instantly parsed it for a talking point, mocking her for being less resolute than John Kerry.)

Giuliani also advanced a Manhattan Miracle message. It is beyond dispute that New York City crime dropped dramatically during the Giuliani years, and that the city once thought to be ungovernable enjoyed a rebirth with him at the helm. He spent considerable time today talking about the lower homicide rate, the moving of citizens from welfare to work, and the taxes that he cut even while the budget was mired in red ink. These themes might well attract skeptical conservatives, who enjoy visiting a safe and resurgent New York City as much as anybody else.

Obviously, Giuliani’s rivals will do the work of reminding conservatives about his past left-leaning sentiments, not to mention his three marriages; they’ll note that even though Giuliani has vowed to appoint conservative Supreme Court justices, he actually nominated a lot of liberal judges during his mayoral reign. But Giuliani is playing it smart, in this sense: Rather than engage these criticisms, and seek to explain or nuance them, he is simply trying to trump them. He is calculating that his image as the scourge of evil-doers will triumph over all.

His hawkish stance on the terrorist threat, as outlined in his speech today, seeks to accomplish three goals: Establish himself as heir to the Reagan tradition, thus uniting the various conservative camps; paint the Democrats as wimps who, rather than fight, would prefer to negotiate with the help of nations such as France (requisite boos from the audience); and give conservatives a way to excuse or explain away Bush’s disastrous miscalculations in Iraq.

On the first goal, he voiced Reaganesque optimism about defeating the terrorists: “We will get there the same way Ronald Reagan got there – peace through strength.” He invoked that as the closing line in his speech, just to make sure that he would be remembered as having walked in the icon’s shoes.

On the second goal, he scoffed at the Democrats for opposing Bush’s domestic surveillance program, which he sees as an essential tool to stopping the bad guys. That’s a standard Republican line, but Giuliani did something clever with it. He put the issue in real terms, invoking his days as a federal prosecutor who wiretapped Gambino family mobsters in New York: “We had to intrude into their activity, we had to breach their privacy…It requires being on offense.”

One can always argue (as many Democrats would) that there’s a big difference between a secret federal program that might invade the privacy rights of innocent people, and a narrowly-targeted wiretap regimen that targets people already known to be mobsters, but what matters here is that Giuliani’s use of his own biography might be an effective way to woo conservative primary voters.

And the last goal, regarding Iraq, merits attention. Even though conservatives remain largely supportive of Bush’s mission in Iraq, they are well aware that most Americans disagree, and Iraq could be a dead weight on ’08 GOP prospects. Giuliani’s message, however, is that Iraq is no big deal in the eyes of history, and that conservatives (and all Americans) shouldn’t feel bad about it.

He said that the Battle of the Bulge, fought during the final winter of World War II, at a heavy cost to American lives, was actually a major U.S. intelligence failure (it was thought at the time, erroneously, that the Nazis had been licked). But Giuliani pointed out that even this failure didn’t deter America from its overall mission.

Then he tied that setback to the current war on terror: “The reality is, it’s the general thrust of what we’re doing with terrorism that is enormously important, not the fact that every single thing hasn’t worked….We should not be embarrassed about ourselves. We should not have our heads down…”

That’s potentially powerful stuff for conservative voters. In the service of optimism and “the general thrust,” Giuliani is telling them that it’s OK not to feel bad about “every single thing (that) hasn’t worked,” even if one of those “things” is straining the entire American military, impacting our ability to fight al Qaeda where it is headquartered, and costing current and future American taxpayers $2 billion a week (excluding the tab for post-combat hospitalization and treatment).

All told, perhaps these themes might be enough to buoy a candidate who flunks the party’s abortion test. Indeed, with Giuliani currently topping the Republican candidate roster in the polls, here’s a question for the other party: Are there any circumstances under which the Democrats would confer frontrunner status on a candidate who opposes abortion?