Monday, May 14, 2007

Can Rudy trump the religious right?

Rudy Giuliani appears to be following the advice offered 19 years ago by Chris Matthews.

Long before Matthews gained fame as the shouter-in-chief on MSNBC’s Hardball, the former Capitol Hill aide authored a book entitled Hardball, which laid out the basic rules of the political game. For instance, Matthews wrote in 1988 that if a politician has a fundamental flaw, the best course of action was to highlight that flaw and try to frame it as an advantage. That way, the politician wins points for candor, and gets the chance to shape his image on his own terms. Matthews recalled, for instance, that Jimmy Carter was widely dismissed in 1975 as a hopeless Democratic candidate because he was a total outsider from Georgia, with no national experience – yet wound up gaining traction by boasting that “I’ve never worked in Washington.” All told, Matthews wrote, “Anyone who has ever worked in public relations will certify that it is better to take the initiative in acknowledging problems, whether they involve your client or a product….When in doubt, put it out.”

In other words, Matthews advised, “Hang a lantern on your problem.” And that’s what GOP presidential candidate Giuliani has been doing over the past few days, spotlighting his fundamental support for abortion rights – inviting conservative Republicans (who will vote heavily in the Iowa and South Carolina nomination contests) to at least admire his candor, while hoping to rally the moderate abortion-tolerant Republicans (who will vote heavily in the subsequent New York, New Jersey and California contests).

And hanging that lantern is his only viable option, anyway. After fumbling around for a few weeks on the issue - to the point of sounding incoherent, and thus risking his image as a bold leader - he has apparently decided, in the interests of clarity, to wear his longstanding support for abortion rights as a badge, and bet that he can win the nomination by challenging the influential religious conservatives and thus defying GOP orthodoxy.

This is unusual behavior for a major Republican candidate (thus, a great story), because it represents a frontal assault on the contemporary GOP power structure. The party’s center of gravity, since the dawn of the Reagan era, has been in the South and the Sunbelt; Giuliani is quintessential New York, and, as pollster Peter Brown points out today, the GOP hasn’t nominated a northeasterner since Thomas Dewey in 1948. Worse yet, for the GOP’s religious conservative gatekeepers, Giuliani is openly questioning what they regard as their fundamental values – especially the right of an ideologically conservative government to intrude into people’s private lives.

Giuliani’s recalibration was evident last Friday, when he spoke to a conservative audience in Houston: “Even if you disagree (with the women seeking abortions), you have to respect the fact that their conscience is as strong as yours is about this, and they’re the ones that are most affected by it. So therefore I would grant women the right to make that choice.” More broadly, he said that he envisions a Republican party that would represent “the length and breadth” of American public opinion,” and he warned that if Republicans “don’t find a way of uniting around broad principles that will appeal to a large segment of this country, if we can’t figure that out, we are going to lose this election.”

He followed up with an appearance yesterday on Fox News: “In a society like ours, where people have very, very different consciences about this, it’s best for us to respect each other’s differences and allow for choice…I can’t decide when life begins…I know what my positions are. A very, very big portion of my party agrees with that. A certain portion of my party disagrees with that. My attempt is to try to broaden the base of the Republican party, to try to bring in people that can agree and that can disagree on that…we have to have the biggest outreach possible.”

This pitch might work with the moderate Republican voters who show up for the aforementioned big-state primaries next Feb. 5. The issue, however, is whether Giuliani will be totally viable by Feb. 5. If social and religious conservative voters opt for Mitt Romney or John McCain (or current phantom candidate Fred Thompson) in the small-state January contests, the massive media exposure for the early winner might well trump Giuliani’s big-state strategy.

Giuliani might well be gambling that the clout of the religious right is on the wane, or, at least, that the front-loaded primary calendar will minimize its clout. But that could prove to be a risky calculation. The top religious right leaders still have huge followings, and they are inveighing against Giuliani on moral grounds (Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council says that Giuliani is “an echo of Hillary Clinton"), while questioning his electability (by pointing out that Giuliani’s strongest primary states – such as New York, New Jersey, and California - are likely to vote Democratic in November 2008).

Indeed, the exit polls show that 23 percent of all voters in November 2004 were white evangelical Christians, and that 78 percent of those white evangelical Christans favored President Bush over John Kerry. Would these Republican base voters turn out en masse for a nominee who defends abortion rights - especially in the red southern and Sunbelt states that are crucial to a Republican candudate's prospects?

Every once in a while, a GOP contender tries to challenge the religious right, to no avail. During the 2000 primaries, John McCain railed against Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, and that proved to be his death knell in the southern primaries – notably South Carolina, where ex-religious right leader Ralph Reed did key spadework behind the scenes for George W. Bush. In 1996, nominee Bob Dole tried to insert some “tolerance” language into the preamble of the GOP platform, only to be squashed on the eve of the convention.

And here are some excerpted remarks from a previous GOP presidential hopeful, someone who arguably pioneered the Giuliani route: “I intend…to champion tolerance and freedom, including a woman’s right to choose.” And “we must get government…out of our bedrooms.” And, “I and millions of other pro-choice Republicans will not be disenfranchised.” And “I want to…leave moral issues such as abortion to the conscience of the individual. I believe abortion is an issue to be decided by women.” And, the GOP should respect “diversity of opinion.”

So spoke candidate Arlen Specter, when he announced his candidacy on March 30, 1995. And you know how well he did.

One can argue, of course, that Specter was a minor player, and that Giuliani's unique attributes (the "9/11 hero" image) might even prompt some religious conservatives to overlook his abortion stance. But can we assume that his 9/11 image will survive close scrutiny? Perhaps not.