Rudy’s Big Question

Is Giuliani too liberal for the GOP? Probably not. Here’s why.

This is the first in a series of articles exploring the key question facing each presidential candidate.

Rudy Giuliani. Click image to expand.
Rudy Giuliani

Even though he lived a few blocks from Ebbets Field, home of the Brooklyn Dodgers, Rudy Giuliani grew up a New York Yankees fan. “The reason my father taught me how to box was to defend myself against Dodgers fans,” he writes in his book Leadership. As a candidate for the Republican nomination, Giuliani once again finds himself out of place in a tough neighborhood. He’s a pro-choice, pro-gay-rights candidate seeking to lead a party dominated by Christian evangelical voters who hate those positions. Giuliani’s three marriages, the charges of adultery that led to the very public flameout of his second one, and an open feud with his children also threaten his standing among social-conservative voters. Conservative leaders are always stirred up about something, but Giuliani seems to have gotten them in a particular snit. Radio host James Dobson denounced him so thoroughly you’d think Rudy was running on a platform of free porn.

Can a self-described social moderate win in a party of religious conservatives? That’s the central question facing Giuliani’s campaign. Let’s consider the evidence on both sides.

His nomination would represent a historic swerve for the Republican Party, particularly when compared with its last nominee. George W. Bush, a conservative evangelical, captured nearly 80 percent of the evangelical vote in 2004. Since Ronald Reagan, Republicans have won by forming a coalition of fiscal, social, and national-security conservatives. Now Giuliani wants to upend that 25-year tradition in a party known for its orderliness.

For months, Giuliani has topped GOP polls despite these well-known liabilities. This has befuddled lots of veteran Republicans who have made their careers courting Christian evangelicals. “A year ago I was saying, ‘No way,’ ” says one former Bush official about Rudy’s chances. “Six months ago I was saying, ‘He doesn’t have a chance.’ Then, two months ago I started saying, ‘He has a shot.’ ” In the post-9/11 world where voters care about security above all else, maybe the old rules about the influence of social conservatives don’t apply.

But since March, Giuliani has dropped markedly in the polls. Is the established order reasserting itself? Before the slide, Giuliani’s team argued that social conservatives, who pay careful attention to what candidates think about hot-button issues, knew his full record and supported him anyway. But if this was the case, why the poll plunge? The mayor’s aides now say that no candidate could sustain a 20-point advantage over his opponents forever. Rival campaigns say Giuliani has fallen because while voters may have known in theory that Giuliani was pro-choice, they’ve now learned he’s really pro-choice:He supported public funding for abortion in New York, made donations to Planned Parenthood, and backed partial-birth abortions. In the first debate, Rudy said it would be “OK” if Roe v. Wade was overturned. (The correct Republican response to the hypothetical overturning of the abortion ruling is “Hallelujah!“) “Initially his poll numbers were way up, but that was name recognition,” says Mitch Hambleton, the Iowa Republican Party’s Dallas County chairman. “Now the caucus-goers are asking: Where does he stand on the issues? And they really don’t like where he stands on the issues.”

Is Giuliani’s abortion problem cosmetic rather than substantive? His advisers say that his initial answers to abortion questions—before he came out more assertively as pro-choice—were muddled and unclear, which undermined his effort to portray himself as a decisive leader. But for others in the party, Giuliani’s position on abortion as he has articulated it—he thinks it is morally wrong but shouldn’t be stopped by government—is so incoherent it’s deceptive.

Giuliani also creates a crisis of conscience among some social conservatives. To support Giuliani because he might be able to win in a general election cheapens their beliefs by suggesting that on moral issues there can be caveats and political exceptions. “How can we vote for someone who believes in something we’ve been denouncing Democrats for all these years?” asks a veteran of the Bush campaigns.

And Giuliani’s personal life is the double whammy. His election would bring unpredictable messiness in the White House. The next drama might always be around the corner. And since evangelicals don’t trust his moral compass, they’d worry he would make the wrong choices in policy fights and future Supreme Court picks. “If he’s lied to two wives, why wouldn’t he lie to you?” asks Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. That’s what evangelicals used to say about Bill Clinton, which is another reason for the angst. Rudy’s personal problems mean the culture warriors won’t be able to exploit Bill Clinton’s past if Hillary gets her party’s nomination.

Evangelical leaders have self-interested reasons for wanting to foil Rudy. If Giuliani is elected without them, they’ll have little clout with the new administration. That’s just one way in which the mayor’s candidacy re-ignites a longstanding intramural fight within the GOP coalition. Fiscal and national-security conservatives have long groused about the outsized influence of the party’s moralizing wing. Social conservatives complain that they are courted only during elections and forgotten afterwards.

Despite the churn, Giuliani’s drop in the polls isn’t likely to lead to a freefall. He’s very conservative on national security and economic issues. If people want to feel safe in a dangerous world, he’s still their pick. He beats up on Democrats in a way that makes dispirited conservatives cheer. He’s also not the libertine his opponents would claim. He took strong stands in the culture wars, fighting to force the porn shops out of Times Square (they’re back) and forcing the removal of a painting at the Brooklyn Museum of the Virgin Mary that also featured elephant dung and cutouts from pornographic magazines. He became a GOP icon in the ‘90s for using conservative principles to attack crime and social pathologies in New York. This is why Giuliani’s liberal positions don’t constitute the mortal danger they would be to other candidates.

Social-conservative leaders are making threats, but they may not have the power they think they do. After the attacks of 9/11, many conservatives may have shifted their priorities beyond their traditional moral focus. “There has been a false sense of the importance of social conservatives,” says Bush’s former pollster Matthew Dowd. “We learned in 2000 and 2004 the drivers among conservatives and social conservatives didn’t have anything to do with social issues. Iraq, taxes, and national security all superseded social issues.”

To spoil Giuliani’s reputation as the strongest GOP candidate in a general election, Dobson and Land have said they won’t vote for him in November 2008. They’ve warned that evangelicals will stay home too. That’s unlikely, say several unaffiliated veterans from the last GOP campaigns I talked to. The next president will probably have a chance to nominate two Supreme Court justices. Conservatives won’t want a Democrat making those picks, particularly if it’s Hillary Clinton. Giuliani made this point explicitly in a recent debate when he responded to a question about abortion by saying the more important concern for the party was how they were going to beat the former first lady.

The Giuliani campaign will continue to answer questions about social issues by changing the subject and stressing his record as mayor, prosecutor, and member of the Reagan Justice Department. The campaign of deflection might win him enough votes, but it won’t do away with the heated debate among conservatives any more than standing up for the Yankees cooled off Dodger fans in his old neighborhood.