Rudy’s Debating Secret

Why Giuliani keeps trouncing his opponents when they go head to head.

Rudy Giuliani

The Republican presidential candidates held seven debates, and Rudy Giuliani has dominated almost every one. He does so, in part, by showing an awesome command of detail, citing facts about everything from bridge reconstruction in New York to the percentage decline in tax revenues when capital-gains tax rates have changed. He boasts about having studied Senate bills that the senators running in either party haven’t even read. When he is asked to comment about Supreme Court rulings, his staff has to wait until he’s read the opinions. He’s also shown in the debates that he can take advantage of an opportune moment, making quick-witted jokes about the lightning that interrupted one of his answers or pouncing on Ron Paul when he suggested Osama Bin Laden initiated his attacks on America because of our presence in the Middle East.

Debates are artificial and phony, yet Giuliani has used them well because his stage performance reinforces his strengths. He comes off as a guy in control, bursting with snappy competence. Rudy wants you to know that he has read the brief, knows the facts, and could organize an orderly evacuation of the building if someone yelled “fire.” When voters see him in command on stage, it’s probable that they are reminded of his calm public face after the 9/11 attacks. The strong performances also help Giuliani’s argument that he can beat Hillary Clinton. She’s a polished and effective debater, too. He’s showing he can match her.

But one secret to Giuliani’s debate success is that he doesn’t mind fudging all those facts he cites. In the Tuesday debate, Giuliani asserted once again that he had passed 23 tax cuts as New York mayor. This is an exaggeration. According to Factcheck.org and Politifact.com, he can rightly claim credit for about 14 of those cuts. One of the largest cuts for which he claims credit he initially opposed for five months before changing his position. He also claims to have added more cops in New York than he actually did and cherry-picks data to support inflated claims about the number of adoptions during his tenure. After the Tuesday debate, Factcheck.org found a host of new faulty claims.

Giuliani was also wrong, or at least oversimplifying matters, in one of his most dramatic debate moments. When Ron Paul suggested that the United States’ actions in the Middle East might have motivated Bin Laden and the 9/11 attackers, Giuliani jumped on him, demanding that he withdraw such an outrageous claim. It was great theater, but Paul was right, according to Bin Laden’s own writings.

The problem for Giuliani’s opponents is that none of his exaggerations is immediately obvious, which makes it very hard to refute them. This will protect the mayor. Romney could initiate an attack, but he’s changed positions enough on high-profile issues that his opponents can make a parody ad using Romney’s own words. This gives him little standing to attack another candidate’s honesty. (Plus, Romney has whitewashed his own tax record.) Fred Thompson can’t compare executive records with Giuliani because he doesn’t have one.

And anyone who wants to take on Giuliani also has to be ready for a tough fight. In general, policy attacks are hard to make in a way that interests voters. Anyone who wants to challenge Rudy’s record would also have to be sure they knew more about how New York policy was made than he did, and Giuliani is really on his game when defending his mayoral record. And he’s also very good when he’s talking about issues that have nothing to do with New York. In the debate Tuesday, he turned an attack from Mitt Romney on his opposition to the line-item veto into an attack on Romney’s honesty, an attack on the Clintons, and a chance to boast about his strict constructionist approach to the Constitution. In the cramped, sound-bite-only debate context, the only way he could have achieved more is if he’d done all of this while making an omelet. We’ll know he’s really gone too far if next time he claims that he did.