POLITICS MAY 21, 2007
COLUMBIA, SOUTH CAROLINA
WILLIAM “RUSTY” DEPASS named his dogs Goldwater, Reagan, and Bush. He is, needless to say, a conservative man, one who lives in a conservative state where the psychological scars of the Civil War still run deep. Six bronze stars on the west wall of the Capitol building here in Columbia mark the trajectory of Sherman’s 1865 cannon fire from across the Congaree River. A state senator points me to the deep gouges on the building’s banisters—gashes left, hesays, by the sabers of Union officers charging the stairs on horseback. The Confederate flag still flies proudly in front of the state house. This is not, in short, hospitable political terrain for a drag-dressing, gay-friendly, abortion-loving, serially married, abrasive presidential candidate from New York.
Indeed, it is thanks to voters like DePass and states like South Carolina that Rudy Giuliani is widely thought to be doomed. “You need to suspend all your analytical faculties to believe the GOP will nominate for president a Republican who supports abortion rights and is pro-gun control and pro-gay rights,” says Stu Rothenberg, author of The Rothenberg Political Report. “It just isn’t going to happen, at least not in my lifetime.” Political analyst Charlie Cook said six months ago that he would “win theTour de France before Rudy Giuliani wins the Republic annomination.” More recently, he told me he was “nervously” sticking to that prediction. “If Giuliani wins,” he said, “it means that everything that I have ever learned about Republican presidential nomination politics is wrong.”
But Giuliani now holds an eight- to twelve-point lead in national polls of GOP voters; and, perhaps more significantly, according to some surveys, he is running neck and neck with John McCain instates like South Carolina, where he was expected to fare poorly. DePass, whom I spoke to while traveling with Rudy recently in South Carolina, explains how he became an unlikely Giuliani backer. “I am more conservative than he is on the abortion question, and, probably on all the social issues, I would be to the right of him,” he says. “But the overarching issue of our time is this war on terror. I have a son on his way right now to Afghanistan. I think Rudy Giuliani understands better than anyone the whole business aboutthe war on terror, how it has to be waged.”
Many observers believe Giuliani’s early success is the result of his calculated move rightward—a savvy effort to trick conservative voters into believing he is really one of them. But there is another possibility, one that assumes a bit more intelligence on the part of conservative voters like DePass: What if we are witnessing not Rudy moving toward the rest of the Republican Party, but rather the Republican Party moving toward Rudy? What if the salience of a certain kind of social conservatism is now in decline among GOP voters and a new set of conservative principles are emerging to take its place? What if Giuilianism represents the future of the Republican Party?
GIULIANI IS THE beneficiary of an upheaval within the Republican electorate—an upheaval that was catalyzed by September 11 but is becoming apparent only now, as the GOP hosts its first primary battle since the terrorist attacks. In brief, among Republican voters, the litmus test issues of abortion and gay marriage have been losing traction, subordinated to the Iraq war and terrorism. According to the Pew Research Center, 31 percent of GOP voters name Iraq as their top priority, and 17 percent choose terrorism and security. Just 7 percent name abortion and 1 percent name gay marriage.
The roots of this transformation predate September 11 and are partly the result of demographics. The lions of the Christian right—Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, James Dobson—no longer dominate Republican politics as they once did. Their grip is slackening as their older followers are slowly replaced by a generation for which the social, cultural, and sexual mores that were overturned by the 1960s are history, not memory. In retrospect, these men reached the height of their power in the late ’80s, when, by a 51-to-42 majority, voters agreed that “school boards ought to have the right to fire teachers who are known homosexuals.” Now a decisive 66-to-28 majority disagrees, according to Pew. In 1987, the electorate was roughly split on the question of whether “AIDS might be God’s punishment for immoral sexual behavior.” Today, 72 percent disagree with that statement, while just 23 percent concur.
Giuliani is on the cutting edge of these trends, seeking to exploitnew ideological lines between conservatism and liberalism. He rejects conservatism based on sexuality and reproductive issues; and his personal life amounts to a repudiation of conservatism focused on family structure, parental responsibility, fidelity, and lifelong monogamy. Ed Gillespie, former chairman of the Republican National Committee, notes that, even as voters learn about Giuliani’s more centrist positions, “it does not seem to move his numbers.” The former mayor, Gillespie says, is “challenging the notion that abortion and gay marriage are vote-determinative for everybody in the party.”
It isn’t just average voters who are driving this shift; many members of the GOP elite—whose overwhelming concern is cutting taxes, a Giuliani forte—would privately welcome the chance to downplay, if not discard, the party’s rearguard war against the sexual and women’s rights revolutions. Much of the Republican Party’s consulting community and country club elite always viewed abortion and gay rights as distasteful but necessary tools to win elections, easily disposable once they no longer served their purpose. Now, with most of the leading GOP contenders demonstrating at best equivocal support for the sexual status quo ante, that time appears to be drawing near.
For the moment, at least, September 11 has replaced abortion, gay marriage, and other social-sexual matters as the issue that binds the GOP together as a party. And no one, of course, owns September 11 quite like Rudy Giuliani. “This is a different world from 2000, when we last had Republican primaries without an incumbent president. 9/11 scrambled the priorities, and it may very well be that the war on terror pushes social issues down,” says Whit Ayres, a Georgia-based pollster currently unaffiliated with any presidential campaign. “Giuliani is an authentic American hero, and Southerners love American heroes.” No wonder the Yankee centrist suddenly has a chance in South Carolina.
IF GIULIANI’S liberal inclinations on certain sexual issuesrepresent his party’s future, so does his decided conservatism on nonsexual domestic matters. Take, for instance, the question of how much risk is desirable in our economic system and what, if anything, government should do to encourage or discourage it. Ever since Reagan, Republicans have seen themselves as the party that embraces risk as a worthy feature of American life; and Giuliani, with his criticism of the social safety net, is very much an heir to this tradition. A Weekly Standard article recently quoted Giuliani as saying that Democrats want “a no-risk society.” Explaining his opposition to health care mandates, he said, “We’ve got to let people make choices. We’ve got to let them take the risk—do they want to be covered? Do they want health insurance? Because ultimately, if they don’t, well, then, they may not be taken care of. I suppose that’s difficult.”
Moreover, the centrality of risk to Giuliani’s political philosophy is reflected in the kinds of people who have helped him raise a highly credible $15 million in the first quarter of this year. The list of his top fund-raisers is dominated by venture capitalists, takeover and merger specialists, hedge-fund operators, energy company CEOs, and nouveau riche investment bankers—men (and a few women) who have thrived in the financial culture of risk: Texas oilman T. Boone Pickens; billionaire investment banker Thomas Hicks; hedge-fund founder Paul Singer; multimillionaire Bill Simon; investment banker Ken Langone; and private-equity investor Douglas Korn, among others.
It is telling that Giuliani’s fundraising operation has tapped sodeeply into Texas, a state where risk is central to the political and philosophical ethos. Texans treat campaign contributions like political venture capital, and they have been a financial mainstay of aggressive conservative candidacies and causes for two generations. They provided early backing to Ronald Reagan and to the House and Senate candidates who brought conservatism to Washington in 1980 and 1994. Texas does not rank among the top five states in donations for either Mitt Romney or McCain, and no Texas metropolitan area is a major source of cash for their bids. By contrast, for Giuliani, Texas ranks third—behind New York and California—while Dallas and Houston place second and fourth on his list of top donor cities.
Another element of the Reagan tradition to which Giuliani can lay claim—and that bolsters his chance of winning the nomination—is his appeal to white, working-class voters: the Reagan Democrats who became the angry white men of the 1990s. Their switch to the GOP fractured the class basis of the New Deal coalition, and they have been crucial to every Republican presidential victory since 1968. These are Giuliani’s people. He is pro-cop, anti-Sharpton, the mayor whose meritocratic streak led him to end the open admissions policy at the City University of New York. He stood in a flat-bed truck in front of City Hall in 1992 and told 10,000 beer-drinking cops that a proposed civilian review board was “bullshit” designed “to protect David Dinkins’s political ass.” He famously lectured amother whose son had been killed in a hail of police bullets, “Maybe you should ask yourself some questions about the way he was brought up and the things that happened to him”—rhetoric that harkened back to George Wallace’s insistence that the government stop “coddling” criminals because they “didn’t have enough asparagus as a child.” Giuliani was the tough guy who restored order to a city verging on chaos by breaking the back of the liberal interest groups that had once dominated local politics; and many white, lower- and middle-income voters in the outer boroughs loved him for it. They, more than any other factor, are the reason he was twice elected mayor of one of the country’s most Democratic cities. And their hero now uses the same tough rhetoric that he once used to talk about criminals to talk about terrorists.
Giuliani’s brand of conservatism also speaks to the Republican longing for managerial competence—something that has been woefully lacking under Bush. The statistics from Giuliani’s tenure in New York suggest that he knows how to get results: Under his leadership, the city’s murder rate fell by 63 percent; overall crime declined by 52 percent; vehicle thefts dropped by 71 percent; the number of children in foster care fell by 34 percent; the welfare case load declined by 59 percent; unemployment dropped by 40 percent; construction permits rose by 51 percent; and personal income rose by 53 percent. Of course, Giuliani’s role in improving life for New Yorkers has almost certainly been overstated—most of all by Giuliani himself. The city’s drop in crime was part of a national trend that actually began under Dinkins, and the economic boom of the ’90s didn't hurt, either. What’s more, Giuliani’s managerial diligence is inseparable from his authoritarian streak, perhaps the least appealing aspect of his persona. Still, deserved or not, Giuliani’s reputation as a skilled manager has been a very real asset in his campaign so far, allowing him to criticize Bush credibly on Iraq—the issue that, more than any other, symbolizes this administration’s managerial shortcomings. “Here’s what I would change,” Giuliani told Larry King when asked how he would have handled the assault on Iraq. “Do it with more troops, maybe 100,000, 150,000 more.” Giuliani harkens back to a time when Republicans were perceived as more competent, sober administrators than Democrats—and he affirms the nagging suspicion of many rank-and-file conservatives that Iraq could have been a stunning success if only George W. Bush weren’t such a buffoon.
BUT PERHAPS the most striking way in which Giuliani captures the mood of contemporary Republican politics has nothing to do with ideology and everything to do with strategy. Both Reagan and Bush were masters of polarization. They calculated that it would be better to win by one vote, with a clear policy mandate, than to try to bring along a less committed 60 percent of the electorate with an appeal to consensus and compromise. In 2004, this strategy became clearer than ever, as Republicans sought to capitalize on deepening chasms between left and right. Deliberate polarization may or may not prove an effective strategy in the 2008 general election, but it is deeply attractive to conservative GOP primary voters whose antipathy to liberalism is intense.
Giuliani’s entire career has been built on a willingness to polarize. Consider the vote totals in different neighborhoods in 1993, when he ousted Dinkins, New York’s first black mayor. The election was close—Giuliani won by fewer than 50,000 votes—but the overall tally masked bitter partisan and racial divides. In heavily minority Crown Heights and Bedford-Stuyvesant, Dinkins won by margins of 38 to one. Meanwhile, Giuliani carried predominantly white Staten Island’s South Shore by twelve to one, Howard Beach and Ozone Park by five to one, and Bensonhurst by eight to one. And, once he took office, Giuliani only seemed to grow more eager to stoke divisions through repeated head-on collisions with icons of the left, welfare-rights organizations, and the ACLU. Indeed, if there is one hallmark of Giuliani’s career as a prosecutor and mayor, it is his compulsion to fight without restraint—whether the enemy is the mafia, the education establishment, or his estranged second wife.
Giuliani is now pursuing the same strategy of sowing division, only this time on a national level. To hear him tell it, the election will pit weak-kneed Democrats against hard-line Republicans. “I listen a little to the Democrats, and, if one of them gets elected,we are going on defense,” he recently told an audience in New Hampshire. “We will wave the white flag on Iraq. We will cut back on the Patriot Act, electronic surveillance, interrogation, and we will be back to our pre-September 11 attitude of defense.”
There is good reason to believe this rhetoric will win over a portion of GOP voters. As Rick Perlstein has pointed out in The New Republic, at a moment when conservatism is philosophically adrift—among other problems, it is currently tethered to an unsuccessful war, one whose premises may not have been all that conservative in the first place—the single thing that truly unites and energizes conservatives is a raw animosity toward liberals. With so many Republican policies having failed over the past six years, contemporary conservatism is less interested in policy and more defined by style. Nothing characterizes that style quite as well as bashing liberals. And Giuliani knows how to bash liberals. Neither McCain nor Romney nor even Newt Gingrich can match Rudy’s record in confronting the ideological enemies on conservatism’s Most Wanted list. It is in this climate that the tendency to say and do impolitic things—a characteristic that might ordinarily be seenas a drawback for a candidate—has become perhaps Rudy’s greatest strength.
WHEN YOU CALL Sunny Mindel, longtime Giuliani press aide and confidante, a woman answers the phone and says, “Giuliani Partners.” After you ask to speak to Mindel, the woman asks in a slightly suspicious and hostile tone, “Who is trying to reach her?” After you identify yourself, there is a moment of silence. Then, if you pass muster, the woman says, “This is Sunny Mindel.”
Mindel is among the old guard of Giuliani’s tightly closed group of advisers-—loyalists who have stuck with the mayor for years. In addition to Mindel, the group includes inner-circle top dog Tony Carbonetti, who has been with Giuliani since his first, failed campaign against Dinkins in 1989. Carbonetti later became the mayor’s chief of staff, and he now works for Giuliani Partners. Another confidante is boyhood friend Peter Powers, who was campaign manager, transition chair, and deputy mayor for Giuliani. Powers now runs Powers Global Strategies, LLC, a lobbying and strategic consulting firm. Among the others closest to Giuliani are former chief mayoral counsel Dennison Young Jr., campaign treasurer John Gross, and former New York Corporation Counsel and co-founder of Giuliani Partners Michael Hess.
If these were Giuliani’s only advisers, his campaign would be in trouble. Part of the conventional wisdom that sees Giuliani as an outlier in Republican politics stems from the belief that he is surrounded only by New Yorkers and old friends—people who are themselves outliers in GOP circles. And, before the Giuliani campaign got off the ground, many Republican operatives believed that a major liability for the candidate would be his dependence on this closed circle of parochial advisers, none of whom is experienced in national elections. So it is noteworthy that Giuliani appears not to have fallen into this trap. Early on, Giuliani Partners hired Chris Henick, a Yazoo City, Mississippi-born political operative who trained under Lee Atwater and served as Karl Rove’s deputy in Austin during the 2000 campaign—making him a protege of the two men who, more than anyone else, fathered the GOP’s strategy of polarization. Henick has become a bridge between the old guard and the new hires, including campaign manager Michael DuHaime, former political director at the RNC; strategy director Brent Seaborn, a specialist in data mining and microtargeting; senior communications adviser Jim Dyke; and political director Mark Campbell. The presence of Henick—combined with the considerable sums of money flowing out of the Lone Star state and into Giuliani’s coffers—suggests that the campaign is being infused with a heavy dose of Texas to balance out its roots in New York.
TO BE SURE, Giuliani’s candidacy faces significant pitfalls. To begin with, there is his voluble support for gun control—a dispositive issue for many conservative Republicans. Then, of course, there is the religious right. Though their power is on the wane, Christian conservatives are not going to allow Giuliani to have the nomination without a bitter fight. “Giuliani is the front-runner, but it’s kind of like, here in D.C., you drive over the Potomac at night and it looks beautiful, but, if you get down near it, you certainly wouldn’t want to take anything out of it and ea tit. It’s polluted; it’s got problems,” said Tony Perkins of the Family Research Center. Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, put it this way: “If he wins, he’ll do so without social conservatives.” Then he added that a Republican presidential candidate can “no more win without conservative voters than a Democrat can without overwhelming support from blacks.”
It’s not just Giuliani’s political positions that offend; his personal life is almost a caricature of family dysfunction. While mayor, Giuliani handled his marital difficulties with public displays that were flamboyantly irresponsible and vindictive. “What kind of man humiliates his children by escalating a private family controversy this way, even leaking—in a bid to gain sympathy—such lurid details as the impotence caused by his prostate treatments? What kind of president would such a man be?“ wrote David Freddoso in National Review Online. Two months ago, The New York Times ran a story titled, “NOTICEABLY ABSENT FROM THE GIULIANI CAMPAIGN: HIS CHILDREN” The article described how, in the wake of his failed second marriage, Rudy’s relationship with his son Andrew, now 21, has turned distant, with the two not speaking forover a year. Gawker put the matter succinctly: “RUDY GIULIANI EVEN CREEPIER THAN YOU THOUGHT.” For a candidate who loves to say that “no government program can replace fatherhood,” the hypocrisy is obvious.
Moreover, Giuliani’s greatest strength—his ebulliently aggressive persona—can at times become a weakness. Rudy’s public behavior as mayor was so egomaniacal as to be incomprehensible outside New York City limits. His firing of William Bratton—probably the best police commissioner the city ever had—appeared to be driven solely by jealousy over Bratton’s rising profile. “It was the single biggest mistake of the Giuliani administration,” wrote Fred Siegel in his generally sympathetic biography, The Prince of the City. In the years since he left Gracie Mansion, Giuliani has continued to feed his appetite for self-aggrandizement. Take his contract for giving speeches at $100,000 or more a pop, which includes the following language: “[T]he private aircraft MUST BE a Gulfstream IV or bigger. ... The client agrees to supply two large sedans or SUVs and 1 van for luggage. ... Client agrees to provide Mr. Giuliani with a pre-registered, large, two-bedroom, non-smoking suite with a king-sized bed, on an upper floor, with a balcony and a view, if applicable.” New Yorkers may love public figures with outsized egos, but, in the rest of the country, such anecdotes are sure to make voters skeptical, at the very least.
Then there are the assortment of embarrassing characters lurking in Giuliani’s past. His childhood friend, Alan Placa, is a Catholic priest and accused child molester whom the former mayor hascontinued to defend. A 2003 grand jury report, in which Placa was referred to as “Priest F,” described his alleged crimes: “Priest F was cautious, but relentless in his pursuit of victims. He fondled boys over their clothes, usually in his office. Always, his actions were hidden by a poster, newspaper or a book. He talked continuously as he fondled them. Everyone in the school knew to stay away from Priest F.” There is also the notorious Bernard Kerik, New York City’s former police commissioner. When Bush tapped Kerik to serve as secretary of homeland security, his nomination foundered thanks to accusations that he employed an illegal immigrant and accepted illegal gifts and loans during his stint as top cop. Kerik owed his entire rise through the ranks to his friendship with Giuliani. And, according to Kerik’s former girlfriend, the book publisher Judith Regan, this friendship could come back to haunt Giuliani’s campaign. She told one of my TNR colleagues that Kerik and Giuliani would frequently discuss “sketchy” activities in her presence "asif I weren't there." Regan told my colleague that she would revealthe contents of the conversations in the event that Giuliani’s presidential campaign took off. (Of course, Regan has her own scandal-ridden past. But she also has enough P.R. acumen and notoriety to win an audience for her accusations.)
AND, YET, despite all his liabilities, Rudy retains a plausible chance of winning the nomination. In some respects, he has simply gotten lucky. He has the good fortune to be running against opponents who cannot lay an undisputed claim to the morality mantle. Romney earned the suspicion of social conservatives when he came out for abortion and gay rights during his 1994 Senate bid and his 2002 Massachusetts gubernatorial campaign. McCain, admitting infidelity, left his first wife, Carol, (who had been severely injured in an auto accident) to marry a much younger heiress to an Arizona liquor fortune. His new wife further complicated his values profile by admitting in 1999 that she had been addicted to Percocet and Vicodin and that she stole these drugs from her own nonprofit medical organization. Moreover, McCain’s anti-abortion credentials were tarnished when he spoke out against overturning Roe v. Wade in 1999, telling CNN, “We all know, and it’s obvious, that, if we repeal Roe v. Wade tomorrow, thousands of young American women would be performing illegal and dangerous operations.” McCain has since disowned those comments, but Focus on the Family’s James Dobson, for one, does not believe him. “I pray that we won’t get stuck with him,” Dobson has said.
Giuliani is more than just lucky, however. He is also smart. The former New York mayor has chosen the right moment to take his idiosyncratic brand of conservatism to the national stage. Hawkish on defense, bullish on unrestrained capitalism, socially tolerant on some questions, acidly intolerant on others, despised by his foes, beloved by his allies, eminently comfortable with combative politics, he is plausibly positioned to capitalize on—and perhaps drive—the reconfiguration of the Republican Party. This would have seemed improbable a decade ago, given the substantial differences that separated him from his party’s base. But, today, he seems less a misfit in the GOP than a candidate with the potential—if he doesn’t short-circuit—to become a transformational figure at a crucial moment in the party’s history: someone, like Goldwater, Reagan, or Bush, who could redefine how Republicans win elections and what the label “conservative” means. Perhaps Rusty DePass will name his next dog Giuliani.