By David Greenberg
Sunday, October 28, 2007
You wouldn't know it from reading the papers, but the favorite to win the Republican presidential nomination is a confirmed right-winger. On issues such as free speech and religion, secrecy and due process, civil rights and civil liberties, pornography and democracy, this moralist and self-styled lawman has exhibited all the key hallmarks of Bush-era conservatism.
That candidate is Rudolph W. Giuliani.
As any New Yorker can tell you, the last word anyone in the 1990s would have attached to the brash, furniture- breaking mayor was "liberal" -- and the second-to-last was "moderate." With his take-many-prisoners approach to crime and his unerring pro-police instincts, the prosecutor-turned-proconsul made his mark on the city not by embracing its social liberalism but by trying to crush it.
Somehow, though, Giuliani is being introduced to the rest of America as a liberal. And the people pinning the L-word on him aren't just far-right spokesmen such as James Dobson or Richard Viguerie, to whom even the Bush administration looks squishily centrist. No, it's supposedly objective journalists who've been using the label. ABC News reporter Jake Tapper recently spoke offhandedly about the mayor's "liberal views on social issues." Echoed NPR's Mara Liasson: "Giuliani has liberal views on a number of social issues, including abortion." On washingtonpost.com, political blogger Chris Cillizza referred to the mayor's "liberal positions on social issues," even though Giuliani supports only limited abortion rights and gay rights.
To a New Yorker, the idea of Rudy as a liberal or even a moderate is unreal, topsy-turvy -- like describing George McGovern as a hawk or Pat Buchanan as a Zionist. The case for Giuliani's moderation rests mainly on three overblown issues -- guns, gay rights and abortion -- and even in those cases, his deviation from conservative orthodoxy is far milder than is usually suggested.
The "social" and "cultural" issues that divide Americans encompass much more than guns, gay rights and abortion. They include state support of religion; the legitimacy of dissenting speech; the president's right to keep information secret; the place of fair procedures in dispensing justice. The Bush administration's hard-line stands on these matters have polarized the nation as much as the Iraq war has. And on these issues, Giuliani is just as hard-line as the man he'd like to succeed.
If you've managed to keep liking President Bush, you'd have no trouble loving President Giuliani.
Consider the first of our freedoms: free speech. One emblematic act of Giuliani's mayorship was his 1999 attempt to censor an art exhibit because it featured a painting of the Virgin Mary that used an unusual form of mixed media -- clumps of elephant dung, to be precise. (Others were also upset by the cutouts of female genitalia.) Giuliani, a Catholic who attended parochial schools and once aspired to the priesthood, understandably took offense. But he then converted his religious sensibilities into policy, unilaterally withholding a $7 million city subsidy to the Brooklyn Museum of Art. When that failed to get the painting removed, he tried to evict the museum from its century-old home. Ultimately, after losing in court, he was forbidden to retaliate against the museum. So much for moderation.
Those who deem Rudy a liberal might also recall his plan to fund parochial schools with city money. His goal went far beyond letting Bible groups meet after hours in public classrooms: The mayor personally phoned Cardinal John O'Connor to hatch a plan that would have placed public school students in church-run schools with overtly Christian curricula -- including catechism and excluding sex education. It was the real liberals on the school board who stopped the plan.
Beyond religious issues, a second conservative trait defined Giuliani's tenure: his Cheney-esque appetite for executive power. In 1999, for example, he directed (without the City Council's permission) the police to permanently confiscate the cars of people charged with drunken driving -- even if the suspects were later acquitted.
Giuliani's record on government secrecy, too, is hardly moderate. Liberals today routinely attack President Bush's refusal to divulge information about his domestic wiretapping program and his 2001 executive order claiming the power to close presidential papers. But they rarely discuss an equally autocratic move that Giuliani made: cutting a deal with the city as he was leaving office to assign control of his mayoral records to his own private company so that he could decide who could see them.
The fanciful notion of Giuliani's liberalism also omits the pi¿ce de r¿sistance of his mayorship: his flagrantly undemocratic bid to stay in office for an extra three months after Sept. 11, 2001. During earlier crises, even World War II, U.S. elections had always managed to proceed normally. But Giuliani maneuvered for weeks to remain mayor after his term-limited exit date. Only as normalcy returned to New York did his power grab fail.
Finally, don't forget foreign policy, which has become a social issue in these parlous times. In pledging to carry on the Bush legacy abroad -- seeking to assuage Americans' feelings of vulnerability through brazen nationalism and the ready use of force -- Giuliani taps the same emotions he did with his crusades against crime and vice: a sense that a frustrated people want a no-nonsense leader who will buck the weak-kneed worrywarts, be they urban school officials or Democrats who flinch at warrantless wiretapping.
What's left of the case for Rudy's liberalism relies on three prongs: guns, gay rights and abortion. But even those positions, seen in context, don't render Giuliani a liberal or a moderate so much as an occasional and tepid dissenter from the GOP line -- which, over the past quarter-century, has become increasingly right-wing.
Take gun control first. Some people demand that their candidate endorse the right to plunk down a wad of cash anywhere, anytime, for a submachine gun. But for most conservative voters, what matters is a "tough on crime" stance, and if any issue has defined Giuliani's career -- from his years as a prosecutor frog-marching corrupt bankers down Wall Street to his staunch support as mayor for trigger-happy cops -- it's his conservative posture on criminal justice. While liberals such as Michael S. Dukakis were thought to embrace gun control to conceal their distaste for tougher measures, Giuliani has always been known as an avenger.
His stands on gay rights also don't quite merit the liberal label. Pundits often note that he lived with a gay couple after splitting with his second wife. But policy stands, not private behavior, define a politician's ideology. (Just ask Sen. Larry Craig.) Yes, Giuliani supports more gay rights than do other Republicans, but he still opposes same-sex marriage and has even denounced New Hampshire's law blessing civil unions.
On abortion, Giuliani, while technically pro-choice, is far from liberal: He favors outlawing what opponents call "partial birth" abortion, backs parental-notification laws and supports the Hyde Amendment, which prohibits federal funding for most abortions under Medicaid.
Ultimately, the use of the labels "liberal" and "moderate" matters less than the reason why they're used: to suggest that core Republican voters won't support Giuliani's candidacy. But the numbers say otherwise. Although some right-wing religious leaders are talking about backing a third-party candidate if Rudy is nominated, few primary voters are likely to follow. Not only has Giuliani consistently led the GOP field, but pluralities of survey respondents tend to agree that he "shares the same values as most Republicans" and that on social issues he's neither too conservative nor too liberal but "about right."
Pundits are flummoxed. When George Stephanopoulos told an ABC News gabfest that a Gallup poll showed that 69 percent of "religious Republican evangelicals" deemed the mayor an "acceptable nominee," George F. Will protested: "I just can't believe that those voters are going to go for Rudy Giuliani." Cokie Roberts chimed in, "I just find it very hard to believe that Rudy Giuliani is going to come out of Iowa and South Carolina as the Republican front-runner." But testimony from rank-and-file voters suggests that they will indeed tolerate his mild heterodoxies on abortion because they like his overall ideology, especially on Iraq and terrorism. (A Pew poll found that only 7 percent of Republican voters consider abortion their chief concern, compared with the 31 percent who named Iraq.)
When Bush ran for president, his slippery slogan of "compassionate conservatism" convinced many Washington journalists that he was a moderate. When he then pushed a right-wing agenda, they were stunned. They hadn't looked hard enough at his record. Likewise, if Giuliani becomes president, he will probably emerge as an unabashed social conservative -- as seen in his judicial appointments, his efforts to aid religious schools, the free hand he gives the government in fighting crime and terrorism, and an all-around authoritarian style. Let's not get fooled again.
David Greenberg is a historian at Rutgers University. His books include "Nixon's Shadow: The History
of an Image" and "Calvin Coolidge."