Rudy Giuliani came to Houston and invoked specters of 1960. Seasoned observers, including Houston Baptist University president Robert B. Sloan, noted Giuliani’s visit to HBU and recalled John F. Kennedy’s famed speech before Protestant ministers in Houston in which he won the ministers’ confidence by promising to be a bad Catholic. In other words, he was going to run America his way and the Pope wouldn’t figure in his plans. If the ministers had known the stuff about JFK’s personal life we know today, they wouldn’t have worried about his fealty to the Pope and he could have saved his airfare. Giuliani came to Houston Baptist as another Catholic addressing Protestants and stressing his differences with Rome, but this time the key interest wasn’t religious freedom or foreign control. This time the issue was abortion and Rudy knew the Baptists weren’t going to be relieved the way JFK’s audience was.
Even though the mayor reached the event in advance of the appointed starting time, he took the stage late. When he began with his script on the podium before him he looked like anything but the hero of 9-11 and the former mayor of a city of nearly 10 million people. He was nervous. He stammered. He sweated and looked pale. This was the look of a speaker facing a hostile audience. I was five feet away and wondered if he’d have to call the whole thing off.
That’s when shades of Lyndon B. Johnson set in. A baby burbled audibly in the silent crowd. Perhaps it was pure serendipity that the child wore a t-shirt proclaiming “I love NY,” but I remembered the old stories of LBJ’s campaign appearances where he exhibited tremendous flair by tossing a gorgeous white Stetson into the assembled mass. What the folks never knew was that the greatest of Texas campaigners had practiced his aim and had a staffer charged with the task of catching that hat at every stop. When Giuliani walked over to the baby, mugged with it, and jumped back to the podium proclaiming, “Hey, I am a politician!” to the obvious delight of the audience, I wondered how often such happy accidents occur. Nobody at HBU was skeptical. They loved it and the ice was broken.
Hizzoner had a better time of it after that. His nervousness faded and took on the difficult task of telling a group of mostly pro-lifers about his pro-choice views. What I observed was a simple human dynamic. People who heard the speech appreciated Mayor Giuliani’s honesty. His basic pitch was simple, “We can disagree about abortion, but I’m the best guy to handle the war on terror and to protect our growing economy from excessive taxation and regulation.” Responses went both ways. Some agreed with him to begin with. Others liked him but would never consider voting for him because of their strong pro-life views. A third group, however, were won over by him. They admired his directness and were willing to meet him on his terms. I have no doubt Giuliani gained some voters in the group of hearers at Houston Baptist University. He will win people over wherever he gives that speech.
While I think the mayor’s presentation will win voters, I am equally certain that he cannot overcome the broader damage incurred by being forthrightly pro-choice. Politically active pro-lifers who wanted to see him offer an acceptable compromise on the pro-life front have already been backing out. More will leave now that he is fully declared.
Why can’t his campaign take the hit and perhaps prevail? The answer is simple. The Republican party is now a pro-life party. The pro-life movement is stronger today than it has been in its entire post-Roe existence and will only gain credibility as ultrasound technology improves still further and becomes a larger part of the imagery of everyday life. In addition, a vote for Rudy says that abortion is really not that important after all. It is less important than things like money and terrorism. You can dress it up in lofty talk about agreeing to disagree as much as you like, but acceptance of those terms implies the trivialization of the life issue.
Very few in the movement are willing to take the massive step backward of having both parties be pro-choice in their leadership which is exactly what would happen if Giuliani were to become our nominee. That logic will ultimately prevail and there is plenty of time for it to settle in among conservative voters.