Political Hay

Rudy’s New Social Conservatism

Giuliani's differences with the right may be a matter of definition.

By 2.14.07

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Pundits of all political persuasions have been chattering about whether Rudy Giuliani, whose name is invariably modified by the description "social liberal," can overcome the objections of many religious conservatives to win the Republican nomination. Will his assurances to appoint judges in the mold of Roberts, Alito and Scalia be "enough" to put their concerns to rest? Will conservatives overlook social issues in an election focusing largely on foreign policy?

If the definition of "social conservative" is merely a checklist of several hot button issues, specifically abortion and gay rights, Giuliani is certainly to the left of his principal rivals. He might give assurances to appoint strict constructionist judges and might stipulate that his support of civil unions is not the same as support for gay marriage. However, on these issues he is unlikely to win the hearts of single-issue voters who care passionately about a candidate's beliefs and not just the likely outcomes of a candidate's policies.

But the commentators and consultants may have gotten the questions wrong. The better, at least the more interesting, question is whether Giuliani can establish a new description of what it means to be "socially conservative." Perhaps to be socially conservative means something more than just fidelity to pro-life and anti-gay marriage positions. Giuliani has a convincing argument that he is an ethical or cultural conservative who in the end will protect the values that most conservative Republicans hold dear. What does this mean? It means that he sees the world as a battle between good and evil, and politics as a struggle between decent hard working people and elites who have too little respect for their values -- public safety, respect for religion and public virtue.

It must be news indeed to liberal New York elites -- the ACLU, the teachers' unions, the New York Times, the upper West Side art crowd -- to hear that the former mayor is a "social liberal." Whether inspired by his Catholic education or by his often-quoted parents, Giuliani never seemed "liberal" in any sense to them. This was the mayor who scrubbed Times Square of the porn shops, railed against the ACLU for challenging aggressive police tactics, and routinely insulted proponents of racial and special interest politics. Defending his crusade against petty crimes he took the side of ordinary people over "squeegee men shaking down the motorist waiting at a light." Certainly Chris Matthews has figured out his crusade for social order belied the term "liberal," going so far as to suggest (outrageously) the mayor might be "a little bit of a fascist." Far from accepting all family arrangements as equal, Giuliani enraged welfare advocates by requiring that deadbeat dads find a job or participate in the city's workfare program to help support their children. He succinctly described the best social program for ending poverty: "fatherhood."

His world view is not one of multi-culturalism or moral relativism. He shows no empathy for bullies -- be they Mafia bosses or Al Sharpton. Giuliani, of course, first rose to public prominence by fighting the largest bully he could find: the Mob. Time magazine called his prosecution in 1985 of 11 Mafia leaders the "Case of Cases" and quoted his declared intention to "wipe out the five families." For him, it is all about who is good and who is not, regardless of whose feathers he might ruffle. In a 1999 interview with the Daily News he explained that he had no patience with Italian activists who did not appreciate his use of the name Mafia: "I learned a lot about prejudice when I was investigating the Mafia, because there were a lot of people of what would be considered my subgroup, Italian-Americans, who were very angry at me. Not that I was investigating the Mafia, but that I would use the word Mafia. I was not supposed to say that word because it would give all Italians a bad name."

Indeed he disdains interest group politics with a vengeance. When black activists repeatedly invited him and then dis-invited him to ceremonies he minced no words in this same Daily News interview: "It's the constant barrage of criticism from some of the so-called leaders of the community. The games of inviting me to ceremonies and then uninviting me, as if I'm the devil. It's the fact that I don't subscribe to the bells and whistles that some politicians will subscribe to just to pander to a community."

His world view is no different than his dichotomized view of urban life. Liberal sympathy for the plight of the Palestinians and diplomatic niceties did not prevent him from tossing Yasser Arafat (with great delight) from Lincoln Center. He succinctly dismissed criticism, remarking: "Maybe we should wake people up to the way this terrorist is being romanticized."

As for supporters of cultural relativism, they should look elsewhere for a defender. Declaring the work to be "sick stuff" (a view of modern art likely shared by more Americans than art museums would dare admit), he tried unsuccessfully to pressure the Brooklyn Museum of Art into disbanding the "Sensation" exhibit (depicting, among other things, the Virgin Mary smeared with elephant dung). No doubt to the horror of the New York Times art critic, Giuliani declared: "You don't have a right to government subsidy for desecrating somebody else's religion, and therefore we will do everything that we can to remove funding for time until the director comes to his senses." He eventually lost in court, but not before he had made his point.

His list of enemies is certainly long, but his friends and admirers are numerous and devoted. He is the best friend of the cop, the fireman, the school parents, the Catholic parishioners and even the Midwest tourists who now flock to New York City. For him and those he has befriended, social conservatism means defending a functioning civil society where families enjoy physical security, religious respect, and public decency. These may sound like pedestrian concerns, less dramatic than the battles some wage against gay marriage or embryo destruction in stem cell research. Nevertheless, if they seem be more concrete and immediate to the ordinary Republican primary voter, Giuliani may prove to be not only the Republican nominee but a new kind of "social conservative."

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