Watching Rudy Giuliani stumble through his answers on abortion during the presidential debate earlier this month, I was reminded of Rocky Balboa getting knocked out by Clubber Lang in the first act of Rocky III.
A victim of his own popularity, Rocky had become comfortable and complacent. He was unsure of himself in the ring and had lost the edge that had enabled him in the past to overcome long odds to best his opponents. Had Giuliani, I wondered, suffered from the same problem as the Italian Stallion? Had glowing press coverage, adoring crowds, and high poll numbers taken the fight out of Rudy? Had he lost his edge?
Going into the campaign, all political observers agreed that Giuliani’s pro-choice position would be the most challenging for him to overcome, so it wasn’t surprising to see the abortion issue cause him so many problems. But it was surprising that the prosecutor who had stared down the mob, the crime-fighting mayor who was known for combative press conferences and for his steely resolve on Sept. 11, seemed quite tentative — even nervous — in interviews and on the campaign trail when the issue of abortion came up. It was stunning that the man who touted relentless preparation as one of his primary principles of leadership had looked so unprepared to answer basic questions. As mayor, no matter whether people agreed or disagreed with him on issues, everybody always knew where he stood. Yet his answers on abortion during the presidential campaign have been a muddled, confusing, mess — until now.
In 1960, John F. Kennedy addressed a group of Baptist leaders in Houston to confront the major obstacle facing his candidacy, his Catholicism. If Giuliani goes on to win the Republican nomination, his speech on Friday to the Houston Baptist University, in which he unapologetically laid out his differences with conservatives, could become just as historic. At the very minimum, it may be remembered as the day he regained his edge.
Although Giuliani did not change the underlying reasoning for his positions, his Houston speech represented a significant departure in tone. For much of the campaign, Giuliani has steered clear of addressing his views on guns, immigration, gay rights, and abortion when speaking before conservative audiences, offering only a nod to his differences with such statements as “we don’t all agree on everything.” He has tended to go into specifics only when asked directly by an interviewer, and as a result he has been put on the defensive. On Friday, to borrow one of his favorite refrains, Giuliani went on offense — tackling each of these issues head on, one by one.
Giuliani framed his past support for gun rights within his efforts to cut crime in New York City. He described how his immigration policies as mayor were influenced by practical concerns given that he was governing a city with 400,000 illegal immigrants that the INS couldn’t deport. He said while he opposes gay marriage or civil union laws that are the equivalent of marriage, he does support domestic partnership rights. And on abortion, he reiterated that he thinks abortion is “morally wrong” but that he ultimately believes people of good conscience can disagree, so a woman should have a right to choose. He did, however, add that he would be open to policies that limit abortion. Many of these statements are familiar to those who have followed the campaign closely, but Giuliani’s presentation of them this time was much more direct, forceful, and confident than it has been so far in this campaign.
“I should honestly tell you what I believe,” he said. “I should honestly tell you the things that I can evolve on and the things that I can’t, and then you should decide.”
Giuliani also went out of his way to say that he respected the views of those who disagree with him, and was at peace with the fact that some people’s disagreements will be too great for them to consider voting for him.
Getting this speech off his chest seems to have made a difference already. In an interview with Chris Wallace for Fox News Sunday that was conducted after he delivered the remarks, Giuliani seemed much more self-assured and prepared than he has been when grilled in past interviews over the course of the campaign.
In early April, CNN’s Dana Bash showed Giuliani a YouTube clip of a 1989 speech he gave in support of public funding for abortion, and his muddled response and deer-in-the-headlights look when answering the question triggered a firestorm of criticism, not only for the substance of his answer, but for the perception it created that he was simply “winging it.”
In the interview that aired Sunday, Wallace showed Giuliani a 1997 NARAL questionnaire that has surfaced on the Internet, on which Giuliani indicated opposition to policies limiting abortion, and asked: “Since then, you have moved in the direction of restricting abortions in all of these areas. Why?” Without hesitation, Giuliani responded, “Correct. Let’s take each one of them,” and then elaborated. Wallace also asked him about his lawsuit as mayor that eventually led the Supreme Court to strike down the line-item veto. “The line-item veto is unconstitutional, and I’m a strict constructionist,” Giuliani fired back. “The line-item veto — if we want, it has to be done by constitutional amendment.” That might draw criticism from conservatives, but it cannot be said that he was caught off-guard or didn’t stake out a clear position. He also comfortably fielded a question on the location of the emergency command center in the World Trade Center complex.
To some, Giuliani has committed political suicide by deciding to come out as an unabashedly pro-choice candidate. While being up front runs the risk of making it more difficult to win over social conservatives, his new approach has the advantage of limiting the damage to a few issues. If he were to have reversed himself for the sake of political expediency, the level of confusion in his statements would have spilled over to voters’ general perceptions of him and undermined his central appeal: that he is a tough, fearless, no-nonsense leader who sticks with his convictions through popular and unpopular times.
Rocky, of course, ended up taking Clubber Lang in the rematch after rediscovering his fighting spirit. On Tuesday, Giuliani will get a second chance to make his case to Republican voters in a presidential debate in South Carolina. It should be fun to watch, because it looks like he has regained the eye of the Rudy.