WASHINGTON — Rudy Giuliani has had a rough couple of months in the conservative media, but speaking to a Heritage Foundation audience in Washington on Monday night, he demonstrated the qualities that have made him the early Republican frontrunner.
Focusing on his strong points — national security and economic policy — Giuliani peppered his speech with humor and backed up his policy prescriptions for America with examples and anecdotes from his experiences as mayor of Gotham.
In talking about the need to institute fiscal discipline in Washington, Giuliani reflected that the term “non-discretionary spending” reminded him of the defeatist attitude of those who used to say that New York City was ungovernable. “If I can convince you that my government is unmanageable and ungovernable, then I don’t have to do anything,” he said. “If I can convince you that 60 to 70 percent of the budget is non-discretionary, then I don’t have to do anything about it. The reality is that the entire budget is discretionary.” He called for across the board spending cuts (only defense expenditures would be exempt).
Specifically, he vowed that as president he would trim the federal government payroll through attrition. Over the next two presidential terms, 42 percent of the government’s civilian workforce is scheduled to retire, Giuliani noted, and said he would seek to replace only half of the employees. Such a move would save $70 billion a year, he said.
Moving on to tax policy, he called for the abolition of the death tax and mocked the current law that would have the tax expire for just one year in 2010. “That’s called a tax incentive to die,” he quipped, drawing laughter from the audience. “Do not go on a respirator in 2010.”
The primary argument for Giuliani’s candidacy, of course, rests on the perception that he would make a strong wartime leader.
“I don’t care what the polls say, I believe deep down Americans know what’s at stake,” Giuliani said, with his fist to his heart. “We have to deal with the reality of the threat we face. We cannot allow our country to go into denial about the Islamic terrorist threat, the extreme radical threat against America.”
Giuliani defended President Bush’s anti-terror policies, specifically the Patriot Act, electronic surveillance, and aggressive interrogation techniques. “It doesn’t mean torture, it doesn’t mean being inhumane,” he said. “But it does mean being aggressive, and not being ashamed about being aggressive when you’re trying to save the lives of Americans.”
As he has done in the past, he compared the need for aggressive intelligence gathering methods to the intrusive methods he used when investigating the mob as a prosecutor. “I can never remember, ever, one of them coming into my office, knocking on my door” (at this point Giuliani knocked on the podium) “and saying, ‘I want to tell you about that murder we have planned for about two weeks.'”
While he said that “President Bush is going to get credit for the fact that he has kept us safe,” Giuliani has begun to carve out his own national security policy, following up on a speech he gave over the weekend at the Citadel. In hindsight, the so-called “peace dividend” of the 1990s was a big mistake, he said, and noted that even with the Bush defense buildup, the U.S. is only spending 4.1 percent of its GDP on defense, which compares to 6.2 percent during the height of the Reagan era. Giuliani called for a much larger military, an additional 10 combat brigades more than President Bush proposed.
He dismissed critics who would argue that it would be too difficult to recruit that many soldiers in the wake of the Iraq War. “The war is controversial on CNN, the war is controversial on MSNBC,” Giuliani declared. “The war is not controversial at the Citadel.”
In a proposal that is sure to be met with skepticism among non-interventionist conservatives, Giuliani called for establishing a “hybrid” military/civilian force that would deal with the nation building aspect of modern conflicts, saying one of the lessons from the Iraq War was that our military is trained for combat and we don’t have a force to deal with redevelopment.
He was unwavering in his support for a continued U.S. presence in Iraq, and did not hesitate to link it to the broader War on Terror (or, as he recasts it, “the war of terrorists against us”). “If you have to figure out where America should be, you ask yourself right now, in Baghdad, in Anbar, in other parts of Iraq, what is the desire of Al Qaeda terrorists? What do they want?” Giuliani asked rhetorically before answering his own question. “They want to drive us out. Maybe, just maybe, that should help you figure out what we should do.”
Giuliani entered and exited the stage to standing ovations, and his speech was interrupted by applause throughout as he stuck to the common ground he has with conservatives and steered clear of social issues. He did not even make the argument, as he has in the past to conservative audiences, that despite disagreements, “my 80 percent ally is not my 20 percent enemy.”
Clearly, Giuliani will continue to be dogged by questions about abortion and other social issues, and ultimately his deviations on those issues may sink his candidacy. But in past election cycles, we wouldn’t even be talking about the prospect of a pro-choice candidate winning the Republican nomination. Rudy’s strong performance on Monday night is indicative of why we are.