Rudy Giuliani’s affirmation of his support for public financing of abortions was undoubtedly the biggest blunder of his nascent presidential campaign. Not only have his comments undermined his efforts to assuage the concerns of social conservatives, they have reinforced the perception that he’s running an undisciplined campaign.
By now, most readers are likely familiar with Giuliani’s comments to CNN reporter Dana Bash. But just to recap, after Bash played Giuliani a YouTube video from 1989 in which he advocated public financing of abortion, the following exchange occurred:
BASH: Is that also going to be your position as president?
GIULIANI: Probably. I mean, I have to re-examine all of those issues and exactly what was at stake then, and it is a long time ago. But generally that is my view, abortion is wrong, abortion shouldn’t happen, personally you should counsel people to that extent.
When I was mayor, adoptions went up, abortions went down, but ultimately it is a constitutional right, and therefore if it is a constitutional right ultimately, even if you do it on a state-by-state basis, you have to make sure that people are protected.
BASH: So you support taxpayer money or public funding for abortions in some cases?
GIULIANI: If it would deprive someone of a constitutional right, yes, I mean, if that the status of the law, then I would, yes.
His response is problematic on several levels. Politically, it hurts him not only among social conservatives, but also among fiscal conservatives who may even be pro-choice but abhor any kind of government subsidies. While Giuliani has received mostly friendly treatment on conservative blogs up until now, the response to his remarks has been overwhelmingly negative, turning off even those who had previously been sympathetic to Rudy. Semantically, it isn’t helpful for him to use the words “constitutional right” with regard to abortion, even if he meant it in terms of what the courts currently hold. Legally, the idea that anything that is a constitutional right should be provided by the government, is patently absurd. As has been pointed out, followed to its logical conclusion, it would mean that the government would have to provide poor people with access to firearms. It’s somewhat startling that a lawyer as experienced as Giuliani would come across as ignorant of constitutional law.
In the wake of the storm that followed, the Giuliani campaign issued a clarification in which Rudy said, “As I have indicated before I will not seek to change current law as described in the Hyde Amendment.” The Hyde Amendment limits federal funding for abortions to cases of rape, incest, or to protect the life of the mother. In South Carolina on Thursday, he added that he thought the issue should be left to individual states, as it is now. Such a response would have been helpful if it were his initial reaction to Bash’s question, but releasing the statement after the fact just created more confusion. It also reveals a deeper problem, that if not remedied, could do more long-term damage to the Giuliani campaign than the abortion issue itself.
The CNN interview marked the second time in about a week that Giuliani’s communications team was forced to put out a fire after the former mayor gave a prominent television interview. (Last week, it was the comment to Barbara Walters that he would let his wife sit in on cabinet meetings.) With this much time before the primaries, no single gaffe is going to cost Giuliani the election, but if this develops into a trend, it will doom his candidacy.
AT ROOT IS THE TENDENCY Giuliani has to shoot straight from the gut, often without much consideration of the ramifications of his statements. He breaks the mold of the typical, cookie-cutter politician, which is one of the reasons he is so appealing. This quality is what made him boot Yasser Arafat from Lincoln Center in 1995, on the heels of Arafat’s Nobel Peace Prize, and refuse to apologize for the decision in the wake of condemnation from the media, the Clinton White House, and the State Department. It’s what enabled him to speak with a blend of toughness, compassion, and moral clarity in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, when most of us were at a loss for words. It’s what prompted him to reject the relief check of Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal after the prince said that U.S. policies in the Middle East contributed to the attacks.
But this quality of Giuliani’s, which is one of his greatest strengths, is also one of his biggest political liabilities. When Bash asked him if he had changed his position on publicly funding abortion since 1989, while another politician might have fielded the question differently, Giuliani just couldn’t bring himself to be seen as pandering, so his instinct was to say that his position was the same. But then he tried to qualify his statement, so what he ended up with was a sloppy answer that, in addition to angering conservatives, created the impression that he’s simply “winging it.”
There is, however, a fine line between pandering and being unprepared. Given that Giuliani’s biggest liability going into the Republican primaries is his stance on abortion, it’s startling that he would be caught so off guard. By now, he should be ready to answer any permutation of the abortion question, if not to the satisfaction of all social conservatives, at least well enough to convey a command of the subject matter.
One of Giuliani’s leadership principles is “relentless preparation.” He says: “If you prepare for everything else relentlessly, you will be able to respond to the unexpected as if intuitively.” Giuliani would be wise to take his own advice.