Ramesh Ponnuru has written a series of posts (here, here and here) responding to my post about his column in which he argued that Rudy Giuliani’s nomination would pose risks to Republicans in the general election because the party would lose its advantages on social issues. Ponnuru says that betting that Rudy could put more states in play in a general election is a gamble. Fair enough. But you can’t judge Rudy in a vacuum, or assume the existence of a mythical alternate candidate. You have to compare him to his two main rivals for the nomination–Romney and McCain. There’s never a sure bet in politics, but there’s a strong case to be made that Giuliani is the best bet for Republicans, given the alternatives ( a case that I have made before, but don’t want this post to be even longer).
Another factor that Ponnuru does not take into account is that were Giuliani to be nominated, he could choose a solid social conservative as his running mate. Even though it may not satisfy all social issue voters, at least that would be one way (in addition to judges) to differentiate the Republican ticket from the Democratic ticket on social issues. And if the media tries to portray Giuliani as disingenuous, he can just argue what he always has–that the Republican Party is a big tent, that nobody agrees 100 percent on every issue, but Republicans are united in their dedication to winning the war on terror.
More specifically, Ponnuru dismisses a poll that shows Giuliani beating Clinton in New Jersey by saying that Republicans always talk about putting the Garden State in play, but in has never “panned out.” As somebody who spent most of my life in the NY-NJ metropolitan area, I think there’s a good argument to be made that the Giuliani candidacy would be different. The densely populated suburbs of northern New Jersey are made up of people who witnessed first hand the transformation of New York City when Giuliani was mayor. These are people who commuted into the city in the days when “squeegee men” intimidated motorists, prostitutes and sex shops dominated Times Square, and crime was rampant. They watched Giuliani turn the city into a place where it was safe to do business and they could take their family to a Broadway show without being harassed. So, I think there’s more substance to the NJ polls than Ponnuru seems willing to acknowledge.
It’s also worth noting that voters decide who they want to be their president based on a lot of intangibles. When picking a senator or congressman, the candidate’s stances on individual issues are all that matter, but when it comes to choosing the president, a lot of other factors come into play. Giuliani has a winning personality, he’s tough, he’s an effective communicator, he’s highly competent, he’s authentic, he has a stellar record of accomplishments as an executive, and he proved himself as a strong leader during crisis. There will be a huge premium placed on all of these qualities in 2008, given the state of the world.
Ponnuru writes: “Let’s keep in mind that we had some major events in this country between 2000 and 2004-attacks, wars, scandals-and the electoral map looked pretty much the same.” It looked pretty much the same because there was one constant: George W. Bush. As I said, in presidential elections, intangibles often overwhelm individual issues. Bush has been a very polarizing figure. In both elections about half of the electorate found him charming, authentic, decisive, ethical and cool under pressure, while the other half thought he was dumb, inarticulate, deceptive, and incompetent. In both campaigns, he ran against Democratic candidates who came across as boring, stiff, elitists who seemed like they had been running for president since childhood. That’s not to say that issues were unimportant, but all of these things fed into the way voters perceived the candidates on the issues.
Even if I were to grant Ponnuru the argument that on balance, being socially conservative is a net plus for Republicans, I think that Giuliani brings a lot to the table that more than makes up for whatever votes he would theoretically lose because of social issues. Like Bush, he’s a person who sticks to his guns no matter how unpopular his beliefs. But Giuliani is a far more gifted communicator, he’s a hands on manager who immerses himself in details, he holds people accountable for mistakes, and he’s a results oriented leader who is willing to make adjustments when his policies aren’t working. As a former (and quite successful) prosecutor he’s persuasive, a skilled debater, and great in press conferences. All of this will become apparent in a campaign.
In closing, I should say that Giuliani has been the most underestimated candidate in this race. For years, the conventional wisdom was that he’d never run and that even if he did, he wouldn’t have a prayer to win the Republican nomination. Now, we know he’s running, and most pundits acknowledge that he’s a true contender–some say the frontrunner–for the nomination. Pundits said that by the time the election approached, his post-9/11 glow will have faded. But it’s been more than five and a half years since 9/11, and yet he still remains the most popular political figure in America, and he’s greeted like a rock star from the deep South to the Pacific coast. I think there’s something more going on with Rudy than Ponnuru is willing to give him credit for. And yes, there are risks to his candidacy. There always are. But given his record of overcoming long odds and accomplishing things that were once viewed as impossible, I wouldn’t bet against him.