Ethics & Public Policy Center

Original Sin

Published in National Review Online on January 30, 2008



The collapse of Rudy Giuliani's presidential bid is surely one of the most striking developments of the 2008 campaign. Strategic mistake? I don't think so. Rudy lost because he dissed social conservatives. In fact, the reason Giuliani missed those early primaries is because he dissed social conservatives. Giuliani's attempt to take apart and reconstitute Ronald Reagan's winning political coalition was his original sin. And Rudy's primal transgression continues to shape the dynamics of 2008's Republican presidential race. With Reagan's erstwhile coalition now cast out of the garden of amity, only recognizing and understanding Rudy's fault will allow us to find our way back.

I'm not saying Giuliani's social liberalism doomed him to failure. On the contrary, I remember talking to a socially conservative state legislator from the midwest early in the campaign and finding, to my surprise, a genuine willingness to support Giuliani, while being fully aware of Rudy's social liberalism. There was a conventional wisdom among knowledgeable conservatives during the campaign's early stages that Giuliani's support would collapse when the Republican base discovered his social liberalism. Yet to everyone's amazement, Rudy kept rising in the polls. The broader public — including social conservatives — respected and admired the hero of 9/11, and wanted to back a winner in the general election. The problem is not that Giuliani's personal social liberalism was unacceptable. The problem was Rudy's failure to meet social conservatives halfway.

Without caring much about social issues one way or the other, plenty of Rudy's most enthusiastic backers supported him for his tough stand in the war on terror and his record of governing New York City. Yet a significant number of Rudy's key supporters backed him precisely because of his social liberalism. Their hope was that a national victory for Rudy, powered by socially liberal Republicans and moderates, would break the Reagan coalition and leave social conservatives out in the cold. Although he would never have spoken so baldly, Giuliani gave far too many indications of belonging to this group himself.

Rudy's initial campaign forays were marked by a series of awkward and ill-informed statements on the abortion issue. At a minimum, this betrayed a cavalier attitude toward a significant portion of the Reagan coalition. As time went on, however, it became clear that something more was at work. Rudy could have said that while his personal views on abortion were more liberal than many other Republicans, he nonetheless recognized some significant problems in the Supreme Court's abortion jurisprudence. A stance like that might have come close to winning Giuliani the nomination early on. Instead, in a bold and controversial move, Rudy pointedly refused to shift right on abortion. Despite his subsequent efforts to assure conservatives about Supreme Court nominations, and despite his very general condemnations of judicial activism, Rudy's fundamental unwillingness to more openly compromise with social conservatives on life issues split the party and doomed his campaign.

On the marriage issue, Rudy could also have done a good deal more, without in any way giving up his basic stance of accepting civil unions while opposing same-sex marriage. With a pro-same-sex-marriage court decision in Iowa so legally shaky that even some prominent gay-marriage activists hesitated to embrace it, Giuliani could have personally denounced the ruling as a prime example of judicial activism. Instead, Rudy refused to take up social issues in a way that showed his willingness to play even a modest leadership role. So, no matter who Giulinai put on his judicial selection committee, the overall message was: “I'll take your votes, but I don't like your issues, and I won't pay them attention.”

This is the context in which we have to understand what followed. The use of false or mistaken reports to stir up scandal over Giuliani's personal life might have been received very differently had Giuliani taken steps long before to reassure social conservatives. He ought to shown social conservatives by his actions that, despite his relative liberalism on these issues, they would have at least a respected place at the table in a Giuliani administration. Instead, the message of the campaign was that victory for Giuliani meant defeat for social conservatives. This is what powered the rise of Mike Huckabee, the next major candidate to attempt to reshape rather than lead the Reagan coalition (this time by shorting business and foreign policy conservatives).

So why did Rudy hold back from contesting the initial primaries? Chiefly because he himself had created the conditions for his own rejection in the early states. Had Giuliani moved to meet social conservatives halfway, Huckabee would likely have remained an also-ran and Rudy could have contested Iowa. Instead, Giuliani had to shun this socially conservative state, now catching fire for a rival whose campaign he himself had helped to jump-start.

With Huckabee's triumph weakening Giuliani further in New Hampshire, Rudy decided on strategic retreat to Florida as his best option. Perhaps in retrospect Giuliani could and should have made a bolder stand in New Hampshire. But Rudy's early decisions on how to handle social conservatives underpin his logic of retreat. South Carolina was another socially conservative state where Rudy was profoundly handicapped. Had Giuliani coopted at least a significant group of social conservatives back when he was seen as the party's savior, Huckabee would not have been able to take so many of South Carolina's evangelicals, and McCain would have had to fight a viable Rudy for South Carolina's hawks.

Did the success of the surge and the consequent decline of the war as an issue do Giuliani in? Not really. Rudy was always much more than the 9/11 candidate. Giuliani's executive experience and his famous turn-around of New York city gave him a huge edge over McCain in executive leadership, and easily made him a match for Romney in that category. The dynamic in which Giuliani alienated a surprisingly receptive social conservative base and helped give rise to the Huckabee phenomenon in reaction is what controlled the critical early phases of the race, and set the stage for all that followed. National-security matters remain a huge concern for Republicans. Had Rudy handled social conservatives differently from the start, he and not John McCain would now be benefiting from ongoing Republican hawkishness.

Probably Rudy himself, and certainly a significant number of his core supporters, saw the Giuliani campaign as a test of whether Republicans might be able to win without social conservatives. Well, the test is over and the results are in. A candidate who effectively cuts out any key element of the Reagan coalition — be it social conservatives, business conservatives, or national-security conservatives — is doomed to failure. It's fitting, therefore, that both Giuliani and Huckabee seem to be passing from the scene at the same time. Their campaigns are historically linked reverse mirror images. Like interdependent parts that fall useless if not united, these factions of the coalition only work when they work together.

Some folks believe that over time, say by 2012 or 2016, social conservatives will cease to be a necessary element of a winning Republican coalition. I have my doubts about that, but the point to keep in mind here is that this is 2008. At the moment, social conservatives clearly remain an indispensable component of any winning Republican coalition, and any attempt to cut them out is proven folly. Arguably, if Rudy had compromised with social conservatives and won, he could have done far more to effectively keep the coalition hospitable to people with a wide range of views on so
cial issues. But by giving so little, Rudy was left with nothing.

I've said that Rudy's was the original sin, but what about John McCain, whose positions on a range of issues also threaten to push important segments of the Republican coalition out into the cold? The McCain problem is real, yet it doesn't quite rise to the level of ejecting one of the three key wings of the coalition. For all the controversies, McCain offers something important to social conservatives, economic conservatives, and national-security conservatives alike. The most serious barrier is immigration, where McCain's position puts him at odds with a major and deeply committed party constituency. This reflects a problem internal to the coalition itself — the split between business conservatives and critics of uncontrolled immigration. It's far from unprecedented, since we're already struggling with the issue under President Bush.

The key lesson of the Giuliani campaign is that the Republican coalition as it is (and not as some might wish it to be) must be attended to. The public — social conservatives very much included — is far less doctrinaire than the usual stereotypes hold. The base is willing to compromise with our leaders for the sake of unity and victory, but our leaders have to be willing to compromise with the coalition as well. Rudy's mistake was to take early poll support from social conservatives as a free pass. Those poll numbers were actually an invitation to a discerning leader to show some ability to compromise. Rudy missed the boat. Will John McCain get it, or will arrogance push him to repeat Rudy's mistakes? Mitt Romney clearly does get it, and it's time we gave him more credit than we have up to now for respecting the coalition he aspires to lead.

— Stanley Kurtz is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and an NRO contributing editor.

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