The 2008 marathon has begun in double quick time. It is disconcerting to be so far ahead of where we normally are in presidential elections, but the political reality today is that the clusters of primaries, rivers of funding, and bookings of TV spots and experts are all on fast forward. I will be discussing the main contenders in this space, but one has to start with the contender who has come out, in the words of the Civil War cavalry Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, "firstest with the mostest."
To everyone's surprise, Giuliani has been dominating the Republican preference in virtually every poll. He may lose some of the luster following two little news bombs that came too late for the pollsters that Giuliani had indeed been briefed on serious questions about the disgraced Bernard Kerik before appointing him police commissioner and that if elected he may have Mrs. Judy Giuliani sit in on his cabinet meetings. Still, Giuliani has had a substantial cushion: 16 points at least over John McCain. He has been married three times and has liberal views on gay rights, but he has fudged his stand on gun control and abortion enough to have a 14 percent lead even within the evangelical community.
The former mayor isn't popular just among Republicans, though. He has been leading Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton in the national polls to such an extent that the Republican Party could begin to think Giuliani could beat any Democrat, but especially Clinton, and make the party competitive in the Northeast and in California, while keeping its electoral advantage in the southern and Rocky Mountain states. That hope is dimmed by the Fox News/Opinion Dynamics poll of March 27 and 28 that shows she has caught up and is ahead by 2 points (even before the two news bombs).
Law and order. The key question for the nomination is how Giuliani is able to assuage the fears of social conservatives. It's a question of priorities. Conservatives are willing to support Giuliani because he can win, because he is a "keep us safe" leader on security and terrorism, and because he is a bedrock conservative on issues like crime, welfare, and fiscal policy. Then there's his opposition to the therapy culture of the New York Times and the American Civil Liberties Union, which conservatives feel is at the core of our liberal culture.
While many Republicans differ with Giuliani on the social issues, only a small percentage would disqualify him on those grounds alone. A more nuanced objection to Giuliani is that while voters now think positively of him as a leader, they know relatively little about him and that he will be vulnerable to negative attack ads deeper into the campaign season.
Those of us in New York knew Giuliani long before he emerged from the tragedy of 9/11 as a national hero and America's Mayor. Prior to that terrible day, Giuliani had shown his capacity for decisive leadership in coming to the rescue of a city that seemed out of control. New York was transformed from the crime capital of America into the safest large city in America.
Before he got a grip on the problems, New York had over 2,000 murders a year and a crime rate that made everyone residents, businesses, and visitors alike feel threatened. As David Letterman put it: "New York now leads the world's great cities in the number of people around whom you shouldn't make a sudden move." In a 1993 poll, roughly 60 percent of New Yorkers felt things were so bad they would leave the city the next day if they could.
Giuliani, a Republican mayor in a city that was Democratic by a margin of 5 to 1, correctly believed that public safety is the most fundamental civil right. Easy to say but how to proceed in actually restoring order? Giuliani's instinct fired his conviction that lawbreaking should never be excused; his intellect led him to embrace the "broken windows" theory: that there is no such thing as a harmless breach of the law. A window broken with impunity on one street is a signal that unlawful behavior is acceptable; other quality-of-life crimes then proliferate, attracting criminals, and eventually whole neighborhoods are defiled and destroyed.
Giuliani began by rounding up the "minor" infringers the squeegee men who held up cars, the street hustlers, the turnstile jumpers, the public urinators, and the pornographers. In Times Square, once he purged the most offensive pornographic emporiums, Giuliani was on the way to making the area a civic showpiece.
Giuliani took big steps and small ones. He supported President Clinton's crime bill. He backed Republican demands for tougher sentencing. He not only dramatically increased the police force but also revolutionized police methods. He brought in an outstanding police chief with whom he developed a comprehensive program that identified crimes by neighborhood and street-corner location, in real time. Wherever crime surged one day, the next morning a special team descended, so that crime rates began to fall. Murders dropped by almost 18 percent in Giuliani's first year as mayor and close to 70 percent by the end of his two terms, with an almost equivalent drop in all violent crimes. The proactive policy was one of the most successful metropolitan crime-prevention programs in history.
His success in countering the negatives in New York was matched by an accentuation of the positive. As mayor, Giuliani broke the city's welfare culture. Nobody thought the welfare rolls could be reduced without hardship. He did it both by verifying the qualifications of those who sought aid and by requiring long-term recipients to work in return for public assistance. Welfare offices became job centers, shifting from handouts to hand-ups. By the end of Giuliani's first term, over 500,000 people had moved off the rolls. A culture of complaint had been transformed into a culture of responsibility.
New Yorkers had endured decades of politicians who basically shrugged their shoulders at the city's problems, as if helpless in the face of rising crime, rising welfare, and declining economic and social amenities. Giuliani got results, inspiring the city once more to have faith in its political leadership.
His second term was more difficult. He was harsh in confronting his political enemies and his critics especially in the media. He had little feel for race relations. He exhibited a gratuitous meanness and combativeness. He was reluctant to share credit. Combined with his stormy personal lifestyle, his marriage and messy public divorce, and the economic downturn in the city because of the dot-com collapse, he was by September 10 all but written off as a political figure. Which made his emergence after 9/11 all the more striking.
While President Bush was reading a children's story and Dick Cheney was disappearing into a bunker, Giuliani went into harm's way, breathing the toxic air with the rescuers. In the face of a barbarity, he demonstrated the essential resolve and moral indignation the city and nation cried out for. It was Giuliani, not Bush, who emerged as the public official in command. That night he heralded his city's indomitable spirit: "New York is still here. We have undergone tremendous losses, and we are going to grieve for them horribly. But New York is going to be here tomorrow morning, and it's going to be here forever."
Spirituality. There was to be no collapse into bitterness and despair. Working 16 hours a day, appearing everywhere in the city, attending virtually every funeral, especially for members of the uniformed services, he gave backbone to the country with his presence and eloquence. "The number of casualties," he memorably said, "will be more than any of us can bear."
When Americans look back on 9/11, the most significant public event of most of their lives, they will forever think of Giuliani walking through the ashes and soot. He was honest, sad, and strong. He captured the spirituality of America. Now when he talks about 9/11, he is greeted more as a celebrity than a candidate, and he's asked in almost reverential tones about his response to the attacks.
The Iraq war has not yet produced its Pattons, its MacArthurs, its Eisenhowers. In the war on terrorism, Giuliani, even more than the president, has become a symbol of America's determination to fight terrorism and protect our way of life. Viewed by millions as a strong commander, Giuliani has been as blunt as George Patton: "We're going to be in this war for quite some time. Not by our choosing but by theirs."
Odds are it will not be the views on the issues that will vault a candidate into the White House. It will be how American voters assess the candidate's ability to respond to emergency. That is how George Bush beat John Kerry in 2004: Kerry had a better grasp of every policy issue, but he was not convincing on security. The security test is one that Giuliani is seen to have passed with flying colors and another attack, heaven forbid, will drive the point home.
The unresolved question is whether the obverse side of these qualities will work against him in the stresses of a long campaign. The New York culture may be comfortable with Giuliani's abrasiveness how they cheered when he evicted Yasser Arafat from the city's 50th birthday concert for the U.N.!
But the presidency and the race for it is a more testing arena. The country at large, which has gained its impressions from television, will want to satisfy itself on integrity of character as well as raw courage.
Giuliani has flip-flopped on social issues. He is trying to finesse his view favoring abortion rights by asserting he will appoint "strict constructionists" to the Supreme Court in the mode of Justice Antonin Scalia, who seems devoted to overturning Roe v. Wade.
He is suggesting, in other words, that he would appoint people whose judicial philosophy is directly contrary to his own. He has also retreated from his long-held support for banning assault weapons, too easily available to criminals. Giuliani's rationale is that his previous position was made from his perspective as mayor of New York City and should not apply to the country at large. No doubt he will soon seek a way to get around his previous position on the issue of gay rights. If you believe all this, he has a bridge to sell you in Brooklyn.
Giuliani's obvious sail trimming makes him seem like just one more politician willing to abandon beliefs to improve his luck today. What a shame! He can survive a few missteps. His "two for one" rhetoric about his wife will not endear him to those who reviled Bill Clinton for just such a sentiment. His misremembering about Bernard Kerik, no doubt genuine, will unsettle some people. To overcome such reverses, inevitable in a long campaign, he will have to reassert his principled courage. Given that, America's Mayor may still have the best shot at winning his party's nomination and maybe then the presidency.