Politics & Policy

Rudy Wins the Pundit Primary

Conservative journalists choose up.

Editor’s note: This piece appears in the December 3, 2007, issue of National Review. Subscribe here.

Rudolph Giuliani may not win New Hampshire, but he has already won the pundit primary. It’s not even close. Quite a few conservative journalists are in Giuliani’s corner. His rivals have no similar support.

The Giuliani bandwagon includes conservative commentator John Podhoretz, New York Post columnist Ryan Sager, American Spectator reporters Philip Klein and Jennifer Rubin, and the editors of the New York Sun. Several writers affiliated with NR or National Review Online are also on board. David Frum and David Pryce-Jones are formally affiliated with the Giuliani campaign. Richard Brookhiser has endorsed the former mayor’s run, as has Lisa Schiffren. Deroy Murdock regularly turns out supportive commentary. George Will has not turned his column into a platform for Giuliani, but the mayor has not missed an opportunity to repeat Will’s comment that he was the most successful conservative executive of the last fifty years.

The other Republican candidates can count their supporters in the commentariat on one hand, or even two fingers. Mitt Romney has the support of Hugh Hewitt, but Hewitt is more of a talk-show host than an opinion journalist (although the categories of course overlap). NRO’s editor, Kathryn Jean Lopez, provided Romney a lot of favorable coverage in 2006, but in recent months has taken a more neutral view of the candidates. Fred Thompson generally gets sympathetic treatment from The Weekly Standard’s Stephen Hayes, but Hayes is a reporter rather than an advocate. That magazine’s editor, William Kristol, has tilted toward Thompson only slightly. His support has consisted of little more than talking up Thompson’s chances. Fred Barnes, meanwhile, has endorsed McCain (as have I).

Geography accounts for some of the lopsided support for Giuliani. There aren’t a lot of conservatives in New York City, but a disproportionate share of conservative writers live in New York — and almost all of them support Giuliani. They are grateful to him for saving the city. During his mayoralty they grew to admire his strengths and discount his weaknesses.

Giuliani was also very close to the Manhattan Institute; no other candidate has had as tight a connection to a conservative think tank. It stands to reason that he would have more support among conservative intellectuals, including writers, as a result of that connection.

Brookhiser and Murdock are two Giuliani backers who are also pro-lifers. But it is Giuliani’s support for keeping abortion legal that has increased his appeal to other pundits. Sager hopes that Giuliani will reduce what he regards as the baleful influence of social conservatives on the Republican party. (Sager has written a book that argues that religious conservatives are narrowing the party’s appeal.) One can surmise that some of the other Giuliani pundits want to see Republicans and conservatives downplay abortion, but do not want to take on pro-lifers frontally. Because Giuliani is not running an abortion-centric candidacy, as previous pro-choice Republican presidential aspirants have, they can endorse him without explicitly slighting pro-lifers.

The Rudy pundits also signify a change in the nature of the conservative media. Giuliani isn’t just getting more praise from it than the other Republican candidates. He is getting more than Republican primary candidates have typically received in the past. Conservative writers generally rooted for the Republican nominee in general elections. And they rooted for consensus conservative choices such as Goldwater in 1964 or Reagan in 1980 in both the primaries and the general election. But the phenomenon of conservative scribes’ splitting into opposing camps during a primary, or backing a candidate who isn’t the choice of most conservatives, is relatively new. Another novelty is that Giuliani’s campaign includes, as official advisers, people who remain working journalists.

The watershed was in 2000, when George W. Bush and John McCain contended for the Republican nomination. A lot of conservative journalists and publications picked sides in that race — and most of those who did picked McCain. (A few of the pundits backing Giuliani now backed McCain then.) At the time, however, the trend wasn’t noticeable, because the press as a whole was so adulatory of McCain. His conservative cheering section seemed to be a mere subset of a friendly media. Giuliani is not, however, the darling of the New York Times and those who follow its lead. Far from it.

The expansion of the number and diversity of conservative media outlets may have made it easier for opinion journalists to see themselves as activists, and then, in some cases, as campaign workers. Thanks to blogging, anyone can be a journalist; and boundaries are fuzzy along the continuum from the campaigns’ blogs to blogs set up by the candidates’ supporters to sites that aren’t affiliated with any candidate. (They’ll all link to one another indiscriminately.) Perhaps during the next election cycle, Republican candidates will actively recruit writers at the Wall Street Journal editorial page, RedState.com, and NR.

That conservative writers are increasingly identifying with particular candidates may be an inevitable development. But it brings with it a temptation to boosterism. The moment an opinion journalist says to himself, “This is my guy” — as opposed to some cooler assessment, such as “Given the alternatives and on balance, I prefer this guy” — he increases that temptation tenfold. He may soon find himself yielding to it, if only subconsciously.

As a group, the Rudy pundits have been noteworthy not only for their praise of Giuliani’s finer qualities but for their silence on, or outright denial of, his drawbacks. The pundits who have tried to make the case that social conservatives should support Giuliani, for example, have not argued that his candidacy offers more advantages than disadvantages, or even that they should care less about social issues. Instead, they have mostly tried to claim, implausibly, that social conservatives are not giving up anything or taking any risks by supporting him. Jennifer Rubin has written that those social conservatives who support Giuliani are evidence of their movement’s growing maturity. (The majority of social conservatives who do not support him are, I take it, still immature.)

Murdock has written eleven pro-Rudy columns this year. No doubt he would say that his enthusiasm for Giuliani is justified. Even if so, it has distorted his judgment. In February, he wrote a blistering piece on Mitt Romney’s flip-flops. Giuliani is in close second place as the candidate who has switched positions on the most issues, including several of the issues that Murdock mentioned in his column. Murdock hasn’t written a word of criticism of any of those flip-flops.

The Rudy pundits’ rooting interest is coloring even some of their horse-race journalism. If a political development is unfavorable to Giuliani, many of them dismiss it. Is Giuliani sinking in New Hampshire? Then that primary doesn’t matter anymore. In recent weeks, the Rudy pundits have alternated between insisting that evangelical voters will too vote for their guy, and warning that if evangelicals do not vote for him they will be responsible for electing Hillary Clinton. (Note the excluded possibilities: that it will be Giuliani’s fault for alienating natural Republicans, or the pundits’ fault for dismissing this danger.)

Rooting too heavily for a candidate can be self-defeating. The less detached a pundit, the less persuasive his advocacy. There is a precedent for backfiring commentary. In 2000, the scribblers behind McCain helped to define his candidacy as an attack on the conservative movement and the Republican establishment, which responded by joining forces to crush him. McCain won the pundit primary, but he lost the nomination.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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