“Isn’t it better that I tell you what I really believe instead of pretending to change all of my positions to fit the prevailing wind?”
Rudy Giuliani at the “Values Voter Summit,” on October 20. It’s a powerful rhetorical question. Simultaneously Giuliani declared that flip-flopping and pandering are beneath him, and intimated that he is superior to his leading rival, Mitt Romney, who is famous for having changed his mind on the subject of abortion rights. I’m no waffler, no quick-change artist when I face a different constituency, says Rudy. “I believe trust is more important than 100% agreement.” And so Hizzoner has made trust the currency of his campaign, and he links trust to consistency: I’m the same guy yesterday, today, tomorrow, and the day after that.
And it’s true that in an important respect it’s Romney who has changed. When he ran first for senator and then for governor in Massachusetts, Romney campaigned as a defender of abortion rights. But,, when the issue of “cloning and embryo farming for purposes of research” reached his desk as governor, what he saw was a “slippery slope . . . taking us to racks and racks of living human embryos, Brave New World-like, awaiting termination.” And in his contemplation of this issue, his eyes were opened to the truth about his prior commitment to preserving abortion rights. “And I was wrong,” Romney told the National Right to Life Convention last June.
Romney’s conversion story has been greeted with mild derision in some circles. When he told a version of it at the National Review Institute’s Conservative Summit in Washington last January, some listeners wondered aloud to each other afterward how likely it was that a man of Romney’s years and political experience could have failed to think through the moral gravity of abortion until the issue of embryonic-stem-cell research prompted him to do so. But as Clarence Thomas notes in his memoir My Grandfather’s Son, recalling a hitherto much-doubted assurance he gave at his 1991 confirmation hearing, it is perfectly possible for a public figure preoccupied with other issues to have given little thought to the constitutional questions implicated by Roe v. Wade. Is it terribly different for Mitt Romney to have given little real thought to the moral questions implicated by abortion, while giving facile campaign assurances in order to get elected — and then to have a closely related policy question, which he faced officially, prompt him to think harder? Conservatives also know well the story of Ronald Reagan, who signed a bill liberalizing abortion access as California governor several years before Roe v. Wade, and who later came to see abortion as a moral abomination and became a champion of the unborn. I don’t know anyone who doubts the sincerity of Reagan’s change of heart on the issue.
But believe him or doubt him, Romney’s position on abortion is now publicly, completely, comprehensively pro-life across the board. Romney is unequivocal. Even if he’s only “pandering” to the base of the Republican party, he’s good and stuck now. From Supreme Court nominations, to the arguments his solicitor general would make in abortion cases before the Court, to the Mexico City policy, to the Hyde Amendment, to partial-birth abortion, to embryonic stem-cell research, to cloning, to euthanasia and assisted suicide — Mitt’s laid down his marker, and effectively invited pro-lifers to hold him to right-to-life positions. On any related issues on which he has not publicly spoken, or which may emerge in future, we can infer what a President Romney would say and do as consistent with a set of declared principles, and hold him to a standard he has himself laid down. Now that’s what a trust based in consistency looks like.
Can Rudy Giuliani match it? Not on your (right to) life. It’s a neat line, but his “trust is more important than agreement” gambit would inspire more faith if the mayor hadn’t been pandering like mad on the abortion issue ever since his presidential campaign began. And the record suggests that Giuliani’s artful dodging is the most skillful and therefore the worst sort of pander — the kind that seems to meet his critics at least halfway but really promises next to nothing. This leaves the candidate maximum flexibility to do as he pleases after he’s elected, rather than binding him to an intelligible principle whose preservation or betrayal will be visible to all.
Where has Giuliani been on the life issues in his career? Everywhere at least once, and now nowhere in particular. Aslast March:
When he first began running for New York City mayor in 1989, he said that he personally opposed abortion, favored overturning Roe v. Wade and opposed public financing of abortions. During that campaign he morphed into an unmodulated pro-choicer. He dropped talk of opposing Roe v. Wade and endorsed taxpayer funding of abortion. By the time he was mayor, he was declaring a “Planned Parenthood Day” in New York and all but pledging to perform abortions himself, should it ever come to that.
In 2000, when he started and then dropped a run against Hillary Clinton for the U.S. Senate, Giuliani came out against banning partial-birth abortion — and he went on record defending Bill Clinton’s veto of a federal ban. But last April, presidential candidate Rudy reacted to the Supreme Court’s upholding of the federal ban signed by President Bush in Gonzales v. Carhart by saying it was “the correct conclusion,” with his campaign saying that the federal law contained additional evidence on the procedure that helped change his mind. Later he said his position had “evolved.” That’s a good change, but it would be interesting to hear the mayor expound himself on just what he thinks of this grisly practice.
On the underlying abortion right invented out of whole cloth by the Supreme Court in Roe itself, Giuliani has not, since his presidential campaign began, said a condemnatory word. In May he said it would be “okay” if the Court overturned Roe. But then he added: “It would be okay also if a strict constructionist judge viewed it as precedent. I think the court has to make that decision and then the country can deal with it. We are a federalist system of government and states could make their own decisions.” Giuliani seemed not to know or care that the first and third sentences contradicted each other. For as long as the Court views Roe as a precedent and not a grievous error requiring reversal, the states cannot “make their own decisions.”
A little later in May, pressed on his own view of Roe and the abortion right, Mayor Giuliani called abortion “morally wrong” but said, “I would grant women the right to make that choice.” The first Republican president once reminded Americans that there is no right to commit a wrong, but Rudy Giuliani appears to know better. Describing himself a day or two later as “very, very passionate about the issue of abortion,” he said “I oppose it.” And then with nary a pause for breath, there was Hizzoner saying that since “people have very, very different consciences about this, it’s best to respect each others’ differences and allow for choice.” It may seem to disrespect someone’s claim of sincerity to say we don’t believe he is “very, very passionate” in opposition to a moral wrong he nonetheless wishes to leave people free to choose. So rather than question Giuliani’s sincerity, may we say we question the intellectual coherence of his moral and legal thinking? Either way, a President Giuliani will not be much use to the Republican party’s stated purposes if he cannot say, in the words of the party’s last platform, that “the unborn child has a fundamental individual right to life which cannot be infringed.”
That platform also says, “We support the appointment of judges who respect traditional family values and the sanctity of innocent human life.” Giuliani has settled into repeating the mantra that he will give us “strict constructionist judges.” Lately he has added the names of Scalia, Thomas, Roberts, and Alito to this pledge, as models of the kind of justices he would appoint to the Supreme Court. The views of Roberts and Alito are not yet as fully known to us on this issue as are the views of Scalia and Thomas. But in any event, the mayor doesn’t think there should be a “litmus test” on Roe v. Wade, and he has never wavered from his stated view last spring that a “strict constructionist” could go either way on the survival of Roe as a precedent. Would he be disappointed if Roberts and Alito turned out to uphold Roe? We cannot even say that much with any confidence.
An effort at damage control on this front was made in September by Ted Olson, who has signed on to lead Giuliani’s advisory team on judicial affairs. Olson said that the mayor’s strict-constructionists-could-go-either-way statement was inartfully spoken. Taking Giuliani as a true opponent of Roe, the former solicitor general said “I understood what he meant, but I don’t think he expressed it very well.” Then let the candidate say it again, because to a lot of us it sounded very well-expressed indeed, namely that Giuliani doesn’t care whether Roe is preserved or overruled by the Supreme Court. To repeat: since beginning his presidential bid, candidate Giuliani has not said that he himself thinks that Roe was wrongly decided, or that he would “personally” like to see it overturned. And he could say these things without embracing a litmus test for judicial nominees, or even stating that the reversal of Roe is a standard for assessing judicial fidelity to the Constitution. That he will not say even this much speaks volumes about Giuliani.
The mayor has also pledged in his presidential campaign that he will not oppose the continued existence of the Hyde Amendment, which bars the use of federal Medicaid funds to pay for abortions. In the past he had opposed this restriction, but in May he offered a tepid “It works, there is no reason to change it.” Lately he is trying to sound more like he means it by saying he would oppose Hyde’s “repeal,” yet this assurance is pretty watery. The Hyde Amendment is annually attached to the appropriations bill for Health and Human Services, or to continuing resolutions to fund the government. It’s not a statutory proscription embedded in the U.S. Code that would need to be positively repealed in a bill President Giuliani could neatly veto. The death of the Hyde Amendment could come any year that a liberal Congress simply leaves it out of its funding measures. Would President Giuliani really veto a major appropriations bill — or a continuing resolution funding the whole federal government — over the absence of this restriction? Does anyone believe the answer to this is “yes”?
By now you get the picture. Mayor Giuliani’s latter-day assurances on the abortion issue are thin and insubstantial, and appear to be made to endure for just as long as it takes to get the Republican nomination. So far I believe the phrase “right to life” has never passed his lips, and I’m not sure it can. It’s hard to imagine Giuliani as the party’s nominee even continuing to talk about the abortion issue after he achieves that status, if he could get away with it.
But would he get away with it? Giuliani’s pandering in all directions on this issue, his evident lack of a guiding moral or legal principle on the issue, is tailor-made for attack by Hillary Clinton’s campaign. We can hear her now in a head-to-head debate: “Which is it, mayor? Do your ideal ‘strict constructionist’ judges strike down a woman’s right to choose, or not? Which do you want to see happen? Where are you on this issue?” Does Rudy then betray a career-long support of abortion rights — or the platform of his party — or stick bumptiously to his well-rehearsed mantra of “don’t-care strict constructionism”? Surely the Democrats are already relishing the opportunity they’ll have to make him dance even faster.
Why do we worry about the flip-flopper or the panderer in political campaigns? Because we wonder whom to trust, to be sure. But also because we want our own party’s candidates to be as invulnerable as possible to attack by the opposition party. A lot of pro-lifers want desperately to trust Rudy Giuliani, and are willing to put the fate of the right-to-life cause in his hands because they believe he’s the man who can beat Hillary Clinton. But even if that trust is wisely given (a big if indeed), on this issue, compared to almost anyone else in the GOP field — Mitt Romney most certainly included — Rudy Giuliani is the most vulnerable candidate the Republicans could make their standard-bearer.
— Matthew J. Franck is professor and chairman of political science at Radford University, and a regular blogger at NRO’s “Bench Memos.”