Politics & Policy

The Race So Far

McRomson and Rudy.

Now that we come to the voting, I find myself where I was on NRO on August 31, 2004, and where I actually was since the fall of 2001: Rudy Giuliani for president.

Ramesh Ponnuru wrote a witty piece for National Review about Giuliani’s success in the pundit primary (the only early contest he has done well in). The pundits who oppose him have been for McRomson — flitting from candidate to candidate until they finally find the best anti-Giuliani. Anyone bothered by Romney’s or McCain’s flip flops should be equally bothered by the flip flops of the McRomson supporters. You shouldn’t be bothered: a pundit, like a candidate, should change his mind as a consequence of new facts or deeper reflection. So let me look first at the merits of McRomson.

I have been pretty harsh on Fred Thompson, maybe too harsh. Once he finally got in the race and warmed up, his powerful political personality showed itself. He deserves the nation’s thanks for slapping down the kindergarten format of the Des Moines Register debate. The most damning thing anyone has said about Thompson was said by Thompson himself to Byron York, who asked him what his greatest achievements in the Senate were. Thompson talked about the accomplishments of the GOP majority during his Senate years. It is pretty sad when a veteran of the talk palace of the Senate can only take cover among his colleagues.

John McCain’s surge has tracked the Iraq surge, deservedly so. There is something splendid about his prescience, and his determination on this issue. He is also the only Republican to have the support of a big-deal Democrat, Joe Lieberman. Admittedly there is a little Senate clubbiness at work there, but no one else has been able to make it work for him. McCain’s surge stands out because it is one of his few high-profile issues on which he has been right. McCain made his national reputation in 2000 and has kept it not thanks to his mostly conservative record, but by busting our chops on campaign finance, immigration, taxes, whatever. During one of Frederick the Great’s battles, a general told him as their charge faltered, “Your majesty and I cannot take the enemy’s position all by ourselves.” But that is McCain’s preferred tactic.

Mitt Romney has been bedeviled throughout the race by the nail-polish glaze of phoniness. It is a glaze, and there is a real Romney underneath it. That man consists of his religion, which he defends eloquently; his ambition to follow in his father’s footsteps, and to succeed where he failed; and his confidence in his own intelligence and talents. Political principles are not part of the mix and have been adopted to suit circumstances. He is firm enough in his current beliefs. In the vulgar phrase, he will stay bought; considering his wealth, it might be better to say that he will stay with what he has bought. But those who are looking for Reagan redux are setting themselves up for disappointment.

Beyond McRomson lie Mike Huckabee and Ron Paul. Christians complain that pop culture depicts them as canting scoundrels, but they do not reflect that the type is maintained in part by real examples. Huckabee’s faux-naïve riff on Romney’s Mormonism and the siblings of Lucifer was slick, vulgar, and depraved — the image of the man who uttered it. Ron Paul says we should read the Constitution. So we should, but as I tried to show in a Corner post on the Louisiana Purchase, we must also think about it and, in many cases, interpret it. Ron Paul is a 72-year-old 20-year-old. Many of his followers are worse — truthers, southrons, crackpots Left and Right. They will boost him to unexpected heights in Iowa and New Hampshire, because this is their moment to shine.

Why Giuliani? He has a gaggle of good advisers, and has made a number of good pledges, but so have other candidates. He has a slew of medium-ish achievements in office, but so does Romney and, to a lesser extent, McCain. Giuliani stands head and shoulders above them because of two significant accomplishments, which are two more than anyone else in the race has. He solved one of the major problems of late twentieth century, and he coped with the greatest disaster so far of the 21st.

His first accomplishment was fighting crime. We forget how important, and how hopeless this once seemed. George Wallace discovered the law and order issue in 1968, and non-racist conservatives mined it ever since (it sank Michael Dukakis, thanks to Willie Horton, in 1988). Yet what could be done about it? It was a cynic’s perfect political issue — it had great resonance, and since it was unsolvable, it would keep on giving.

Giuliani has only been a mayor, but the city he was mayor of had more people in it than Tennessee, Arizona or Massachusetts. It was also one of the most afflicted places in the country. Giuliani found the handful of cops and academics who had some new ideas, he put what they knew into practice, and he maintained it athwart the furioius opposition of the local political culture, led by the New York Times. Thousands of New Yorkers who would otherwise have been murdered are alive as a result. His success was so great that even Michael Bloomberg, the smug billionaire amateur, has been able to keep it going.

Giuiliani’s second accomplishment was his performance after 9/11. It would be tedious to elaborate what is universally known, except to point out that we do have a counterexample of failure: the local, state and national response to Hurricane Katrina. Some people took more flak than they deserved, for politically opportunistic reasons, and other people — Mississippi governor Haley Barbour, the Coast Guard — performed superbly. But imagine a 9/11 response team consisting of Michael Brown, Kathleen Babineaux Blanco, and Ray Nagin, and you have some notion of what we missed, even on our day of disaster.

How do these two accomplishments prepare him for the problems he will face as president? In themselves, not at all — just as nothing he had done before becoming mayor prepared him for these accomplishments. Giuliani’s career as a federal prosecutor did not prepare him to fight street crime, and whatever he says about the heads-up given by the 1993 attack on the World Trade Towers, it in no way prepared him for 9/11. The relevance of his actions is the common quality they show — what Alexander Hamilton called “energy in the executive.” It is not the only political quality a nation needs, but it is the one that is delegated to the president. No other candidate has shown it to this degree, or anything close to it.

The rhetorical response of McRomson supporters to these accomplishments is rushing. They rush through an acknowledgment — of course, Rudy is America’s mayor; or, of course Rudy fought crime; or some such. They are not paying attention to what they are saying, because if they were, they would linger a while. This is what executives should do; this is what Giuliani has done; and this is what no one else can show.

McRomson supporters have other knocks on Giuliani. One is his not-private private life. How can conservatives ever use the character issue again after a Giuliani nomination or presidency? The character issue worked so well for us in the late nineties that we must save it at all costs. Private behavior often tracks public behavior. As Ezra Pound said, translating Confucius, “If a man have not order within him, He can not spread order about him.” A moment’s reflection will provide counter-examples — the depressed guy with the crazy wife, the hotshot blackmailed by his mistress’s husband — but it is not necessary to ransack history. No one called me six years ago to say what a shame it was New York was not being led by Freddy Ferrer.

Another criticism is Giuliani’s parochialism. One McRomson supporter, a dear old friend, told me with sweet condescension that she understands why New Yorkers are impressed with Giuliani. I wondered, is there no newspaper where she lives? No Internet? If we only believe what we see directly, we will have millions of presidential candidates, most of them with ten or twelve supporters. The opposite criticism of Giuliani is that he is the celebrity candidate: He does well in polls because of his name recognition. But his name is recognized for a reason.

The weightiest criticism is how bad he is on important issues. Iowans for life and gun-toting Granite staters will hobble him at the starting gate, maybe fatally. This criticism is both true, and less true than it was. Giuliani has gotten better on these two issues than I expected. If that’s good enough for McRomson, it’s good enough for him. Giuliani will nominate good justices for the Supreme Court, but will not march for life in January.

A final tack of McRomson supporters is to borrow a leaf from the Village Voice reporter Wayne Barrett and nitpick Giuliani’s accomplishments. The radios of the FDNY and the NYPD were not compatible; the drop in crime actually began slightly under David Dinkins. All I can say briefly is enjoy your new friend; you will spend many hours looking at molehills.

Bookish people are often influenced by what they happen to be reading on the side. For me now that is the Memoirs of the Duc de Saint Simon, a French nobleman who wrote about the latter days of Louis XIV and the youth of Louis XV. Although these years saw some glory and much cultural achievement, they were politically disastrous for France, laying the tracks for the Revolution. Saint-Simon had an inkling of this, but everyone in his class was too preoccupied with religious disputes, personal ambitions, or furious quarrels over precedence (who may sit on a stool at court, vs. who may sit on a stool with armrests). It can seem that the conservative movement is quarreling over stools with armrests. The war continues, and wars need leaders. America is a great enough nation to muddle along, but I do not want to do it when a better alternative is so clearly available.

– Richard Brookhiser is a National Review senior editor.


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