President McCain? Or Queen Hillary? Henry Kissinger said about the Iran/Iraq war that it’s a shame they both can’t lose. Conservatives have a slightly different problem: It’s a shame that neither of them will lose — that, regardless of who takes the oath come January ’09, the harmonious McCain-Clinton consensus policies on illegal immigration and Big Government solutions to global warming will prevail. Where’s Neither-Of-The-Above when you need him?
Alas, the only Neither-Of-The-Above in the offing is New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, whose candidacy would shake things up only insofar as we’d all suddenly be demanding: Okay, where’s None-Of-The-Above when you need him? Mayor Bloomberg is a former Democrat, former Republican, and current Independent, if by “Independent” you mean “Man who agrees with the conventional wisdom on illegal immigration, global warming, health care, and everything else.”
Democracies get the political leaders they deserve, and that’s particularly true in the United States, where the primary system allows rank-and-file citizens to choose not merely which party to vote for (as in Britain, Canada, and Europe) but also which individuals will be the candidates of those parties. True, it helps to be wealthy — up to a point. But it wasn’t enough for John Edwards, the curiously unconvincing “angry populist” muttering darkly that “they” would never stop him telling the truth about nine-year-old girls shivering without a winter coat because daddy had been laid off at the mill. “They” didn’t need to stop him. The champion of America’s mythical Coatless Girl laid himself off last week. High on a hill, the Lonely Coatherd suddenly realized he was yodeling to himself.
Yet Senator Edwards can’t even claim the consolation prize of Most Inept Candidate of 2008. The Rudy Giuliani campaign went from national frontrunner to total collapse so spectacularly that they’ll be teaching it in Candidate School as a cautionary tale for decades to come. As each state’s date with destiny loomed, Giuliani retreated, declining to compete in Iowa, New Hampshire, Michigan, Nevada, South Carolina. “America’s Mayor” turned out to be Hizzoner of a phantom jurisdiction — a national frontrunner but a single-digit asterisk in any state where any actual voters were actually voting.
Giuliani’s fate unnerves me because, unlike the Coatless One, Rudy had the support of a lot of my columnar confreres: John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary; Andy McCarthy and Lisa Schiffren at National Review; and David Frum, author of the new book Comeback: Conservatism That Can Win Again. Yet he backed a candidate who took off and barely cleared the perimeter fence before nosediving into the sod. Rudy’s views on abortion were always going to be a deal-breaker for a key segment of the Republican base. And his views on gun control were likewise beyond the pale for another big faction. That didn’t leave much except his clean-up of New York (whose problems were blessedly alien to Iowa and New Hampshire) and, more recently, his “war on terror” credentials, which boils down to his marvelous performance on 9/11 barreling through the dust-choked streets of Lower Manhattan and showing leadership amidst the chaos — plus a splendid coda a couple of weeks later when he told some unsavory Saudi prince to take his gazillion-dollar donation and shove it. Every malign check from the House of Saud ought to meet the same fate: perhaps we could have a constitutional amendment to that effect.
As for his performance on September 11th, well, yes, he was good and he was effective on a day when so many agencies of government, at least at the federal level, had failed spectacularly — FAA, INS, FBI, CIA, all the fancypants money-no-object acronyms, none of whose mediocrities paid any political price for their failures. If you want a typical 9/11 performance, consider this official transcript:
“FAA Command Center: ‘Do we want to think about scrambling aircraft?’”
“FAA Headquarters: ‘God, I don’t know.’”
“FAA Command Center: ‘That’s a decision somebody’s going to have to make, probably in the next 10 minutes.’”
“FAA Headquarters: ‘You know, everybody just left the room.’”
A year earlier, Rudy had been in full public meltdown. His wife found out she was heading for divorcee status from a mayoral press conference. But, unlike so many public officials on 9/11, in his rendezvous with history, Rudy Giuliani rose to the occasion. You would hope that would not be so exceptional, but apparently it is. In contrast to the moral clarity Rudy showed in returning the Saudi check, the repugnant Mayor of London, after the 2005 Tube bombings, artfully attempted to draw a distinction between Muslim terrorists blowing up his own public transit (which he didn’t approve of) and Muslim terrorists blowing up Israeli public transit (which he was inclined to be sympathetic to). In contrast to Giuliani’s take-charge attitude, the incompetent boob presiding over New Orleans, Ray Nagin, raged as wildly as Katrina: “To those who would criticize, where the hell were you?” roared Mayor Culpa, pointing the finger in all directions. “Where the hell were you?” In a town you’re not the mayor of, happily.
If Rudy’s performance was “exceptional,” that’s less a reflection on him than on the general standards of officialdom. It seems odd to me that so many experts would expect the “America’s Mayor” pitch to outpunch abortion and guns with the Republican base. 9/11 will be seven years old by Election Day 2008. A lot of voters have moved on, including a lot of Republican voters. And many of those Republican voters who still regard the forces unleashed that day as an ongoing threat want something different from the Orange Alert remove-your-shoes security-state approach. If this is a “long war,” as the administration took to calling it, “America’s Mayor” seemed in large part to embody an early phase that has already receded into history.
Another colleague of mine, Michael Ledeen, suggests that the rise of McCain through New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Florida indicates that for many voters “the war” is still the issue, because, after all, what else has the senator got going for him? Surely, it’s not his global-warming hysteria or illegal-immigration amnesty or demonization of capitalism. It’s because he’s Mister Surge.
Well, maybe. The senator is an eloquent defender of the U.S. armed forces. A President McCain will not permit a military defeat in Iraq. But it’s not clear to me he has much of a strategic vision for the ideological struggle, for the real long-term battlefield in the mosques and madrassahs of Pakistan and Indonesia and western Europe. McCain’s lead is no evidence of popular commitment to “the long war,” and, absent any surprising developments, this will not be a war election.
The Clintons are nothing if not lucky, and Hillary must occasionally be enjoying a luxury-length cackle at the thought of being pitted against a 71-year old “maverick” whose record seems designed to antagonize just enough of the base into staying home on election day. In the 2000 campaign season, running in a desultory fashion for the New York Senate seat, Rudy Giuliani waged a brief half-hearted campaign just long enough to leave the Republican Party with no one to run against Hillary except a candidate who wasn’t up to the job. Has he managed to do the same this time round?
© 2008 Mark Steyn