Deconstructing Giuliani

It seems clear Rudy Giuliani is going to run for president. What isn't clear is whether he has any chance of winning the Republican nomination.

Some, like Real Clear Ppolitics' own Ryan Sager, have been pointing to early horserace polls and other anecdotal evidence, assiduously trying to deconstruct the conventional wisdom that says Giuliani's positions on social issues will doom him with conservative base voters. That debate, however, isn't likely to be settled any time soon, and the truth of the matter is that it's Giuliani's position on other issues that may end up disqualifying him with many Republicans.

Set aside for the moment Rudy's well-known liberal views on "God, gays, and guns" and the messy details of his personal life. Let's look at how he stacks up against his most direct rival, Sen. John McCain, on three of the most important issues to Republican primary voters.

Immigration

While McCain has taken heat for his support of comprehensive immigration reform, Giuliani is every bit as pro-immigration as McCain, if not more so. On The O'Reilly Factor last week, Giuliani argued for a "practical approach" to immigration and cited his efforts as mayor of New York City to "regularize" illegal immigrants by providing them with access to city services like public education to "make their lives reasonable." Giuliani did say that "a tremendous amount of money should be put into the physical security" needed to stop the flow of illegal immigrants coming across the border, but his overall position on immigration is essentially indistinguishable from McCain's.

The First Amendment

Many conservatives despise McCain for his leading role in passing campaign finance reform, which they see as an abomination of the First Amendment. But Giuliani is an ardent supporter of campaign finance reform as well. As he was contemplating a run for the Senate in 2000, Giuliani told a cable news network that he was a "very, very strong supporter of campaign finance reform," adding that he'd been "a very strong supporter of McCain-Feingold for a long, long time now."

Rudy's support for McCain-Feingold is only part of the reason free speech lawyer Floyd Abrams once characterized Giuliani as "deeply contemptuous of the First Amendment." For example, in 1997, Giuliani went to court to try and force New York Magazine to take down an ad campaign appearing on city buses that ribbed him by proclaiming that the magazine was "probably the only good thing in New York that Rudy hasn't taken credit for." Rudy's court challenge against the magazine failed.

In 1999, Giuliani made headlines by trying to cut off public funding for the Brooklyn Museum of Art after an exhibit featured a portrait of the Virgin Mary decorated with elephant dung. Giuliani was again rebuffed in court on First Amendment grounds, but he subsequently formed a "decency commission" to issue a set of recommended standards for local museums that receive city money.

Incidentally, while this last example may be the sort of free speech impingement that scores points with religious conservatives, it nevertheless points out a pattern of behavior that makes it very hard to argue that Rudy somehow has a greater reverence for the First Amendment than McCain. It should also make pure free speech libertarians like Sager blush with embarrassment for constantly deriding McCain over First Amendment issues while heaping unqualified praise on Giuliani.

Judges

Conservatives often cite McCain's leadership role in the Gang of 14 as one of the reasons they find him objectionable. Indeed, nominating solidly conservative judges is among one of the most dearly held values of conservative Republicans. We can only speculate as to how Giuliani would have voted were he in the Senate, or whom he would nominate as president. But he's given no indication that he would be any better than McCain on the issue of judges, and you could argue quite convincingly that Giuliani's background and ideological make-up would lead him to be much less stringent (and therefore in the eyes of conservatives, much worse) in appointing strict conservative judges to the bench.

Likewise, on the issues of controlling government spending or the War in Iraq and the Global War on Terror, conservatives would be hard pressed to come up with a line of reasoning that Giuliani would somehow be superior to McCain. Only on tax policy, where McCain originally sided with Senate Democrats in opposing the Bush tax cuts (he's since reversed himself to vote in support of making them permanent) could one stretch to make the argument that Rudy is more in line with the Republican base than McCain.

To summarize, as a matter of policy on major issue after major issue, Giuliani has all the same drawbacks with conservative voters that John McCain has, in addition to carrying the baggage of problematic liberal views on abortion, gay rights, and the Second Amendment. On paper, then, it's hard to see any compelling reason for conservatives to vote for Giuliania over John McCain, though they'll be confronted with a laundry list of reasons to vote against him.

In the end, Giuliani's appeal boils down to two things -- both of which it should be said are significant and not to be underestimated. The first is that he is strikingly charismatic and flat out likeable. Where McCain often rubs conservatives the wrong way with a sanctimonious, holier-than-thou attitude, Giuliani comes across as a very attractive, approachable, down-to-earth personality. In the contest of who you'd rather have a beer with, Giuliani would win in a landslide over McCain -- and the rest of the GOP field.

Giuliani's other major asset is that he doesn't have a voting record. The contrast between Giuliani and McCain is a classic example of why senators have trouble becoming president. McCain has been forced to go on record, make choices and take leadership positions on the most significant and contentious issues of the day. Giuliani, on the other hand, has been able to fly more or less under the radar on those same issues, taking positions very similar -- if not identical -- to McCain without bearing anywhere near the same level of scrutiny or anger from conservatives. That won't last forever.

For nearly five years Giuliani has enjoyed near mythical status as the embodiment of American leadership and courage in response to the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks. Giuliani's star is etched in the country's psyche as deeply as any in modern history, and it will carry him a long way down the path to becoming president -- but not all the way.

Eventually Giuliani will have to climb down off the pedestal we've placed him on, go to Rotary Club meetings in places like Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina, shake hands and tell conservative Republican voters what he stands for beyond just being a symbol of resolve in the midst of a national crisis that happened half a decade ago. We'll have to wait and see whether Rudy can convince conservatives that he shares enough of their values and philosophy to win their votes. At this early stage, all I can say is that it's going to be a lot tougher than some people think.