The Magazine

"Respect Conservatism"

Rudy Giuliani's distinctive brand?

Mar 5, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 24 • By REIHAN SALAM and ROSS DOUTHAT
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When Rudolph Giuliani first ran for mayor of New York in 1989, he made a critical mistake. Assuming that he'd be running against the blue-collar, socially conservative Democrat Ed Koch, Giuliani cast himself as a liberal. Playing against his tough-guy image, he spent his first months on the campaign trail talking about the victims of homelessness and AIDS and drug abuse, causes that united elite liberals and poor minority voters while leaving the city's shrinking middle class cold. The prosecutor who brought down mob boss Anthony "Fat Tony" Salerno and Wall Street renegade Ivan Boesky tried to reinvent himself as the original "compassionate conservative," and the ethnic Catholic who had once considered the priesthood flip-flopped on abortion and became an avowed pro-choicer.

Then fate intervened: David Dinkins defeated Koch in the Democratic primary, and Giuliani became, by necessity if not by design, the candidate of the unfashionable middle-class strivers living in the outer boroughs, voters who recognized something of themselves in Giuliani, a self-made Italian-American from Brooklyn. Thus was born the polarizing, hard-charging, and proudly uncompassionate Giuliani who, after losing to Dinkins in 1989, beat him in 1993 and went on to transform New York.

Almost two decades later, though, Giuliani seems at risk of following his 1989 playbook, selling himself as something he's not--this time, a George W. Bush Republican--in the hopes that his celebrity and high favorability ratings will allow him to win the GOP nomination without a fight. Or at least that seems to be the underlying logic of Giuliani's ultra-cautious noncampaign so far. With the exception of a handful of social issues where an explicit flip-flop would look too craven even by today's standards, Giuliani, a sui generis figure, is improbably presenting himself as the kind of unremarkable Bush conservative whose domestic agenda starts with tax cuts and ends with "comprehensive" immigration reform.

Which is too bad, because an orthodox, Grover Norquist-approved Republican candidate is precisely what the party doesn't need--and precisely what Giuliani wasn't during his two terms as mayor. His genius wasn't for cutting government ("down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub," as Norquist famously put it) but rather for reforming it and making it work for the working and middle-class taxpayers who elected him, rather than elite liberals who had run City Hall into the ground. He offered a municipal version of the reformism that governors like Wisconsin's Tommy Thompson (who passed on his welfare czar to Giuliani) and Michigan's John Engler pursued at the state level in the 1990s--a conservatism targeted explicitly to voters who wanted to keep the welfare state in place but didn't want the Democrats to run it.

This was the tradition that George W. Bush, another successful nineties governor, was supposed to revive in his 2000 campaign, after the Gingrich revolutionaries lost their way. But while Bush's instincts were sound, his insistence on "compassion" as the appropriate attitude toward the poor struck exactly the wrong note. It spoke to upper-middle class feelings of noblesse oblige, not to the aspirations of poor Americans with a drive to succeed. As Mickey Kaus argued when the Bush campaign theme was first unveiled in 1999, the language of compassion has an inegalitarian and even condescending edge. Worse, it effaces the all-important distinction between those who deserve public assistance and those who do not.

Giuliani, by contrast, has always been a "respect" conservative. Delivering safe streets to New Yorkers wasn't an act of magnanimity, but rather an obligation. And, as Giuliani made clear, citizens and public servants were expected to fulfill their obligations as well. Anyone who failed to abide by this basic contract, whether a petty thief or a police commander who failed to meet crime-reduction targets, would be held accountable.

As commonplace as this might sound, it's difficult to overstate how dramatic a break it was with the city's reigning political culture. As mayor, Giuliani stood almost alone against the tendency Fred Siegel dubbed "dependent individualism"--the noxious idea that individuals ought to be freed from obligations to family and community through the largesse of a generous welfare system. "Dependent individualism" fueled the rise of a new class of ethnic shakedown artists. Unlike the old patronage machines, which trafficked in corruption yet delivered tangible benefits and served as engines of political assimilation, self-appointed spokesmen for "the Community" like Al Sharpton demanded deference while offering nothing but bluster and veiled threats. Their chants of "no justice, no peace"--that is, threats of civil violence designed to intimidate authority--brought the Dinkins administration to its knees.