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.

Because Sharpton had no respect for public order, Giuliani had no respect for Sharpton and all those who mimicked Sharpton's contemptuous disregard for authority. Instead, he insisted on subjecting all comers to a single standard, even if it meant taking a political hit. An emblematic moment came in July 1999 when Giuliani, increasingly unpopular over a series of police shootings, faced off on his call-in radio program against Margarita Rosario, the mother of a young man who had been shot and killed by two detectives four years earlier. Rather than accept Rosario's version of events, Giuliani challenged her at every turn, carefully recounting the details of her son's encounter with the police and his long rap sheet. At one point, he bluntly suggested the blame for her son's death might lie with her own poor parenting: "Maybe you should ask yourself some questions about the way he was brought up and the things that happened to him."

It's difficult to imagine a "compassionate conservative" saying anything like this. And such impolitic honesty helps explain why Giuliani spent much of his second term as an unpopular figure--in spite of plunging crime rates and welfare rolls, and New York's economic comeback--before 9/11 transformed him into "America's mayor." Once Giuliani tamed the ungovernable city, he suddenly seemed too tough and hard-edged even for New York.

But after the drift and incompetence of the Bush years, it's easy to see how "respect conservatism" could be presented as a tonic for what ails the country, and as a way for the Giuliani campaign to distinguish its candidate from the incumbent. (One can only imagine how Hizzoner would have reacted to the Abramoff or Enron scandals, or Hurricane Katrina, or the mismanagement of the Iraq war.) A Giuliani domestic agenda that builds on his reputation for tough-minded competence could translate into policies that unite conservatives and independent voters.

On immigration, for instance, a "respect conservatism" might marry Giuliani's avowed support for earned legalization to what Hudson fellow John Fonte has called "civic conservatism," which emphasizes assimilation and civic education and rejects multiculturalism and multilingualism. Instead of Bush-style compassion for new arrivals, civic conservatism would offer them a fair shake--the opportunity to become Americans, but only if they're willing to embrace America's common culture and language.

Moreover, Giuliani could cast any immigration reform as part of a broader effort to reform homeland security, which has become something of a punchline during the Bush years. The national infrastructure--electricity grids, ports, railroads, and highways--presents an inviting target, and the uncertain state of the war on terror makes it likely that many Americans will be looking for a candidate who promises to shore up defenses at home. Giuliani's past makes this a natural campaign issue for him: As a foe of lawbreakers and a tamer of bureaucracies, he's perfectly positioned to make the case for, say, a new push for border security that reduces the threat posed by immigrant gangs, or a reorganization of the Department of Homeland Security to ensure that a Katrina-style debacle never happens again, or a broader plan to shore up infrastructure by strengthening and decentralizing the networks that sustain industrial civilization.

Meanwhile, because "respect conservatism" is premised on treating all people as equals, Giuliani the candidate would be a natural spokesman for a renewed attack on racial preferences, a still potent issue that President Bush abandoned, finding it ill-suited to his "compassion" agenda. But attacking preferences and offering nothing in their place is a narrow strategy that's unlikely to inspire voters, particularly younger voters deeply invested in the dramatic gains made by women and minorities in recent years. By proposing a grand bargain that replaces preferences with either class-based affirmative action or wage subsidies designed to expand the middle class, Giuliani could take the fight to liberalism: Why do you want to divide the disadvantaged by race, he could ask, when you can include them in a flourishing economy?

Then there's the economy, where Democratic populists have adopted a political rhetoric that poormouths America and paints middle class families as victims. Like President Bush's language of compassion, there's a condescending message behind all this economic fear-mongering, and it offers an opening for a "respect conservative" to acknowledge working-class struggles but emphasize the importance of civic and personal responsibility, both in the boardroom and the bedroom. The Rudy Giuliani who took down Ivan Boesky could be an ideal critic of corporate irresponsibility, for instance, and the mayor who once scolded Margarita Rosario for raising her son to be a criminal might be the right man to take on the relationship between economic insecurity and America's epidemic of fatherlessness.

Such an agenda, not incidentally, would offer a sharp contrast not only with President Bush, but with John McCain, Giuliani's principal rival for the nomination. Where McCain tends to embrace the elite media's pet causes, from campaign finance reform to the patient's bill of rights, a Giuliani "respect conservatism" would be proudly anti-elitist, emphasizing issues that resonate with working and middle class Americans. It would be pitched not to the media, but to the voters who made Rudy mayor--and who might make him president as well.

Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam are writing a book on Sam's Club Republicans.