The Magazine

Let's Make a Deal

Social conservatives, Rudy Giuliani, and the end of the litmus test.

Mar 12, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 25 • By NOEMIE EMERY
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Next year may see the party of the Sunbelt and Reagan, based in the South and in Protestant churches, nominate its first presidential candidate who is Catholic, urban, and ethnic--and socially liberal on a cluster of issues that set him at odds with the party's base. As a result, it may also see the end of the social issues litmus test in the Republican party, done in not by the party's left wing, which is shrunken and powerless, but by a fairly large cadre of social conservatives convinced that, in a time of national peril, the test is a luxury they cannot afford. For the past 30 years of cultural warfare, there has been only one template for an aspiring president of either party with positions that cross those of its organized activists: Displeasure is voiced, reservations are uttered, and soon enough there is a "conversion of conscience" in which the miscreant--Dick Gephardt, Al Gore, George Bush the elder, even the hapless Dennis Kucinich--is brought to heel in a fairly undignified manner, and sees what his party sees as the light. The Giuliani campaign seems to be departing from this pattern. And this time, a pro-life party, faced with a pro-choice candidate it finds compelling on other grounds, is doing things differently. It is not carping or caving or seeking a convert. Instead, it is making a deal.

One has to wend one's way back through the litmus test saga to see just how big this could be. In 1980, the parties for the first time took radically opposed views, with a plank in the Republican platform calling for a constitutional amendment to ban all abortion, while the Democrats (over the protests of President Carter) insisted abortion should be not only legal, but funded by taxpayers. Four years later, these planks, and the lobbies that backed them, were fully entrenched. By 1988, top tier candidates in both parties had undergone forced conversions; and in the 1990s, both sides attacked their dissenters full bore. In 1992--The Year of the Woman--Democrats famously silenced pro-life Pennsylvania governor Bob Casey at their New York convention, parked him up in the bleachers where no one could see him, and gave his slot to a pro-choice Republican. Four years later, pro-life groups pulled Republican nominee Bob Dole through a knothole, torturing him for a week before denying his suggestion that an expression of "tolerance" for those who dissented be inserted into the plank. As late as 2003, the Democratic candidates began their campaign season with a joint appearance at a NARAL fiesta, all eight of them tugging their forelocks before the group's leader and pledging allegiance, while a repentant Gephardt begged her forgiveness for the pro-life views he had been so ill-advised as to utter two decades before.

With this in mind, it was no minor matter when a small number of conservatives began to float ideas about how Giuliani and the party's activists might all get along. As early as August 2004, from the Republican convention in New York, David Frum was dispensing helpful suggestions: "He should not try to deny or conceal his own views," he wrote of the mayor. "He should not invoke Lee Atwater's 'Big Tent' . . . nor should he spend minutes and minutes parsing his views. . . . His job is not to persuade pro-life Republicans to agree with him, but to assure them that they can live with him." The Powerline blog weighed in in June 2005. "Some pundits think [Giuliani's] views on the social issues will bar him from getting the nomination," wrote Paul Mirengoff. "I disagree. . . . There is a national, largely bipartisan consensus that issues like gay marriage and abortion should be decided democratically, and not by the courts. If Giuliani emphasizes the process issue, and says . . . the key question is whether such issues are to be decided democratically, by legislatures, or autocratically, by judges, he could forge a solid Republican majority." National Review recalled a precedent. "The late Sen. Paul Coverdell," its editorial stated, "supported legal abortion. But once he won his primary, pro-lifers supported him since he promised to vote to ban partial-birth abortion, oppose public funding of abortion, and support conservative nominees to the judiciary."

The 2006 midterms, aka "the bloodbath," brought more people over. Texas pollster David Hill, writing in the Hill, observed that "Giuliani might bargain with the right. He's a transactional politician who might welcome the entreaty, and concede even more than McCain." Actually, Giuliani had been dealing already, by taking the bloggers and pundits' advice. In 2006, he campaigned for many pro-life candidates, spoke out against judicial activism, and cited the likes of Samuel Alito and John Roberts as the kind of judges he wanted to see on the bench. There has been some resistance, but since the start of this year a sizable cadre of social conservatives have declared either their willingness to consider supporting the mayor, or their intention not to write him off. Since Giuliani emerged as a possible candidate, people have known he would have to deal with the base of his party, but everyone thought this would involve a supplicant bending of the knee and begging leave of the Republican voters he had dismayed. No one imagined that so much of that base would come looking for him, and then make it their business to hand him a strategy. But that is what they have done.

Why has this happened now, after decades of litmus-test dictates? Four reasons come to mind.


(1) The War, Stupid: There is the war, which overwhelms everything as the major issue in the eyes of the base. No group in the country backs the war on terror as fervently as social conservatives, whose main criticism of the president's policy is that it has not been aggressive enough. To them, Rudy is the ultimate warrior, a man who not only survived 9/11 and rallied the city, but whose success in routing the gangs of New York is a template for engaging the Islamic terrorists, and an indication that he has the resolve and the relentlessness to carry this bloody task off.

They see him as a more ruthless version of George W. Bush, someone who would not have consented to less-than-aggressive rules of engagement; who would have taken Falluja the first time, and not have had to come back later; who would not have let Sadr escape when he had him; who would not have been fazed by whining over Abu Ghraib and Club Gitmo, and would have treated critics of the armed forces and of the mission with the same impatience he showed critics of the police in New York. As nothing else, the terror war sits at a nexus of issues dear to the heart of the base: the need to use force when one's country is threatened; the need to make judgments between good and evil; the need to protect and assert the moral codes of the Judeo-Christian tradition; the need to defend the ideals of the West.

"For a majority of the GOP primary electorate, it is the war, the war, the war (and judges)," writes the influential radio host and blogger Hugh Hewitt. "The war on terror hasn't just changed Giuliani's profile as a crisis-leader," writes columnist Jonah Goldberg. "It's changed the attitudes of many Americans, particularly conservatives, about the central crisis facing the country. It's not that pro-lifers are less pro-life. . . . It's that they really, really believe the war on terror is for real. At conservative conferences, on blogs, and on talk radio, pro-life issues have faded in their passion and intensity. . . . Taken together, terrorism, Iraq, and Islam have become the No. 1 social issue." And the earth surely moved on February 21, when the writer Maggie Gallagher, as tough and principled as they come on abortion and marriage, allowed in her syndicated column that she just might consider the mayor. "I never voted for Rudy when I lived in New York City for one simple reason: abortion. . . . Why would I even think of changing my mind? Two things: national security, and Hillary Clinton's Supreme Court appointments." Keep your eyes out for more of these eye-popping moments. This one will not be the last.

(2) Not Your Father's Pro-Choice Republican:There were pro-choice Republicans before Giuliani, but they held no appeal for conservatives, and there was little desire to cut them a break. They were politicians like Christie Todd Whitman, Jim Jeffords, Lincoln Chafee, and the ladies from Maine, from the near-extinct school of northern-tier liberal Republicans, regarded as "soft" on a wide range of issues. Or they were like Bill Weld, a fiscal conservative but a libertarian otherwise, whose watchword on most issues was "anything goes." A great many things do not "go" with Rudy, an enforcer by nature, seen as a Puritan scold by most of his liberal critics, who deplored his crackdowns on porn and on crime. As he told the conservative attendees at the CPAC conference in Washington last Friday, quoting Ronald Reagan, "anyone who is with you 80 percent of the time is your 80 percent friend--not your 20 percent enemy." Previous pro-choice Republicans tended to look down on the social conservatives, to agree with the press that they were cringe-making yahoos, and to accept the condolences of the media for the terrible people they had to put up with in their party.

To the press, Rudy was one of those terrible people--too quick to defend the police when they were attacked on brutality charges; a fascist, a bully, and a prude. With most pro-choice Republicans, their views on abortion are only one of a set of positions and attitudes that arouse the ire of the base. Giuliani is that very rare animal, a pro-choice Republican who is also the furthest thing possible from a liberal on a wide range of issues (law and order among them). "In case after case, he refused to accept the veto of liberal public opinion," writes John Podhoretz in his New York Post column. "More than any other candidate in the race, Rudy Giuliani is a liberal slayer. When he rejects liberal orthodoxy, which he does often, he doesn't just oppose it. He goes to war with it--total, unconditional war." If you believe that the enemy of your enemy must be your friend, conservatives have no better friend than the mayor, bête noire and scourge of the limousine liberals, the race hustlers, the friends of identity politics, the opponents of capital punishment, the municipal unions, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the New York Times. Some will want him to be president, if only to annoy all these people--a temptation too big to resist.

(3) The Shape of the Field: Strict conservatives are not all that enthralled by any of the three main contenders--Giuliani, John McCain, and Mitt Romney. This is their weakness, but also their strength, as they all tend to give each other cover along with other conservative stars. Did Giuliani leave his first wife? So did McCain. Did he leave his second wife? So did Newt Gingrich. Is he pro-choice and gay-friendly? So was Mitt Romney a scant four years ago. McCain is the only one with a firm pro-life record, but the base doesn't like him for a number of reasons, among them tax cuts, immigration, campaign finance reform, and being used by the press to score points against conservatives on too many things to enumerate.

Some day their prince may come--the conservative who hits all the bases--pro-life, pro-supply side, pro-tax cuts, pro-deregulation, and hawkish in foreign policy--but this day is not it, and that day may never arrive. In this case, as the base will be forced to cut slack to someone on something--on his public stances or his private life, on his past or present positions--they may want to do it for someone who in many ways truly excites them, who bonds with them on many issues, and who, so far at least, leads Hillary Clinton and all other comers in the polls.

(4) Mugged by Reality: After 30-plus years of fierce, intense arguments, much emotion, and many polls taken, both sides in the abortion wars have been mugged by reality, and realize that neither is likely to reach its major goals soon. Dreams of outlawing abortion on the one hand, or, on the other, of seeing it funded, legitimized, and enshrined as an unassailable civil right, have faded in the face of a large and so-far unswayable public opinion that is conflicted, ambivalent, and inclined to punish any political figure it sees as too rigid, too strident, or too eager to go to extremes. For this reason, no politician shrewd enough to make himself president is likely to go on a pro-life or pro-choice crusade. (Like Ronald Reagan before him, George W. Bush addresses the March for Life by phone and long distance; the new Democratic Congress, for its part, has wisely decided to leave the whole issue alone.) With this has come an understanding that, aside from the appointing of judges, and some tinkering with executive orders, the president's role is not large.

Purists will want someone whose heart is with them, but, in the real world, the state of the president's heart does not count: Support for abortion remained fairly high under Reagan and Bush 41, and began to fall off under Bill Clinton, the most pro-choice president in American history, strongly backed by the feminist movement, and pushed by his feminist wife. A strict constructionist justice appointed by a president who is pro-choice is no different from a strict constructionist appointed by a pro-life president, at least in the view of the practically minded, and better than an activist justice appointed by somebody else.

For some people, this argument will not be sufficient, and debates have now broken out among social conservatives. But the surprising thing is that these debates are occurring, which had not been foreseen or expected a few months ago. This is why early assessments of Giuliani's possible weakness may be misleading, among them polls indicating that many social conservatives would never back a pro-choice nominee. They do not show what might happen if the nominee pledged not to push for a pro-choice agenda, or if he were endorsed and supported by conservative icons who vouched for him, campaigned with and for him, and swore to their backers that he was all right.

The deal in the works has been carefully crafted to make sure that no one loses too much. Conservatives would be getting a pro-choice nominee, but one who would not push a pro-choice agenda, and one who would give them (as far as presidents can be sure in these matters) the kind of judges they long for. Giuliani would not be required to renounce his beliefs, merely to appoint the right kind of judges and to remain more or less neutral in a policy area in which, to be honest, he has never shown that much interest. The Republicans will remain the pro-life party--as desired by the bulk of their voters and required by the workings of the two-party system--though now with a larger, more varied, and in some ways more competitive field of candidates. And it is worth noting in this altered context that the Democrats also are starting to change. One of the reasons Democrats now run both the houses of Congress is that canny recruiters defied their own culture war lobbies and rammed a number of pro-life and pro-gun candidates down the throats of their interest groups, assessing correctly that control of Congress was worth a few unhappy activists. They are not yet at the point of nominating a pro-life candidate on the national level, but the lid has been pried open a crack. Someday, they too may find a candidate whom they find attractive--say, for irony's sake, a Bob Casey Jr.--except for this single and glaring impediment. And at that point, they too might deal.

And now, as the litmus test slowly expires, it is time to consider its costs. It has been a very good deal for the people who imposed it, but a very bad one for the country at large. It has meant that a candidate for national office must begin by embracing ideas that have been rejected by seven in ten of Americans, while a candidate who comes close to the center of public opinion would never be allowed to compete. It has made candidates for the post of commander in chief of the world's greatest power kick off their campaigns by groveling before leaders of interest groups, which does not make them seem leaderly and causes voters to lose all respect. Worst of all, it posed the real possibility that a candidate would come forth who seemed equipped to deal with a crisis, but who, because he held the "wrong views" in the eyes of the interest groups, would not be allowed to emerge. In Giuliani, some social conservatives think they have found such a candidate and do not want to waste him. And so, they are making a deal.

Noemie Emery, a WEEKLY STANDARD contributing editor, is author most recently of Great Expectations: The Troubled Lives of Political Families.