Will Giuliani's beat-up-on-Democrats strategy backfire?

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July 31 2007 5:40 PM

Rudy the Razzer

Will Giuliani's beat-up-on-Democrats strategy backfire?

Rudy Giuliani. Click image to expand.
Rudy Giuliani

Last fall, when Rudy Giuliani was campaigning for a moderate Republican senate candidate in the blue state of Maryland, he was a vision of moderation. Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld were labeling Democrats appeasers for their positions on Iraq, and the official GOP strategy going into the 2006 election was that a Democratic victory would make America less safe. But Giuliani didn't play that game. During a speech to stalwart Republicans, he described the nations that harbored terrorists as "demagogues that blame and project their problems and do nothing to solve the problems of their own people," and someone from the audience yelled out: "Sounds like the Democrats." It got a big cheer.

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

Giuliani gently chastised the heckler: "We can't get into this partisan bickering. The fact is that Republicans and Democrats have the same objectives. They get very angry at us and we get very angry at them. Somehow we have to put that anger aside. Democrats are loyal Americans. Republicans are loyal Americans. I think we have better answers, but we have to respect each other."

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Not anymore, we don't. Ten months later, everything has changed. Running for the GOP presidential nomination, Giuliani is now the chief heckler of Democrats. He called Barack Obama and John Edwards "losers," has revived the insult of "socialized medicine" when referring to Democratic health-care plans, and now charges the Democrats are trying to bring back the nanny state. He taunts Democrats to use the term "Islamic terrorists," and when they don't, he says it's all the proof one needs they won't keep us safe. I asked him in 2006 whether he thought Democrats were advocating appeasement with the terrorists. He said he didn't see it that way. He sure does now, suggesting Democrats would invite another 9/11-style attack. I expect him to start showing up at Clinton rallies and making noises with his armpit.

There are logical flaws in Giuliani's attacks. Many in the Democratic base are angry with its candidates because they are not running on socialized medicine. Even President George Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney don't use the term "Islamic terrorists," so fealty to the phrase is a meaningless test of resolve. As Mickey Kaus points out, when it comes to nanny politicians, Rudy is at the top of the list. A lot of us in New York at the time thought it was annoying that the mayor forced us to listen to recordings in cabs that insisted we buckle our seatbelts, but we liked him removing the squeegee men and tidying up our streets. His finger-wagging at the curators of the Brooklyn Museum for their lewd art and his sanitizing of Times Square give him credentials with social conservatives who otherwise distrust him.

Republican voters are not looking for logical consistency. They're depressed and hoping to get excited about something, so Rudy's cracks are stirring. Giuliani's aides say there are bigger differences with Democrats on the big issues—taxes and terrorism—than with Rudy's Republican rivals, and he's merely pointing that out. But the way Giuliani is making his case risks damaging his chances in the general election by alienating moderates and independents who don't like such showy partisanship. Independents are already far closer in their views to Democrats than Republicans, particularly on the dominant issue, the Iraq war. Their shift away from Bush was critical in the Democrats' victories in November, and independents don't look like they're moving back to the GOP. They are frustrated and pessimistic about the current state of politics (PDF). In fact, the partisanship and gridlock that Giuliani signals with his regular attacks are what make independents want to elect a Democratic president. Democrats lead among independents by a margin of 10 points in the latest Democracy Corps poll (PDF). (The poll also shows Democratic candidates lose independent voters when they make partisan attacks against Bush.)

This is an age-old tension. Candidates must appeal to their base in the primaries without alienating the middle in the general election. But Giuliani has a particular problem. Part of his pitch to conservatives is that he is more electable than his GOP rivals, because he can woo independents in a race against the Democratic nominee. In a recent Washington Post poll of independents, he was the most attractive Republican. In a Fox poll of independents (PDF), he beat all Democrats by a safe margin. Fred Thompson and Mitt Romney lost among independents by double digits. Only John McCain (whose candidacy has tanked since the Fox poll) did as well as Rudy.

Rudy's appeal to independents is one of the main reasons social conservatives are supposed to overlook his moderation on gun control, gay rights, and abortion. If social conservatives won't turn out for him in a general election in the same strength they did for George Bush, and independents and moderates find him too pugilistic, then his argument that he's the best general-election candidate falls apart. Giuliani knew what to do with a partisan heckler last fall. Will he know what to do with himself?

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