When Rudy Giuliani spoke to the National Rifle Assn. last week, there was no way he could say anything remotely pleasing to the audience and remain consistent to his record. The former New York City mayor was one of the NRA's biggest targets in the 1990s, and for good reason: His positions were largely indistinguishable from the Clinton administration's, from which he received lavish praise for helping the feds impose an assault weapons ban, among other NRA no-nos.
So Giuliani went the way of many of his rivals by ditching his principles to appease the crowd. First, though, he tried a little comedy -- very little. He answered a call on his cellphone from his wife in the middle of his speech, a stunt about as well-received as Flounder's query of the poker players in "Animal House": "You guys playing cards?"
The rest of his speech played better for the simple reason that it was a full-fledged pander. Giuliani explained that his views have "evolved" since he was mayor. In presidential politics, evolution of this sort is usually code for throwing inconvenient baggage off the boat. So, in short order, stevedore Giuliani chucked years of anti-gun rhetoric over the side. The impetus for his newfound respect for the 2nd Amendment, Giuliani explained, was the "intervening event" of 9/11, giving new salience to the phrase "9/11 changed everything."
While one can hardly fault special-interest lobbies for cheering when presidential candidates kowtow to them, that doesn't mean the rest of us have to. Personally, my views are closer to the NRA's than they are to Giuliani's. But still, I was hoping that Rudy would have stuck to his federalist guns a bit more.
Giuliani has run the best campaign of any candidate in either party so far, despite an unfavorable political climate and the fact he lacks the kind of institutional pull Hillary Clinton has within her party. He has managed to take and hold on to an early lead, even with a record so littered with conservative red flags that it looks like one of those choreographed North Korean rallies.
On immigration, he's dodged nearly every bullet that hit John McCain. In a party allegedly hijacked by theocons and family-values fetishists, the thrice-married, pro-civil unions, former gay pride parade marcher has managed to win the hearts and minds of large numbers of social conservatives.
Obviously, Giuliani could never have pulled this off without 9/11. For the GOP, the war on terror is more than a foreign policy issue, it's a values issue too, like the fight against communism was during the Cold War. Still, if the war on terror was everything, McCain would be the front-runner rather than a fading, second-tier candidate.
Giuliani has won over many hostile Republican constituencies by offering an implied bargain of federalism. He understands that "what works in New York doesn't necessarily work in Mississippi or Montana." In other words, he doesn't seek to dye the multihued American quilt New York blue.
On abortion, for example, Giuliani remains pro-choice, but he's signaled that he might be OK with "strict constructionist" judges overturning Roe vs. Wade and sending the issue back to the states. This isn't the pro-life ideal, but pro-lifers and even some conservative pro-choicers understand this would be enormous progress. And, if you believe even a fraction of the rhetoric we've heard for decades about how the GOP is held hostage by religious conservatives, it's hard not to salute Giuliani's courage.
Earlier in the campaign, he had a similarly base-displeasing position on guns. But Giuliani understood that such a view would have gotten booed by NRAers who legitimately believe that gun rights are as real as free-speech rights, and are far more grounded in the Constitution than abortion rights (gun rights have the No. 2 spot in the Bill of Rights, after all, while abortion rights merely exist in the fairyland of constitutional "penumbrae").
Still, Giuliani could have argued that all sorts of rights can and should be regulated at the local level while still preserving constitutional protections. He could have given the NRA half a loaf by saying that he'd appoint judges who understand that the feds shouldn't be in the business of restricting explicit constitutional rights. And while the courts certainly aren't on his side on this point, they aren't with him on abortion either.
In a race filled with liberals and conservatives alike who want to impose a single vision on the country, the Giuliani federalist bargain has the most potential for expanding meaningful freedom and political diversity. It'd be a shame if the stevedore is willing to throw that over the side at the first hint of stormy weather.