Why Rudy Guiliani Is Destined to Fall

According to the latest polls, Rudy Giuliani has a commanding lead over his rivals for the 2008 Republican nomination for president. Though polls this early mostly measure name identification (ask Joe "Mentum" Lieberman, who was leading the Democratic pack at this time four years ago), it's hard to ignore the good feelings Giuliani generates among the GOP faithful.

Yet at the same time, conventional wisdom has it that as conservative Christian voters learn more about Giuliani -- specifically, his positions on abortion and gay rights and his marital history (infidelity along the way to three marriages), the support will quickly fade.

This conventional wisdom is partly correct, but not for the reasons we usually hear from the talking heads. The problem conservative voters will have with Giuliani isn't just about disagreement on issues, and it certainly isn't about bad behavior in his personal life. It's about the fact that no matter how hard he tries, Giuliani just isn't going to be able to convince them that he's part of their tribe.

The entirety of Giuliani's appeal, of course, is built on the fact that on the day of 9/11, he managed to hold a series of press conferences without wetting his pants. And so he has left no doubt that 9/11 will be the beginning, middle and end of his presidential campaign; as a recent headline in The Onion put it, "Giuliani To Run For President of 9/11."

No one could accuse him of failing to grasp an opportunity when he sees it: Giuliani has turned himself into a one-man September 11, Inc., charging $100,000 a pop to give speeches touting his steely resolve in the face of terror. When it comes to exploiting the memory of 9/11 for personal gain, George W. Bush has nothing on Rudy.

But for all the benefit he has reaped -- including the prevailing idea that Giuliani somehow has credibility on foreign affairs and national security, when his experience in both arenas is basically zero -- he is destined to fall. That fall should be one of the more interesting political stories we've seen in a while, but it's important to understand the reasons which factors will cause the GOP electorate to spit him out like a rotten peanut, and which won't. Commentators tend to lump Giuliani's positions on abortion and gay rights with his personal history. It's the former that will matter, and the latter that won't.

For all the talk of "family values" and the passionate condemnation of Bill Clinton's affair with Monica Lewinsky, conservatives are enormously understanding when it comes to their own. As Glenn Greenwald pointed out recently conservatives don't seem to care whether their leaders have violated the personal morality they claim to hold:

Two of the most admired political figures among Christian conservatives -- Rush Limbaugh and Newt Gingrich -- have the most shameful, tawdry and degenerate personal lives (using the claimed standards of that political faction). Yet the gross disparity between their personal conduct and the religious and moral values they espouse has not injured their standing in the slightest among the 'values voters.'
And with Rudy it's even worse. It's not just that he's been married three times, and that he committed adultery; the way he treated his second wife was positively sadistic. As their marriage was crumbling, he paraded down the street in front of photographers with his then-mistress and now wife, Judi. He then informed his wife that he was leaving her -- via a press conference.

But Greenwald is right that none of that will matter. What GOP voters want to know is, are you one of us or not? And what makes a candidate "one of us"? That tribal identity is formed by one thing above all else: Do you hate the right people?

That may be a bit crude. But the demarcation of in-groups and out-groups is the key to tribal politics. Identity is defined not only by knowing who's in your group, but more critically, who's outside it. As Merle Haggard sang in 1969's "Okie From Muskogee," "We don't make a party out of lovin'/ We like holdin' hands and pitchin' woo/ We don't let our hair grow long and shaggy/ Like the hippies out in San Francisco do."

Ever since "Okie," conservatives have looked to popular culture to provide emblems of identity, ways they can define themselves as opposed to the kind of people they don't like. Every time you tune your radio to a country station or sit down to watch a stock car race, it's almost as good as punching a hippie in the face.

Most of the culture-war issues that matter to conservatives have something to do with sex. Let's take abortion, where Rudy is famously out of step with his GOP brethren. The point here isn't just that they differ with him on an important issue, in the way that a Democrat who supported the Iraq war would have problems with Democratic voters. Abortion is fundamental to conservatives because it relates to sex and thus defines an entire worldview.

To conservatives, abortion isn't so much about the welfare of fetuses as it is about the status of women and the nature of sex. Opposition to sex "without consequences" is key to the maintenance of the border between the in-group and the out-group. This is where the rape and incest exceptions come from: victims of rape and incest got pregnant not because they willingly had sex (which only sluts do, of course), but through no fault of their own. Their sexual purity is intact, and as such they need not be punished by being forced to carry their pregnancy to term. Either you think (or at least will proclaim publicly) that sex outside of marriage is sinful and women who engage in it should be punished, or you don't. And if you support legal abortion, you don't.

Then comes gay rights, where Rudy's problem becomes particularly acute. The current right-wing obsession with gays is really a stand-in for the larger and eternal culture war. (Not that they aren't serious about gays. As I've said many times, people like James Dobson spend more time thinking about gay sex than any 10 gay people I know put together.)

But over the past few years the issue's symbolic importance has grown to the point where it is simply not negotiable for a Republican candidate. You can say you don't want to discriminate, but display too much sympathy for the "gay agenda" -- or too much comfort with gay people -- and you'll be marked as outside the tribe. A reporter from New York Magazine showed how this is going to play out in many Republicans' choices:
But even 9/11 has its limits. Later, I do a little push-polling of my own. I ask Max Kaster, a local pastor and party chair for Calhoun County, a half-hour south of Columbia, what people down here would think of America's mayor if they knew he had moved in with a gay couple after separating from his second wife. "Really?" Kaster says. He fiddles with a lapel pin that combines an American flag and a cross. "I think that would roll a lot of people's socks down."
Rudy Giuliani is about as gay-friendly as a Republican gets. Beside his personal friendships, he signed a domestic partnership law in 1998, extending New York City benefits to gay couples. He even marched in the annual gay pride parade. Think we'll be seeing photos of that cropping up?
And speaking of photographic proof, we have images like this. At some point, someone -- probably an "independent" 527 group acting in support of one of the other candidates -- is going to start passing out flyers with pictures of Giuliani in drag. You could argue that it takes a real man to be secure enough in his sexuality to put on a dress. But Rudy's heterosexuality is not in question. The point won't be to convince anyone that he's gay, it will be to convince conservative white men that Rudy is too comfortable with gay people, and too comfortable having fun by playing around with sexual identity.

The flyers targeting Giuliani will probably say something about "New York values." In other words, Rudy comes from a place populated with The Other, full of gays and Jews and blacks and who knows what else. That's where he comes from, they'll say, and that's who he is -- The Other. That attack will be devastating, and all the ads about 9/11 that the Giuliani campaign can buy will not enable him to recover.

Looking at Giuliani's current standing in the polls, one might be tempted to think otherwise. But one must remember that no one has gone after him since that image was formed on 9/11. He hasn't been criticized by prominent figures, he hasn't been subject to attack ads, he hasn't had smart and experienced political strategists plotting and executing a careful strategy to destroy him. But he will.

In fairness, other Republican candidates have versions of Giuliani'sproblem, too. As Rick Perlstein recently noted, Mitt Romney is working hard to forge that tribal identity, and doing so in part by trying to stir up the anger of liberals. "Get branded such a villain by our liberal elites," Perlstein wrote, "and you also might win a Republican primary."

Part of defining your tribal identity is not just hating the right people, but being hated by the right people. This is one of John McCain's biggest problems: His long courting of the "liberal" press has gotten him where he is today, but it has also convinced many movement conservatives that McCain can't possibly be one of them, no matter what his positions on issues are. The press's affection for McCain, as far as they are concerned, constitutes proof positive that he is in fact a liberal.

So all three of the leading Republican candidates will be working overtime to convince conservatives that they're part of the tribe. It may not be easy for McCain and Romney, but when it comes to the issues that revolve around sex, particularly abortion and gay rights, they'll be saying the words conservatives want to hear. Giuliani, on the other hand, simply has no way to finesse what he believes. And unlike the other two, he's been photographed in a dress.

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