Giuliani reminds GOP of the glory days - of 2002

March 07, 2007|By THOMAS F. SCHALLER

Former New York City Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani now leads Arizona Sen. John McCain in the race for the Republican nomination. Given conservatives' wariness toward Mr. Giuliani - who is twice divorced and supports both reproductive and gay rights - it's surprising to find "America's mayor" as the GOP front-runner.

Here's my theory for why Mr. Giuliani is ascendant: It's not so much because he triggers memories of the horrific day in the fall of 2001 when the terrorists attacked, but that he reminds Republicans of the fall of 2002.

That autumn, the Republicans were at their zenith. In September, President Bush had given a moving speech on the first anniversary of 9/11. The next month, the Republican-led Congress passed the Iraq war resolution. A month later, Republicans won the midterm elections. Mr. Bush was popular, Democrats were scrambling for cover, and Republicans controlled the entire national government for the first time in a half-century.

Then came the war in Iraq, which Mr. Bush insisted was the central front in the global war on terror. By coupling Iraq with the broader war against terror, "The Decider" eventually turned the GOP's advantage on terrorism into a liability.

Mr. Giuliani is presenting himself as "The De-Coupler" - the candidate who allows Republicans to magically transport themselves back in time to a pre-Iraq era, when their terrorism credentials could still be wielded as a lethal, single-edged sword. In doing so, Mr. Giuliani also differentiates himself from Mr. McCain, who lent his support to Mr. Bush's 2004 re-election campaign and is now the biggest cheerleader for the president's unpopular escalation plan.

Mr. McCain is counting on inheriting Mr. Bush's legacy. If last week's Conservative Political Action Committee conference in Washington is any indication, there may not be much for Mr. Bush to bequeath him.

In fact, rarely did the words "Iraq" or "Bush" pass from the lips of the candidates and panelists who attended the conference. Mr. Giuliani mentioned Iraq just once during his speech; Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback twice.

"Iraq is the 800-pound gorilla in the room," former Republican Congressman Bob Barr told me. "And nobody wants to talk about it because nobody wants to look soft on military issues."

As for Mr. Bush, his name was invoked so infrequently, one might never have guessed that the Oval Office, three miles from where the convention was held, is occupied by a man whom these very same conservatives helped elect. Sentences with both "Bush" and "Iraq" in them were as common as ground-rule doubles in baseball.

Into this murky pool of post-Iraq angst and denial leapt Mr. Giuliani, head first. He suggested that, much as America's former enemies from World War II are now allies, and the former communist states are rapidly becoming our friends too, the goal of the war on terrorism should be to win the hearts and minds of the terrorists who hate us.

"We have to stop them, and then we have to persuade them," Mr. Giuliani said. This strategy is, to put it mildly, low on the Bush administration's priority list.

But the real war Republicans are fighting is to stanch the political damage created by the war itself, and this is where Mr. McCain is most vulnerable to the Giuliani challenge.

Yes, many conservatives and even moderate Republicans are furious with Mr. McCain's legislative priorities, especially his bipartisan efforts on campaign finance and immigration. But Mr. McCain's candidacy also serves as a nagging reminder of the political costs of a mission unaccomplished.

In 2004, Howard Dean lost the Iowa caucuses in part because he was the Democrats' "buyer's remorse" candidate: He reminded Democrats who went along with Mr. Bush into Iraq that they had make a mistake. This cycle, that title belongs to Mr. McCain, for he reminds Republicans that they were wrong to trust Mr. Bush and his advisers to get the war right.

Truth may be the first casualty of war. But in Iraq, Republican dreams that their strong-on-defense reputation would make them invincible after Sept. 11 was the second. Mr. Giuliani's trick is to somehow transport the GOP to that dreamy autumn of 2002, when sugarplum visions of a glorious partisan hegemony danced in Republican heads.

Pretending Iraq never happened is tough. It was abundantly clear at last week's conference, however, that the conservatives' capacity for self-deluding, avoidant behavior may prove to be Mr. Giuliani's greatest asset.

Thomas F. Schaller is an associate professor of political science at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and author of "Whistling Past Dixie." His e-mail is schaller67@hotmail.com. His column appears Wednesdays in The Sun.

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