America's tough guy

Posted: Dec 22, 2006 12:01 AM
America's tough guy

America needs a Pym Fortuyn, and Rudolph Giuliani may be the man for the job.

Fortuyn, you may recall, was the gay, flamboyant sociology professor turned "right-wing" Dutch politician who took a hard-line position against immigration and Islamic extremism - two issues inextricably linked in a country where whole communities have become enclaves of Sharia law. Fortuyn was labeled right wing for his unapologetic view that the Netherlands should stay both liberal and libertine.

His basic view was that the Netherlands has a culture too, and there's no shame in defending civil liberties, free expression and tolerance against their opponents, even if those opponents exploit liberal guilt by casting themselves as victims. In other words, Fortuyn wanted to keep the party going, and that meant taking a strong line against the killjoys. That Fortuyn could be both libertarian and tough-minded caused great cognitive dissonance in the media and on the left. He was assassinated by a left-wing extremist.

America is not the Netherlands, and Rudy Giuliani is no Pim Fortuyn in his personal life. But Giuliani is still a social liberal, as Americans define the term. He's for same-sex unions, though not gay marriage. He's pro-choice. A Catholic, he's been married three times. His first marriage was annulled on dubious grounds - he "suddenly" discovered his wife was his second cousin. And his second marriage ended in a tabloid divorce. Giuliani also has a decidedly liberal record on immigration; how could a mayor of New York not?

But Giuliani was considered a raging right-winger as mayor. No doubt this had much to do with the city's political center being so far to the left. But there's more to it than that. When I grew up in New York in the 1970s and 1980s, the job of mayor was, essentially, to manage the city's decline. Crime was not only seen as permanent, some on the left even tried to rationalize it as part of the city's charm.

By the time Giuliani arrived, social chaos was seen as the natural order of things. Giuliani heroically challenged these assumptions. He and his first police commissioner, William J. Bratton, refused to accept that mere containment was the best anyone could hope for.

Some are familiar with Giuliani's quality-of-life campaign against turnstile jumpers, welfare cheats, squeegee men, graffiti artists and porn shops. What's forgotten is that Giuliani was reviled for these efforts by the New York Times, the entertainment industry and the intellectual left - whose numbers are so great in the Big Apple that they actually constitute a voting bloc - and that every day he leaped back into the breach.

But Giuliani's stellar performance after 9/11 has erased this story from the public memory banks. That's a problem, because for Giuliani to have any chance of winning the Republican presidential nomination, he'll need to remind conservatives - the people who vote in GOP primaries - that he's more than just the feel-good mayor everyone suddenly loved after 9/11. So he not only needs to convince conservatives that he made all the right enemies, he also needs to explain how his actions as mayor were consistent with conservative philosophy.

I think - and polls corroborate - that the conservative movement is more open to this pitch than either some of its self-interested leaders or those who report on them claim. First, observers make a grave mistake when they discount how seriously the religious right takes the war on terror. Whoever would be the most plausible war president will have a good shot at the nomination. Moreover, conservatives love to talk about philosophy in the same way liberal activists love to talk about action. And contrary to their caricature in the mainstream press, social conservatives are often quite open to libertarian and small-government arguments.

But such arguments need to be made in the context of what Vice President George H.W. Bush once derisively called "the vision thing." Giuliani needs to articulate a Fortuynish vision for the American context. This might mean a zero-tolerance attitude on terror, a crackdown on crime (including corporate graft), and explaining how his mayoralty actually had socially conservative effects by liberating New York from the stranglehold of the identity-politics left.

Giuliani needs to tell a story of how he beat Al Sharpton at every turn. Giuliani's cheery immigrant tale and his personal liberalism make him a formidable spokesman for such a vision. Yes, taken piecemeal, his views on social issues could be a real albatross (though it's worth noting that Giuliani, while personally pro-choice, signals that he would appoint judges in the mold of Supreme Court justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas). But if Giuliani can make those issues seem secondary to a broader defense of American civilization, he's got a chance to go all the way.

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