With the same rootless confidence that causes people to ignore hurricane warnings, many social conservatives remain in denial about Rudy Giuliani's chances of winning the Republican nomination.
But with three debates and eight months as the Republican front-runner under his belt, Giuliani's political strength cannot be dismissed as a fad or a fluke. His skills as a campaigner are considerable. His political strategy is plausible: Play down Iowa and New Hampshire, win Florida on Jan. 29, and sweep the big states (New York, California, Illinois) on Feb. 5, securing the nomination before a social-conservative reaction can set in. The Fred Thompson and Mitt Romney camps have their own victory scenarios, but they are not more likely.
So it is not too early for Republicans to consider some consequences of a Giuliani nomination.
To begin with, the ideological shift would be greater than meets the eye. Giuliani plays up his continuity with the Republican past, particularly with Ronald Reagan. But Reagan, of course, was a committed social conservative who expressed reservations about choosing George H.W. Bush as his running mate because of his questionable pro-life views. Giuliani's style and approach are actually much closer to those of another politically successful Republican president: Richard Nixon, pre-Watergate.
In his elections, Nixon appealed to conservatives and the country as a culture warrior who was not a moral or religious conservative. "Permissiveness," he told key aides, "is the key theme," and Nixon pressed that theme against hippie protesters, tenured radicals and liberals who bad-mouthed America. This kind of secular, tough-on-crime, tough-on-communism conservatism gathered a "silent majority" that loved Nixon for the enemies he made.
By this standard, Giuliani is a Nixon Republican. He is perhaps the most publicly secular major candidate of either party -- his conflicts with Roman Catholic teaching make him more reticent on religion than either Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama. But as a prosecutor and mayor of New York, he won conservative respect for making all the right enemies: the ACLU, advocates of blasphemous art, purveyors of racial politics, Islamist mass murderers, mob bosses and the New York Times editorial page.On the evidence of the polls, many conservatives are ready for a little cultural combat, and Giuliani looks like a man who knows how to use a knife. He might successfully appeal to blue-collar resentment against liberal elitism and Democratic antiwar overreach, while winning back some pro-choice, suburban female voters.
But the Nixon example is also a warning. His presidency -- from wage and price controls to the nomination of Justice Harry Blackmun-- could hardly be called a conservative success story. As president, Nixon was a talented man without an ideological compass, mainly concerned with the accumulation of power. Giuliani's 1994 endorsement of New York Gov. Mario Cuomo -- the modern hero of Democratic liberalism -- also indicates some loose ideological moorings. And, as with Nixon, Giuliani's combativeness, on occasion, blurs into pettiness.
Another consequence of a Giuliani victory would be to place the Republican nominee in direct conflict with the Roman Catholic Church. For someone who aspires to be the fourth Roman Catholic to lead a major-party ticket, this is not a minor thing.
Across the country, there will doubtlessly be Giuliani Democrats who respond to a culture war against liberalism without the baggage of pro-life moralism. But there will also be Americans influenced by the teachings of John Paul II, who have been persuaded over the years to support Republicans mainly on the pro-life issue. Many are Reagan Democrats. And they will be less impressed by a conservatism purged of pro-life moralism -- which they would see as a purge of compassion and humanity.
These are predictable results if the Republican nominee is not Reagan's heir but Nixon's political twin.