[lbo-talk] Edsall: Rudy is the GOP's future

Doug Henwood dhenwood at panix.com
Tue May 15 11:00:01 PDT 2007

[from an article by Thomas Byrne Edsall in the new New Republic]



Many observers believe Giuliani's early success is the result of his calculated move rightward--a savvy effort to trick conservative voters into believing he is really one of them. But there is another possibility, one that assumes a bit more intelligence on the part of conservative voters like DePass: What if we are witnessing not Rudy moving toward the rest of the Republican Party, but rather the Republican Party moving toward Rudy? What if the salience of a certain kind of social conservatism is now in decline among GOP voters and a new set of conservative principles are emerging to take its place? What if Giuilianism represents the future of the Republican Party?

Giuliani is the beneficiary of an upheaval within the Republican electorate--an upheaval that was catalyzed by September 11 but is becoming apparent only now, as the GOP hosts its first primary battle since the terrorist attacks. In brief, among Republican voters, the litmus test issues of abortion and gay marriage have been losing traction, subordinated to the Iraq war and terrorism. According to the Pew Research Center, 31 percent of GOP voters name Iraq as their top priority, and 17 percent choose terrorism and security. Just 7 percent name abortion and 1 percent name gay marriage.

The roots of this transformation predate September 11 and are partly the result of demographics. The lions of the Christian right--Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, James Dobson--no longer dominate Republican politics as they once did. Their grip is slackening as their older followers are slowly replaced by a generation for which the social, cultural, and sexual mores that were overturned by the 1960s are history, not memory. In retrospect, these men reached the height of their power in the late '80s, when, by a 51-to-42 majority, voters agreed that "school boards ought to have the right to fire teachers who are known homosexuals." Now a decisive 66-to-28 majority disagrees, according to Pew. In 1987, the electorate was roughly split on the question of whether "aids might be God's punishment for immoral sexual behavior." Today, 72 percent disagree with that statement, while just 23 percent concur.

Giuliani is on the cutting edge of these trends, seeking to exploit new ideological lines between conservatism and liberalism. He rejects conservatism based on sexuality and reproductive issues; and his personal life amounts to a repudiation of conservatism focused on family structure, parental responsibility, fidelity, and lifelong monogamy. Ed Gillespie, former chairman of the Republican National Committee, notes that, even as voters learn about Giuliani's more centrist positions, "it does not seem to move his numbers." The former mayor, Gillespie says, is "challenging the notion that abortion and gay marriage are vote-determinative for everybody in the party."

It isn't just average voters who are driving this shift; many members of the GOP elite--whose overwhelming concern is cutting taxes, a Giuliani forte--would privately welcome the chance to downplay, if not discard, the party's rearguard war against the sexual and women's rights revolutions. Much of the Republican Party's consulting community and country club elite always viewed abortion and gay rights as distasteful but necessary tools to win elections, easily disposable once they no longer served their purpose. Now, with most of the leading GOP contenders demonstrating at best equivocal support for the sexual status quo ante, that time appears to be drawing near.

For the moment, at least, September 11 has replaced abortion, gay marriage, and other social-sexual matters as the issue that binds the GOP together as a party. And no one, of course, owns September 11 quite like Rudy Giuliani. "This is a different world from 2000, when we last had Republican primaries without an incumbent president. 9/11 scrambled the priorities, and it may very well be that the war on terror pushes social issues down," says Whit Ayres, a Georgia-based pollster currently unaffiliated with any presidential campaign. "Giuliani is an authentic American hero, and Southerners love American heroes." No wonder the Yankee centrist suddenly has a chance in South Carolina.

If Giuliani's liberal inclinations on certain sexual issues represent his party's future, so does his decided conservatism on nonsexual domestic matters. Take, for instance, the question of how much risk is desirable in our economic system and what, if anything, government should do to encourage or discourage it. Ever since Reagan, Republicans have seen themselves as the party that embraces risk as a worthy feature of American life; and Giuliani, with his criticism of the social safety net, is very much an heir to this tradition. A Weekly Standard article recently quoted Giuliani as saying that Democrats want "a no-risk society." Explaining his opposition to health care mandates, he said, "We've got to let people make choices. We've got to let them take the risk--do they want to be covered? Do they want health insurance? Because ultimately, if they don't, well, then, they may not be taken care of. I suppose that's difficult."


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