Rudy in the Morning


Like a lot of late-night hookups, Rudy Giuliani's magnificent performance last evening as the final speaker at the Republican National Convention is bound to seem less romantic in the dawn's early light. In fact, it may well be the perfect shorthand for the failing, not the success, of Bush foreign policy, using sleight of hand and emotional indirection to mask a mistaken strategy in bringing terrorists to heel. Not that any of that matters much. Bush and the Republicans have done the one thing that matters most in electoral politics, and that was accomplished mostly by chance: They're going up against mostly incompetent, sad-sack opponents.

More on that in a moment. First, give mad, mad props to Rudy G., who's probably the first pol since another New Yorker, Mario Cuomo (reportedly holed up somewhere in the Hudson River Valley, mulling over a presidential run in 2008), to really smack the ball out of the park with a convention speech. It's hard to remember the pre-9/11 Rudy, especially the pre-mayoral Rudy, a hard-edged guy with a problem child who was hated by conservatives for bringing Michael Milken to heel on technical trading violations.

Even as mayor of New York, and despite a huge boom during his tenure, Rudy had practically worn out his welcome before the 9/11 attacks (all the talk about extending his term in the wake of the attacks didn't help either). Would that the Senate race between him and Hilary Clinton had really come off--it might have provided the most chills, thrills, and spills since Lincoln and Douglas.

But Rudy's delivery last night--earnest, heartfelt, funny, caustic, emotional--was remarkable for a U.S. politician, especially one from New York; he embodied the city in all its haughty self-pride, its attractiveness and self-importance. It suggests that he really has a shot if he wants to move on to a bigger office, that he might avoid the elephant's graveyard that the Big Apple's mayoralty has traditionally represented. That job entombed John Lindsay and Ed Koch, similarly attractive figures, and in the end Mario Cuomo had to be relieved that his various attempts to become hizzoner were beaten back (though in retrospect, to paraphrase Milton's Satan, better to reign in Manhattan than serve in Albany).

But what was the meat of his speech? That when he saw the twin towers collapsing, he thanked god that George Bush was president. This works more as an implied negative comparison to Al Gore or John Kerry than as an affirmative embrace of Bush. One assumes that even Al Gore and John Kerry were glad not to be president that day.

Forget that it took Bush at least a couple of days to get his act together after 9/11 (and even then, he hardly delivered definitive speeches on the attacks and our response to them for some time, leaving that mostly to people like Rice, Rumsfeld, and Cheney). But the limit of Rudy's spiel is that it is tied to 9/11 and the immediate emotional response to the site of the towers collapsing into a cloud of dust.

Virtually everyone agrees that the U.S. attack on Afghanistan was completely justified by the Taliban's harboring of Bin Laden (more people disagree over both the fact of the occupation and certainly whether it is in fact going well).

Iraq obviously is a very different matter, both the fact of invasion and the ongoing occupation. Rudy's main gesture--a powerful emotional gambit--comes down to the Republican line that everything we've done in Iraq is a direct and necessary response to 9/11. Given that none of the primary and initial justifications for invading Iraq (Saddam links to 9/11, WMDs, etc) has been borne out and that even Bush has acknowledged that the occupation has been something of a "miscalculation," that equation should be at the heart of the foreign policy debate in this campaign.

That "miscalculation"--that is, arrogant presumptions about the ease of the reconstruction efforts both in Afghanistan and Iraq--has made it much more difficult for the Bush White House to respond to emerging threats within the Middle East, especially those emanating from Iran and Syria. Liberals and voters more generally are unhappy or wary of the war. And with an increasing number of conservatives questioning the war (George Will, William F. Buckley, and others have publicly questioned the decision), Bush has really limited his political options in the region. In a better election season, we'd be talking about these things.

But this is where the Bush team is lucky, and not simply to have a performer like Rudy G. on their squad. John Kerry, who has granted that he too would have invaded Iraq, offers no real alternative to Bush on this basic score, other than a vague and unbelievable suggestion that a completely undistinguished senator would be a more competent administrator.