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Party On

I very much enjoyed Thomas B. Edsall's story about Rudy Giuliani ("Party Boy," May 21). But let me pose a hypothetical: What if Colin Powell had run for the Republican nomination for president in 1996? The polls suggested that he could have won the nomination and the November election. Had he made a run, reporters would have lined up to say that he was "plausibly positioned to capitalize on--and perhaps drive--the reconfiguration of the Republican Party," and to "become a transformational figure at a crucial moment in the party's history: someone, like Goldwater [or] Reagan ... who could redefine how Republicans win elections and what the label 'conservative' means."

There was no shortage of commentators willing to bless Powell's mix of social liberalism, economic conservatism--his speech to the Republican convention in 1996 was tougher on entitlements than anyone else's--and what seemed at the time to be hawkishness. The first three major Republican victories after President Bush's reelection defeat in 1992 had seemed to support this narrative. Pro-choicers Paul Coverdell and Kay Bailey Hutchison had won special elections to the Senate, and then pro-choicer Christine Todd Whitman had won the governorship of New Jersey.

Since 1993, however, when those candidates won, the commentariat has generally judged the Republican Party to have gotten more socially conservative and less economically conservative. Those commentators who wanted the party to go in the opposite direction have been especially emphatic in this judgment. And those commentators were right in describing the political trajectory of the party, which makes Edsall's view that the Republican Party has moved toward Rudolph Giuliani all the more striking in its error.

The Republican Party of 2007, with Giuliani as the frontrunner, is no less socially conservative than the Republican Party of 1995, with Powell the frontrunner. It is true that the top donors to the party are less socially conservative than the rank and file--as is also true of the Democratic Party--yet that was true in both parties in 1995 as well. But even the Republican elite is more socially conservative than it used to be: Compare Ed Gillespie and Ken Mehlman, two recent party chairmen, to their predecessors Lee Atwater and Rich Bond on the issue of abortion, for example. It is true that party operatives do not dream of undoing the sexual revolution in toto. But neither do social conservatives generally, since that ambition would be insane.

It is true in 2007, as it was in 1995, that the frontrunner's celebrity and reputation for toughness on national security partially make up for his unconservatism on social issues with the Republican electorate. But if Giuliani wins the nomination, it will be because he has accommodated himself to his party's decades-long trend toward social conservatism, and not because he has bucked it.

Edsall quotes Gillespie, who claims that revelations about what Edsall calls Giuliani's "more centrist positions" have not reduced his poll numbers. In what country? RealClearPolitics's average of polls had Giuliani dropping from 38 to 28 percent among likely GOP voters between early March and mid-May. His lead over John McCain dropped from 17 to 6 points during the same period. During this period, the only two things that can plausibly be said to have changed the campaign's dynamics are increasing attention to Giuliani's support for abortion rights and the emergence as a possible candidate of Fred Thompson, who isn't part of "Rudy's party." And it stands to reason that some Republicans remain unaware of Giuliani's social-issue positions when even seasoned reporters cannot figure out what they are.

What Giuliani has going for him, as Edsall notes, are his record of managerial competence, the weaknesses of the other Republican presidential candidates, and the increased salience of national-security issues. But it is not clear that Giuliani's antiterrorism credentials can survive the primaries. His national-security policy seems to consist of an early awareness that terrorists are bad--see, for instance, his treatment of Yasir Arafat--and a general attitude of toughness. These traits do not obviously distinguish him from Senator Hillary Clinton, let alone from Senator John McCain.

Nor does Giuliani's penchant for "polarization" tell us much about his candidacy. Republican candidates have stood accused of this sin for a generation now, not least by Edsall. When Bill Clinton gets 49 percent of the vote, he is being a consensus-seeker; when George W. Bush gets 51 percent, he is a polarizer. (The last Democrat to get 51 percent of the vote was Lyndon Johnson, 43 years ago.) The concept of "polarization," like that of "wedge issues," tells us less about the people being analyzed than the people doing the analysis. In a general election, Fred Thompson or Mitt Romney would be accused of polarization just as much as Giuliani would be--and it wouldn't mean that they were part of "Rudy's party." As evidence of Giuliani's willingness to polarize, Edsall cites his claim that Americans would be safer under a Republican president than under a Democratic one. Any Republican nominee would say or imply the same, just as any Democratic nominee would say or imply the reverse.

It would also be a mistake to read too much into Giuliani's differences from the Republican mainstream. Take, for example, his opposition to health-care mandates and his support for letting people without insurance "not be taken care of." That statement--which doesn't sound as though it was the product of any detailed work by his policy shop--reinforces Edsall's thesis, in his recent book Building Red America, about Republicans' increasing tolerance for economic risk. But it runs counter to the general trend of Republican thinking about health care, which has been moving toward finding free-market versions of universal health coverage. (Edsall should talk to Mehlman about this issue.) Liberals may believe that the effect of Republican policies is to weaken society's safety net; but that is much less the stated end of those policies than it was, say, 20 years ago.

In some respects, of course, Republicans are more socially liberal than they used to be, just as society in general is. Republicans are less likely than they were 20 years ago to say that school boards should be able to fire gay employees or that AIDS is God's punishment to gays. But Republicans are more likely to be on the conservative side of those social issues that divide contemporary society than the Republicans of the 1970s and 1980s were to be on the conservative side of the social issues that divided their society. That Edsall has to dredge up such ancient issues--not to mention ancient voter categories like Reagan Democrats--tells us how weak his thesis is.

Edsall writes, "It is telling that Giuliani's fund-raising operation has tapped so deeply into Texas, a state where risk is central to the political and philosophical ethos." True. What it tells us is that his law firm is based in Houston.

--Ramesh Ponnuru

Thomas B. Edsall responds:

My central argument was summed up in the following sentence: "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." I stick by that point.

As for Ponnuru's allegation that "The Republican Party of 2007 is no less socially conservative than the Republican Party of 1995" -- a considerable body of poll data lays that misapprehension to rest. To quote from the Pew Research Center, which tracked respondents' answers to six questions testing social liberalism and conservatism: In 1987, 49 percent of those surveyed "gave conservative answers to at least four of the six questions. In 2007, just 30% did so. This trend has occurred in all major social, political, and demographic groups in the population. While Republicans remain significantly more conservative than Democrats or independents on social values, they too have become substantially less conservative over this period." (emphasis added)

The reality is the culture wars are over everywhere but in politics. The left has won on every front: television, movies, music, academia, public opinion, personal behavior, and in the views of younger voters. Most smart people in the Republican Party know this, and they understand that, at best, social conservatism is a rearguard action of diminishing utility in elections.

I am not predicting Giuliani as the Republican nominee in 2008. I quote numerous experts whose opinions carry weight. Most pithily, Charlie Cook: "If Giuliani wins, it means that everything that I have ever learned about Republican presidential nomination politics is wrong." My point was simply, to quote again from the story, "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."

The collateral damage, if you will, of the war on terrorism is the decreasing relevance of social/cultural issues and the plausibility--not the inevitable victory--of a libertine primary candidate like Giuliani.

By Ramesh Ponnuru