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Giuliani and the Right's Shifting Priorities

By Robert Tracinski

Wednesday's newspapers carried two headlines so improbable that they almost made me spit out my coffee. The first: "French President Says America 'Can Count on France'." The second: "Pat Robertson Endorses Giuliani."

The two headlines seem equally unlikely. We haven't been able to count on the French since about 1918, and it was far from obvious that a champion of "family values" and a leader of the religious right would endorse the candidacy for president of a twice-divorced, pro-abortion-rights semi-lapsed Catholic.

Robertson's endorsement is a tectonic shift, not just in the Republican race for the presidential nomination, but in the party's very identity and agenda.

The significance of this announcement is not the direct effect of Robertson's endorsement. Robertson is an aging figure whose heyday was in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and he has lost influence in the past decade thanks to a series of public pronouncements that came across as, well, nutty. Most notoriously, just after the September 11 terrorist attacks he declared them to be God's punishment of America for our sinful secular ways--an opinion that came a little too close to the religious outlook of our enemies. So Robertson may no longer move the votes of millions, if he ever did. But his approval of Giuliani has a profound symbolic significance, because it shows what is possible in the coming election year.

Robertson's endorsement is a test case that provides a "proof of concept"--as engineers call it--for the whole theory behind the Giuliani candidacy.

Rudy Giuliani's candidacy is based on the premise that the abortion "litmus test" is over. It can be argued that Giuliani has changed his economic convictions to suit the Republican "base," adopting tax-cutting, privatizing, small-government policies that he had not supported earlier in his career. But he has pointedly refused to change his convictions about key religious issues like a woman's right to an abortion and civil unions for homosexual couples. How, then, does he expect to win the nomination?

The whole theory behind Giuliani's campaign is that religious Republican voters will regard the War on Terrorism--and, secondarily, Giuliani's pro-free-market platform--as more important than a ban on abortion or on "gay marriage." And when it comes to those tertiary "social agenda" issues, the Giuliani campaign assumed that it could satisfy conservatives with nothing more than a promise to appoint "strict constructionist" judges to the federal courts.

And all of this is precisely what Robertson said in his endorsement. Here is the central paragraph of Robertson's announcement:

To me, the overriding issue before the American people is the defense of our population from the blood lust of Islamic terrorists. Our second goal should be the control of massive government waste and crushing federal deficits. Uppermost in the minds of social conservatives is the selection of future Supreme Court justices and lower court judges who will sit in both the federal circuit courts and the district courts.

I have argued that Giuliani's candidacy is a test of the priorities of the right. And there you have the priority list: Islamic terrorism first, small government second, judges third.

And if this is how Pat Robertson looks at the election, how many other religious voters will do the same?

That's why this endorsement is so significant: it is a precise and thorough validation of the premise behind Giuliani's candidacy.

The potential implications reach far beyond Giuliani's presidential prospects. Up to now, most Republican politicians have based their campaigns on an opposition premise: that to win the support of the Republican "base," it is necessary to conform to the agenda of the religious right. Call it the Mitt Romney Theory. But if Giuliani wins the nomination, and then goes on to win the general election, how many Republican politicians will feel emboldened to adopt Giuliani's position?

What we may be witnessing is a significant political retreat by the religious right. Compare Robertson's endorsement of Giuliani to what is arguably the high point of the influence of the religious right: Pat Buchanan's infamous speech at the 1992 Republican National Convention in which he declared that the president should use his "bully pulpit" to "champion...Judeo-Christian values" in a "religious war...for the soul of America." Buchanan wanted the Republican Party to define itself, in essence, as a religious party fighting for a religious cause. And if you were to look for a leader to fight such a religious war--let's just say that Rudy Giuliani would not be your man.

But Pat Buchanan left the Republican Party a decade ago, and now we have reached the point at which a long-time top leader of the religious right has conceded that the religious social agenda should not be the Republican Party's "overriding" concern.

Instead, the religious right has apparently accepted much more modest political goals, settling for Rudy Giuliani's promise about judges. There is no reason to doubt the sincerity of Giuliani's promise--but that promise contains no concrete assurances for the religious right's agenda. There is wide room for interpretation of what is a "strict constructionist" judge, and there is no guarantee that such a judge would rule in favor of the religious right. In fact, if he's doing his job right, he will "strictly construct" the First Amendment to ban the use of government power to support religion.

Like Giuliani's declaration to a conference of "values voters" that the religious right has "nothing to fear" from him, Giuliani's promise on judges is essentially negative. It is not about what he will do for the religious right; it is about what he will not do to them. Giuliani has not promised to appoint judges who will overturn Roe v. Wade. He has promised not to appoint the kind of judges Hillary Clinton would send to the courts: free-wheeling "living constitution" types who would be guaranteed to preserve Roe v. Wade for at least another generation.

In short, the religious right is preparing itself to settle for a kind of bare minimum from the Republican presidential candidate. It is preparing itself to subordinate its religious agenda to a secular agenda. I don't mean that Republicans in general, or religious voters in particular, will become atheists or drop their religious beliefs, but rather that they will accept that their political preferences are--and should be--driven primarily by the secular concerns of war and taxes.

I say that they are preparing for this downshift in their agenda, because many have not yet settled on Giuliani. The primaries are still months away, and his campaign is still far from securing the nomination. But Robertson's endorsement has demonstrated that it is possible.

A new poll also reveals that it is likely. Not only does Giuliani lead as the candidate who is the first choice of Republican voters; he also leads as the second choice of Republican voters. This indicates a high level of comfort with Giuliani, even among Republicans who would prefer other, more religious candidates. In short, many of the Republicans who aren't backing Giuliani now will gladly accept him later.

If that's the case, then the era of a more-secular Republican Party--a party whose main concerns are a strong national defense and limited government--may be at hand.

Robert Tracinski writes daily commentary at TIADaily.com. He is the editor of The Intellectual Activist and TIADaily.com.

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