Rudy Giuliani is taking a big gamble. Rather than fundamentally shift his views on abortion, he is banking that Republicans want a leader and a winner more than a pro-life advocate. In a key speech on Friday and an appearance on Fox News Sunday with Chris Wallace he made clear he believes in a woman’s right to choose but offered some accommodations to pro-life voters.
On Friday he rolled the dice, venturing into potentially hostile territory at Houston’s Baptist University. Like Woody Allen, he apparently hoped his audience would agree that 90% of life is showing up. The speech was necessitated by the rockiest week and a half of his campaign.
At the first Presidential debate his response that it would be “okay” if Roe v. Wade was reversed and “okay” if not engendered loud criticism from pro-life advocates and sharp elbows from John McCain and his campaign chief John Weaver who labeled him out of the “mainstream” and a “long shot” to win the presidency.
When news broke last week that he had donated to Planned Parenthood and completed a NARAL survey indicating across the board support for pro-choice positions, it was clear the campaign had to respond. Having witnessed the fate of Mitt Romney (who is now followed on the campaign trail by people in “flip flop” costumes,) there was arguably little upside in a dramatic departure from his past views.
Giuliani’s approach was three fold: 1) emphasize the leadership skills and issues which he hopes will transcend differences in the GOP on social issues; 2) give a pitch for a “Big Tent”; and 3) tell the audience what “things that I can evolve on and the things that I can’t.”
In an introduction that pleased the Giuliani camp, the president of the University, analogizing to a Houston speech by John Kennedy who came to explain his independence from the Pope’s dictates, explained : “Today’s speech may justifiably raise echoes of 47 years ago as a Presidential candidate, who’s also a Catholic, speaks in the historically Protestant venue of Houston Baptist University.”
The bulk of his speech focused on issues which he deems more critical to the country’s future: being on “offense on terrorism and the private economy.” Reminding the audience of the Ft. Dix plot, he bluntly declared that we “live in a world where people plan on coming here to kill us.” As for economics, he declared himself the strongest fiscal conservative in the race. He also made his most detailed statements on the Second Amendment, praising the recent Parker case striking down the Washington D.C. handgun ban and agreeing with the court’s ruling that there is an individual right to own a weapon akin to individual rights in the First and other amendments. He also said “domestic partnership should not be a substitute for marriage” and clearly said he opposed the recent New Hampshire domestic partnership law.
Giuliani made the Reagan appeal: we agree on many things, especially the big things, and I am a leader to accomplish those big things.
Second, he made the Big Tent appeal, saying: “If we don’t unite, if we don’t find a way of uniting around broad principles that will appeal to a large segment of this country, if we can’t figure that out, we are going to lose this election. We cannot go into the next election the same way that we went into the last two.” He suggested that if the Big Tent breaks apart the Democrats will win the White House and those “very, very big things, like Where do we go on terror? Where do we go on the economy?” will be at risk.
Lastly he drew a distinction between his core beliefs on abortion that he says have not changed and those items where his views have changed over time. He was clear what would not change: his personal opposition to abortion but his belief in ultimately leaving the decision to women. He then explained that he had reconsidered his views on a partial birth abortion ban (now he supports it) and the Hyde Amendment (he now would leave it in place.)
As to Roe v. Wade itself, he offered this: 1) a promise that he would appoint strict constructionist judges who would look at the “the words of the Constitution” and “what did the framers mean,” citing the Parker case as a good example of strict constructionist judging, and 2) a caution that a judge should “not become a legislator,” reasoning that that this is a “guarantee of your liberty” and a protection that democratically elected legislators make decisions. Nevertheless, he did not specifically state — as many conservative pundits have urged him to do– whether he thought Roe was an example of just this type of undemocratic legislating by the courts.
Giuliani campaign officials were gratified by the response and the coverage which quoted attendees positive reaction to the speech. Students and faculty gave him a standing ovation and praised his candor. Nevertheless, criticism was swift and severe from leaders like Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention and Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council, a sign that one-issue pro-life voters remain an organized and forceful component of the Republican Party.
It is worth mentioning that Giuliani spoke, in the most important speech of the campaign, without a script and in a conversational and at times humorous style — even interrupting to kiss a baby sporting a “I love NY” t-shirt. A candidate who is not scriptable but who, at his best, connects with voters in a fundamentally emotional way can be a blessing as well as a headache for a campaign.
Giuliani picked up where he left off on Friday in his interview with Chris Wallace who elicited the most specific answers yet on his abortion views. On Roe, Giuliani reiterated his pledge to appoint strict constructionist judges, with the proviso that those judges may bow to precedent and leave Roe in place. Nevertheless he declared: “We have a federal system. States would make decisions. We’re already doing that with the Hyde Amendment. States make their own decisions.”
As he did on Friday Giuliani responded to Wallace’s question by affirming his support of parental notification and the partial birth abortion ban. He also stated that he would be open to other restrictions on abortion and would not seek to tamper with the GOP’s platform on abortion.
On why he found abortion wrong he stated: “I think having the child is a much better decision. I think it’s a much better moral decision. I think it’s much better for society.”
Pressed as to whether he considers embryos which may be used for stem cell research to be human life he demurred, saying “I don’t think it’s for me to decide. I can’t decide when life begins.”
WILL IT WORK?
It remains to be seen whether a pro-choice candidate who promises to appoint conservative judges and support some abortion restrictions can win the Republican nomination. The answer may turn on whether the voters accept that he is the best person to keep people from “coming here to kill us.”
In tomorrow’s South Carolina Republican candidate debate, Giuliani will no doubt face aggressive questions and barbs from his pro-life opponents. With a flock of candidates and strict time constraints, he will need to offer concise explanations of his views and will lack the luxury of time to engage the audience.
If that doesn’t go well, the Giuliani camp can always track down Houston speech attendee, Josh Ureke, described by the Washington Post as sporting a "Jesus Freak" t-shirt and saying that he finds abortion immoral but agrees with Giuliani that the decision "ultimately, is up to the woman." He may be the best spokesman Giuliani will find.