This is likely to be New Republic Day here at NewDonkey, given some interesting new stuff up on its site, along with the news that the venerable mag has been bought by a Canadian media firm that is presumably disconnected from its previous owners’ ideological shibboleths. More about all that later.But first up, I wanted to draw attention to a TNR Online debate over Rudy Giuliani’s viability as a candidate and as a potential president, involving two friends of mine: former American Prospect editor Mike Tomasky, and the New York polymath Fred Siegel, who wrote an admiring but not uncritical book about Rudy a few years ago. Up first, Tomasky focuses his Rudy-skeptic case (which I share) on Giuliani’s position on abortion, which is formally pro-choice but with lots of winks and nods indicating that he would make Supreme Court appointments guaranteed to doom Roe v. Wade.In passing, Tomasky says that Republicans have not “nominated a pro-choice candidate since Gerry Ford in 1976.”That raises a very interesting and pertinent question: among Republicans, what passes for a “pro-choice” position, and what doesn’t? Ford actually supported a constitutional amendment to overturn Roe v. Wade, and return abortion policy to the states. He did not, however (unlike his primary challenger Ronald Reagan) support the Human Life Amendment, which would have leapfrogged both the Supreme Court and the 50 states to endow human embryos, from the moment of conception, with “personhood” under the 14th Amendment.More than thirty years later, while support for a Human Life Amendment remains formally the position of virtually all anti-abortion groups, and of the Republican Party as expressed in its national platforms, nobody’s really serious about it. When Bob Dole said he didn’t feel bound by that platform plank in 1996, it created a lot of controversy on the Right. When George W. Bush said much the same thing in 2000 and 2004, it was regarded as something of a truism. Aside from the political and practical impossibility of the HLA, what changed, of course, was a significant enhancement of a non-constitutional, non-legislative strategy for overturning Roe: simply stacking the Supreme Court with “strict constructionists” who would perform a constitutional counter-revolution.Thanks to Bush’s SCOTUS appointments, right-to-lifers and their opponents think they may be one or two High Court appointments away from that fateful day. The big question now is whether the Bush message to social conservatives–I’m with you, but not vocally; and I’ll get it done indirectly through Court appointments–can be successfully replaced by the Giuliani message–I’m not with you, but not vocally; and I’ll also get it done indirectly through Court appointments.So for Rudy and his handlers, the big gamble is the hope that social conservatives have “matured” enough to accept a Republican nominee who will not even pay their formal positions the kind of lip-service they’ve grown to expect, in exchange for another GOP president who might give them what they actually, realistically want. And the X-factor here is that Rudy’s rather spotted ideological history (at least from the point of view of the Right) may require more explicit assurances to social conservatives that will make this whole double game unsustainable in a general election campaign.I hope this particular issue–a critical subset of Giuliani’s entire political case for nomination and election as president–continues to get serious attention in the Mike-versus-Fred debate as it rolls out.
TDS Strategy Memos
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By Ed Kilgore
Waiting for Joe Biden’s speech to a joint session of Congress to begin this week, I observed at New York that Republicans were struggling to define him consistently, which felt like a familiar problem for them:
When Bill Clinton was at the pre-Lewinsky peak of his powers, he drove Republicans nuts. They alternated between accusing him of “stealing our issues” with his triangulating pitches on welfare reform and crime and the size of government, and of being “liberal, liberal, liberal!” — a sort of boomer love child of George McGovern and Janis Joplin in a deceptive deep-fried southern packaging. Eventually the opportunity to depict him as a lying sexual predator solved the conservative dilemma, though you could argue he never stopped throwing them off-balance.
Republicans are similarly having problems getting a clear focus on Joe Biden, as the Los Angeles Times’ Noah Bierman observes:
“Alex Conant, a Republican consultant who has advised Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, [says] that his party’s two main messages about Biden are at odds with each other, blunting their impact. ‘The thing you hear Republicans say most is that he’s too old for the job, which isn’t consistent with saying he’s doing too much,’ Conant said. ‘You can’t effectively argue that he’s incompetent and that he’s too effective.'”
This dual framing of Biden was evident during the 2020 campaign, when Trump called him “Sleepy Joe” and with his usual lack of subtlety suggested his opponent was senile, even as he assailed Biden’s party of radical socialist aims. The 45th president and his surrogates squared the circle by treating Biden as the half-there puppet of the real powers, particularly the “communist” Kamala Harris.
But now, 100 days into the Biden-Harris administration, even though the new president has kept an unusually low profile, there are no signs of Harris or anyone else manipulating him. Indeed, so far his White House has been remarkably free of the factionalism that often undermines clear presidential leadership. With Clinton as president you had a White House staff famously divided (ironically, given the later reputations of the First Lady and the veep) into progressive “Rodhams” and centrist “Gores” who jockeyed for position and placed their varying stamps on administration policies. George W. Bush’s presidency was also marked by competing power centers (e.g., his terrifying vice-president and the “Boy Genius” Karl Rove); to a lesser extent, so was Obama’s. As for Donald Trump, hardly a week passed without someone — particularly his rotating cast of chiefs-of-staff — being described by “insiders” as the real power behind the throne or perhaps as the wild man’s lion-tamer.
Trump, of course, created some of the same problems for Democrats that Clinton — and now Biden — posed for Republicans. Was he the “toddler president” who ran a hollowed-out administration with no real core of convictions or goals? Or was he a putative Il Duce craftily planning an authoritarian takeover of the country? Up until the day he left office there was evidence for both descriptions. Indeed, the coda of his presidency, the January 6 Capitol riot, was variously regarded as a fascist coup attempt and a clown show.
Trump’s successor will have an opportunity in his first address to a joint session of Congress to add to the impression that he is quietly but firmly in charge of the executive branch, and has imposed order on his fractious party as he unveils yet another massive proposal. Kamala Harris will be sitting (and often standing and applauding) behind him, likely looking more like an adoring protégée than any sort of puppet-master. But if he stumbles at all, or looks tired, or says things that supposedly centrist Democrats like him don’t believe, the knees of many elephants will jerk and out will come the mockery of the old man who is a reassuring front for the Marxists actually running the country.
Such confusion if it continues will be of great service to Biden, much like the current Republican tendency to focus on irrelevant culture-war themes while a mostly united Democratic Party enacts legislative initiatives of a magnitude we haven’t seen since Ronald Reagan’s first year in office. For all their political gifts, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama — who, lest we forget, both had a much more firmly Democratic Senate and House the first two years of their presidencies — couldn’t come close to the mastery of Congress Biden has exhibited up until now. As Republicans watch Biden’s speech, they should soberly realize that before long it may not matter that much if they bust up the Democratic trifecta in 2022. The damage to GOP policies and priorities wrought by “Uncle Joe” and his “senile socialist regime” could be too large to reverse by then. While Republicans fret about Trump and rage about “cancel culture,” Biden is eating their lunch.