Mugger: Rudy, Can you hear me?

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Rudy Giuliani can win the presidency next November, despite the prevailing mantra of “change” heard in states blue and red, but it will require a lot more guts than he’s currently displaying in his GOP primary campaign against weak opponents. By all indications, Giuliani has escaped the wrath of the majority of social conservatives over his pro-choice/gay rights bona fides. However, if he intends to buck a political environment rife for a Democratic retrieval of the White House and massive gains in Congress, he’ll have to tell the truth on one of the most explosive issues facing Americans in this decade: illegal immigration.

So far, Mr. Big Stuff is not up to the task.

The predicament facing Giuliani is not without recent precedent. Sixteen years ago, when the first President Bush was at the peak of his popularity after successfully expelling Saddam Hussein from Kuwait, liberal commentator Michael Kinsley was irritated at the lack of nationally known Democrats who were willing to challenge the incumbent. Suppose the odds of toppling Bush during summer 1991 were only one in five, Kinsley mused; why wouldn’t potential candidates, such as Al Gore, Mario Cuomo, Bill Bradley, Sam Nunn or Dick Gephardt, knowing how political currents can change almost overnight, take a shot at the White House?

None did, of course, which created an opening for little-known Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton, who initially, upon his entry into the race in the fall of ’91, thought he’d be making a dry run for the ’96 election. Subsequently, Bush’s Gulf War sheen faded, the economy soured, Ross Perot thrust his nutty populist pastiche into the fray, conservatives held Bush accountable for his reversal on tax hikes and Clinton served two terms in the White House. Clinton’s victory was testament to his shrewd political strategy, luck and, most of all, the balls to challenge a sitting president when no presumptive front-runner for the Democratic nomination would do so.

The analogy isn’t precise, but Giuliani has the same opportunity to upend the current expectation of the political and media establishment that Hillary Clinton will not only lock up her party’s nomination by next February, but will also win the general election 13 months from now. But while Giuliani is confounding “experts” so far with his surprising strength with Republican primary voters—despite his socially moderate views and creepy personal life—even if he does defeat Mitt Romney, John McCain and Fred Thompson for the nomination, his campaign doesn’t apparently have any coherent plans to compete against Hillary (or perhaps Barack Obama) for a November ’08 match-up.

New York magazine’s John Heilemann, in a well-argued piece from last week’s issue, suggested that Giuliani’s fatal flaw is his tendency to “divide and conquer, polarize and demonize,” a tactic that, in the columnist’s view, won’t represent a clean break from George W. Bush, whose popularity is not exactly robust even among Republicans. That’s a reasonable scenario and could prove correct, but I don’t believe that’s the biggest hurdle facing “America’s Mayor.” While there isn’t a lot of support for Bush’s level of engagement in the Middle East, there’s no national mandate for an almost complete withdrawal from Iraq and the justified fear of domestic terrorism still trumps an issue like universal health care among the approximately 10-15 percent of independent and “swing” voters who will decide the election.

I don’t care for Giuliani at all—although after living in Manhattan under the last gasping, burnt-out years of Ed Koch and the out-of-his-league David Dinkins, I’ll grant that Rudy was, for all his bellicosity, a very effective mayor—but his economic and foreign policy views are preferable to those of any Democrat. What I don’t understand is why Giuliani, who’s leading in most Republican polls, has decided to pander to the increasingly virulent foes of immigration, illegal or legal.

The divide over immigration in the United States, already hostile, has yet to reach a crescendo, with the specter of border vigilantes trying to enforce a backwoods kind of justice not just a fantasy. During the 1990s, Mayor Giuliani was more than tolerant of the immigrants who lived and worked in New York; while not condoning criminal activity by illegals, he championed the moral imperative, and historical precedent, of celebrating a city and country that welcomes people from foreign shores. Today, when accused by empty suit Mitt Romney of having presided over a “sanctuary city,” Giuliani mumbles a few words about border enforcement and changes the topic as quickly as possible.

Giuliani’s faults—like Hillary Clinton’s—could fill a warehouse, but it’s hard to believe that he’s experienced a Tom Tancredo-like epiphany about punishing and expelling Hispanics as quickly as possible. It’s also stupid politics: Yes, Giuliani could get roughed up in debates if he took a pro-immigration stance (although not from McCain), but unless he commits a major blunder he’s likely to win the GOP nod. And that nomination will be worthless if he can’t duplicate President Bush’s draw of 40 percent of the Hispanic vote in ’04.

Giuliani’s campaign claims, somewhat ludicrously at this point, that he’ll put the Northeast into play in the general election; that won’t happen if he continues on his current course. The New York Times ran a smart editorial last week about the government’s unconscionable Long Island raids of immigrants, many of them legal residents, in a botched effort to apprehend gang members.

The bold move for Giuliani is to publicly embrace that position, and give credit to The Times. It could be risky, but the shock that he’d agree with The Times on anything, especially after buying space in the paper condemning the advertisement condemning Gen. Petraeus, would catch everyone off guard. It’s a political tactic out of Bill Clinton’s playbook and, more important, the right thing to do.

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