It’s certainly no news to New Yorkers that former Mayor Rudy Giuliani has a taste for the theatrical. Long before the World Trade Center towers fell, the mayor had a penchant for making morbid cameos at accidents and crime scenes, usually just as 11 p.m. news crews arrived, as though Mr. Giuliani were both Commissioner Gordon and Batman in New York’s war against crime and acts of God.
So it was scarcely a surprise when Mr. Giuliani, taking the stage at a candidate forum convened by the National Rifle Association last week to recite his law-and-order record, was interrupted by a cutesy cellphone call from his wife. And it was only a mild further embarrassment when the operatives of Mitt Romney’s campaign dug up and distributed a video clip of an earlier Giuliani appearance before a group of Cuban Americans back in June when the exact same folksy interruption occurred, with Giuliani again mugging to the crowd and asking his wife—or whoever was on the other end of the line—whether she wanted to say anything to the crowd.
Of course, this being the G.O.P. primary season, the message of this crass set piece wasn’t “I am saving your cities in the dead of night” but “Three divorces and estranged adult children notwithstanding, I’m still all about the family values.” (There was an additional dividend for Mr. Giuliani in last weekend’s coy “interruption”: The conservative news site Free Republic notes that it happened just as the mayor was mistakenly quoting the language of the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution, forbidding illegal search and seizure, when he was supposed to be citing the N.R.A.’s beloved Second Amendment, guaranteeing the right to bear arms—and when he was done mugging, the mayor of course changed the subject entirely.)
What’s ultimately striking about Mr. Giuliani’s minor image stumble, though, is how it mirrors the entire G.O.P. field’s preoccupation with personal symbolism over the awkward business of demonstrating actual governing credentials. The most recently announced entrant, former Senator Fred Thompson, hasn’t bothered to produce a platform stating much of anything—perhaps a shrewd move, given that his lobbying and governing record openly contradicts many of the conservative positions his fatigued base supporters desperately want him to embrace. Onetime front-runner Senator John McCain saw the writing on the wall when his numbers plummeted alongside the Senate immigration overhaul he supported last year, and now generates wild applause at V.F.W. halls for cheaply assailing the patriotic character—and in at least one case, advocating the deportation—of antiwar group MoveOn.org for treating Gen. David H. Petraeus as something less than a household saint in a New York Times advertisement. And Mitt Romney, a supporter of reproductive choice, mandatory government-backed health care, and civil rights for gays while governor of Massachusetts, spent the weekend mounting barely coherent attacks on the A.C.L.U. and delivering a rousing appeal to display “In God We Trust” more prominently on the nation’s currency.
All this high-symbolic flailing does at least two things. It distracts voters’ attention from the Republican top tier’s inability to offer any sound alternative to the Bush White House’s disastrous prosecution of the Iraq war. And it neatly leverages the media’s lack of curiosity about policy and genuine ideological debate into dreary who-did-what-when anatomies of gaffes and flubbed pandering opportunities that is to political analysis what plane-spotting is to high-energy physics. As a result, if candidates shriek loudly enough about MoveOn’s designation of General Petraeus as “General Betray Us?”, then no one has to discuss the many ways in which General Petraeus’ testimony before Congress contradicted the far glummer findings on the state of the war and the Iraqi government’s long-term viability reported by the nonpartisan General Accounting Office.
Thus are patent idiocies, such as last week’s pair of Senate resolutions targeting a paid advertisement in The New York Times, turned into items of political necessity, at least for on-the-make presidential candidates. And thus are the nation’s voters left to wonder how it is, exactly, that many of these same tribunes of the people argue just as passionately against all curbs on money’s distortions of the political process as dangerous slippery-slope violations of the First Amendment.
But perhaps the grimmest joke of all is that this cycle, the Republicans’ Lee Atwater revival movement is playing to an ever-more-indifferent house. Last week, after all, also saw the convening of the Republicans’ first ever “Values Voter” candidates’ forum, a gathering of precisely no top-tier G.O.P. candidates before lions of the evangelical right like Paul Weyrich, Don Wildmon and Phyllis Schlafly. The event played to virtually no public notice beyond the conservative talk radio and Christian television world. Which is not to say it wasn’t newsworthy: The event opened with a rewritten version of Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America”; the song’s new chorus asked, “Why should God bless America?/ She’s forgotten he exists/ And turned her back on everything/ That made her what she is.” (The verses featured such hummable prooftexts as this: “The courts ruled prayer out of our schools/ In June of ’62/ Told the children ‘you are your own God now/ So you can make the rules’ ”)
Quite sensibly, the G.O.P.’s top four presidential hopefuls— Messrs. Giuliani, Thompson, McCain and Romney—sized up this America-bashing conclave as a game not worth the candle. And indeed, with the purist wing of the evangelical right in high dudgeon not just over school prayer, but also the immigration bill, growing tolerance for gay marriage and lackluster progress on getting more hard-line conservatives appointed to the federal bench, the feeling may well be mutual. Party strategists are already worrying that the G.O.P.’s fabled base, the “values” voters, may well sit out the 2008 election in greater numbers than they did in 2006, when by some accounts the Mark Foley congressional page scandal prompted many religious base voters to abandon the party and even, horror of horrors, to throw support behind so-called red-state Democrats like pro-gun Virginia Senator James Webb and his anti-abortion Pennsylvania colleague Bob Casey Jr.. And that prospect underlines a still more sobering difficulty for the post-Rove G.O.P.: For all the media’s reflexive cowering before the mystical king-making powers of the values voter, many evangelicals do not need a great deal of nudging to retreat entirely from the political process—such withdrawal is, indeed, the fallback position of many evangelicals, since it’s ultimately in greater accord with the millennialist view that much of the world is transitory and hell-bound. In other words: Your phony family stage props won’t get you into heaven anymore.