On the Gays, Rudy Goes Both Ways

121007 kornacki web2 On the Gays, Rudy Goes Both WaysIt just goes to show that in the world of Republican presidential politics, there’s no such thing as being too conservative on gay rights.

The news that Mike Huckabee advocated the quarantine of AIDS patients in 1992—the same year an H.I.V.-positive Magic Johnson was a starter on the gold medal-winning U.S. Olympic team and was named M.V.P. of the N.B.A.’s All-Star Game—is actually expected to boost his credibility with the Christian conservatives who hold sway in critical early primary and caucus states, like Iowa and South Carolina.

Obviously, Rudy Giuliani, who prodded the New York City Council to extend city benefits to same sex couples in the 1990’s and who shared an apartment with a gay couple when he was 56 years old, could never out-do, or even compete with, that kind of posturing.

But on the campaign trail, he’s been distancing himself from his once avowedly “pro-gay rights” past, trying to carve out some kind of middle ground that would make religious conservatives comfortable enough without exposing himself to charges of blatant, Romney-esque flip-flopping.

The tactic was on full display on Sunday, toward the end of the intense, hour-long Meet the Press grilling to which Mr. Giuliani had consented. Bringing up Mr. Huckabee’s freshly-unearthed ’92 statement, host Tim Russert asked if Mr. Giuliani agreed with another past Huckabee assertion, that homosexuality is an “aberrant, unnatural, and sinful lifestyle.”

“No, I don’t believe it’s sinful,” he replied, at first sounding very much like the same man who won two elections in New York.

But then he added a seemingly contradictory wrinkle: “My moral views on this come from the Catholic Church. I believe that homosexuality, heterosexuality, as a way of somebody leads their life isn’t sinful. It’s the acts—it’s the various acts that people perform that are sinful, not the orientation that they have.”

The tricky—and maybe even impossible—balancing act between Mr. Giuliani’s well-documented past and his desire to appeal to the right was painfully evident in this response.

Gays and lesbians themselves, according to church doctrine, are not to be condemned simply for feeling an attraction to the same sex. But acting on that attraction, no matter how natural it might be for the individual, is regarded as a sin. Moreover, the church extends this attitude to its public policy prescriptions, strongly opposing not just gay marriage, but virtually any legislation intended to give same-sex couples (or individuals) equal status under the law.

From a public policy standpoint, the Church’s view runs flatly counter to Mr. Giulaini’s actions as mayor (and many of his statement during his short-lived Senate bid in 2000). And there is little in Mr. Giuliani’s personal background—particularly his living arrangement a few years ago—to suggest he has any particular discomfort with homosexuals or the “various acts” that they might engage in.

He went on to note, unavoidably, that his own personal actions provide him ample grist for confession. But Mr. Giuliani’s answer to Mr. Russert left the clear impression that, like the Church and much of the Republican primary electorate, he believes homosexual actions to be sinful.

Consider carefully the apparent thought process seemingly at work. When Mr. Russert asked him point-blank if he thinks homosexuality is sinful, he realized that saying “yes” would expose him to a torrent of negative press, given his own history. So, for the sake of not being dubbed a blatant hypocrite and opportunist, he said “no.” But then, in the next breath, he set about downplaying the significance of his “no” answer and trying to build a bridge to the Christian right, making sure to invoke his own religion. “Love the sinner,” as many Christian conservatives like to say, “hate the sin.”

This sort of tortured logic has characterized Mr. Giuliani’s stated positions on social issues throughout the presidential campaign. He has tried to play the same middle ground game on abortion, with an equally incomprehensible result. He has stuck with his long-standing position that a woman has the right to choose whether to have an abortion. But, to soften the blow to the right, he promises that he’ll pack the courts with “strict constructionists”—jurists who could make it possible for women to be thrown in prison for exercising a choice that Mr. Giuliani believes they have the right to make.

A few weeks ago, it seemed like none of this would matter: So much of the right was predisposed to like Mr. Giuliani and view him as most electable Republican that they’d rationalize their way to accepting his half-hearted social issues rhetoric. But then came Bernie Kerik, Judi-gate, business dealings with Qatar, all conspiring to send his poll numbers into decline.

Mr. Giuliani is gamely coming up with ever more novel excuses for his newfound conservative beliefs. The question now is whether conservatives are still willing to make excuses for him.