If Rudy Giuliani were a Democrat, we might now be talking about his bright future on the national political stage. For whatever reason, the keynote speaking slot at the Democratic convention has evolved to serve as an unveiling of one of the party’s rising or underexposed political talents. Mario Cuomo, Evan Bayh, Harold Ford and some guy named Barack Obama are all recent alumni.
But the Republican keynote slot that Giuliani was selected for on Wednesday to fill has a different pedigree. G.O.P. keynoters tend either to be established political stars — like Colin Powell in 2000 — or to be less obviously ambitious politicians chosen because they have specific attributes that (in theory, anyway) will help with the party’s general election imperatives. Thirty-eight-year-old Susan Molinari, for instance, was an appropriate choice for the 1996 convention, given 73-year-old nominee Bob Dole’s trouble connecting with women and younger voters.
Since 1980, only two Republican keynoters — Jeane Kirkpatrick of 1984 and Phil Gramm of 1992 — were subsequently talked up as potential future national candidates (with only Gramm, disastrously, pursuing it). The rest — Powell, Molinari, 1980’s Guy Vander Jagt, 1988’s Tom Kean, and 2004’s Zell Miller — weren’t interested in using the role for those purposes. Giuliani, humbled by his foray into presidential politics this year, now clearly fits into the latter group.
The choice of the pro-choice and pro-gay-rights Giuliani is also consistent with the G.O.P.’s unofficial tradition of using the keynote to showcase moderate and independent-friendly leaders. Vander Jagt and Gramm are the only two keynoters since ’80 who were ideologically in tune with the G.O.P. base across the board. Kirkpatrick and Miller weren’t even registered Republicans, but their rhetoric (Kirkpatrick branded the Democrats the “Blame America First Party” while Miller told the G.O.P. that the Democrats wouldn’t protect his family) electrified the hall — and had the added benefit, given their nominal status as Democrats, of sounding more conscientious to viewers at home than a typical convention speech.
There is, unsurprisingly, some grumbling from the right that John McCain, who supposedly faces a threat of sizable defections from conservative voters this fall, didn’t take the opportunity to tap a more conservative-friendly voice as the convention’s keynoter. But Giuliani is actually a very logical pick, and one that won’t hurt McCain at all.
First, McCain’s “problem” with the right is dramatically overstated. He is receiving the level of support from self-identified Republicans that a G.O.P. nominee is supposed to enjoy — there are not hordes of suspicious conservatives holding back. This isn’t because conservatives have all decided that they like and trust McCain — many of them don’t and never will — but simply because they have discovered a powerful dislike for and fear of Barack Obama. No matter; it has largely solved McCain’s problem with the base, although this hasn’t stopped the right’s “leaders” from pretending there still is one, since their status and identity in politics requires them to assume such a posture.
Also, it’s not as if Giuliani, who as a presidential candidate took pains to avoid even mentioning his pro-choice views, will deliver an address that dwells on the areas on which he disagrees with the party base. Almost certainly, his speech will be devoid of the words “abortion,” “gay,” “guns,” and “immigration.” Instead, he’ll bash and pummel Obama and the Democrats and talk up McCain as a brave warrior-patriot ready to lead the country into battle against the same enemies that Obama would appease. Or something like that. The point is, Giuliani is perfectly capable of delivering the kind of red meat that the right likes to hear. In fact, he already did it back in 2004.
That is essentially the compromise that the Republican Party’s tacticians have struck with the conservative base in recent times: We’re going to showcase faces and voices that won’t scare middle-of-the-road Americans, the strategists say, but we promise they’ll show respect for you. Giuliani and Arnold Schwarzenegger both spoke in prime time in 2004 and brought the house down — just as their presence attracted much more attention from casual viewers at home than a generic conservative senator might have. In 2000, convention-planners were so obsessed with projecting a friendly, moderate image that they lined up speaking slots for seemingly every black elected Republican official in the country — giving rise to the joke that the G.O.P. convention was just like an NBA game, with all of the black faces on the stage and all of the white ones in the crowd.
If there is a problem with Giuliani’s selection, it’s the matter of how badly his woeful presidential campaign has tarnished his standing with casual voters. When he addressed the ’04 convention, Giuliani did so at the height of his global popularity, just three years removed from the national tragedy that turned him into “America’s Mayor.” But little of the magic that Americans saw in him in the wake of 9/11 was on display in Giuliani’s presidential campaign this year. His words this summer will not carry the same authority and command that they did four years ago.
Still, Giuliani remains a relative celebrity. And even though he didn’t win many of their votes, he studiously avoided getting into any fights with socially conservative Republicans in his White House campaign. He is perfectly capable of delivering a speech that will sit well with the party base while prompting casual television viewers to perk up. No one will be talking about a 2012 or 2016 White House campaign when it’s over, but neither will anyone be accusing Giuliani of hurting McCain with conservatives.