Rudy’s Debate Trick: Don’t Answer!

Rudy Giuliani’s words were well received on numerous occasions in Sunday night’s Republican debate, but he won his biggest laughs of the evening when the subject turned to gay marriage.

Explaining his conditional opposition to a constitutional amendment that would define marriage, Mr. Giuliani called on his own experiences to establish his dedication to marriage as an institution.

“I did 210 weddings when I was mayor of New York City. So I have experience doing this. They were all men and women,” Mr. Giuliani pointed out. Then he paused and added: “I hope.”

You can never be quite sure in New York City, he explained.

It was a winning moment for Mr. Giuliani for two reasons.

One is that no one was mischievous enough to follow up by asking him in how many of those 210 weddings he was the groom.

The other is that it was yet another example of Mr. Giuliani’s surprising deftness at squirming free of potentially damaging lines of questioning and still managing to earn the audience’s sympathy and respect.

Mr. Giuliani hardly needs to corner the market on the conservative activists in his party who base their votes exclusively on issues like abortion and gay rights. What he can’t afford, though, is a messy food fight with them, something that the wrong answer on a topic like gay marriage could provoke.

In that sense, his answer in at the 90-minute debate, which took place in Orlando, was pitch perfect, sending friendly, non-threatening signals to adamant gay marriage foes designed to keep them from mobilizing against him en masse in the primary.

On the matter of a constitutional amendment, Mr. Giuliani took pains to present his position as consistent, arguing that he has always believed it’s a matter best left to the states. But then he half-reversed himself, nonchalantly noting that if multiple states—“two, three, six”—start legalizing gay marriage, he’d be fine with amending the constitution.

Never mind the logical inconsistencies of his argument: By invoking states’ rights and not flatly dismissing the amendment, Mr. Giuliani was essentially telling skeptics on the right that their differences are mechanical, not philosophical. And when he cracked his joke—a joke that was subtly homophobic and that relied on the stereotype of New York City as a den of hedonism—Mr. Giuliani intensified his psychological connection with those skeptics. Not bad for a man who was living with a gay couple when he was 57 years old. Mr. Giuliani’s skill was on display often, beginning just moments into the 90-minute broadcast when Chris Wallace, one of the questioners from the Fox News Channel, which sponsored the debate, tried to pit him in a one-on-one mini-debate over the question of who’s most conservative.

Rudy’s Debate Trick: Don’t Answer!