Rudy’s Gracious Exit

Thirty-six years ago, a New York mayor competing for the presidential nomination of his adopted party was crushed in the Florida primary. Political boss Meade Esposito of Brooklyn embarrassed the candidate by telling him, publicly, “Little Sheba, better come home.” And John Lindsay did, ending his bid for the 1972 Democratic presidential nomination.

Rudy Giuliani has returned after a similarly disastrous showing in Florida’s Republican primary. But he didn’t need to be prodded or shamed into dropping out of the race. He did so with grace and, it seemed, a sense of relief. Only a masochist would describe the grind of a presidential campaign as fun; grimmer still is a campaign that fails to meet expectations. Mr. Giuliani, touted as one of the Republican Party’s national stars as recently as six months ago, never caught on with the party faithful. It is hard to imagine the depth of his frustration and disappointment—and, perhaps, his relief when he had a chance to withdraw in favor of a friend, Senator John McCain of Arizona.

Was it all in vain? At the moment, it must seem that way. But months and years from now, when Mr. Giuliani and his supporters look back on the winter of 2007-08, they will do so with well-deserved pride. Mr. Giuliani’s very presence in the race was a milestone for the Republican Party as it attempts to disentangle itself from the dictates of single-minded evangelicals and ideologues who treat the party as a private club.

Mr. Giuliani was not, and is not, a cookie-cutter Republican whose life, experience and positions fit the demands of the party’s power brokers. His complicated family life, his positions on social issues like abortion and gay rights, his ethnicity and his New York attitude all marked him as an unlikely contender for the nomination of a party whose tent has gotten smaller and smaller since 1980.

Yet he attracted mainstream Republican support, and did so on his terms. The Rev. Pat Robertson, of all people, endorsed Mr. Giuliani despite their profound differences on social issues. That singular endorsement, though it proved futile in the short term, may well be remembered as the moment when Rudy Giuliani put an end to the Republican Party’s ideological contraction.

Mr. Giuliani’s campaign was not without strategic and tactical flaws. In hindsight, he should have made a greater commitment to New Hampshire, where those flinty, unpredictable Republicans might have lent an ear to the former mayor’s positions on economic and security issues. Instead, he was absent from the conversation and so was unable to counter Mr. McCain’s momentum.

It also bears mentioning that some New Yorkers, most notably the editorial page of The New York Times, are treating Mr. Giuliani’s exit as an occasion to retroactively bash the former mayor for his tenure in City Hall. This is more than a little absurd. Even his detractors must acknowledge that Rudy Giuliani put New York City firmly on the road to recovery, by bringing down crime and thereby removing a blanket of fear that had stalled residential and commercial development. Neighborhoods across the city are now flourishing. Mr. Giuliani also changed the culture of welfare, requiring welfare recipients to work long before federal government did. Mr. Giuliani has his flaws, but it is pointless to ignore his virtues.

For now, Rudy Giuliani can take some solace in knowing that he has helped changed the dynamics of the Republican Party. He is now free to focus on the important things in life—like assessing the chances of the 2008 New York Yankees.

Rudy’s Gracious Exit