A Very Silly Idea About Barack Obama and Rudy Giuliani

Can we please put to rest the notion that Rudy Giuliani, he of the $57 million delegate, is poised for a second White House bid in 2012—and that the Obama White House, panicked by this prospect, is now trying to push David Paterson aside simply to thwart Rudy?

The idea should be absurd on its face, and yet it’s rapidly making its way into the mainstream. Karl Rove, whose supposed strategic genius was treated as a given by the media until his ballyhooed “permanent Republican majority” fell apart after 24 months, told The New York Times on Tuesday (presumably with a straight face) that the only reason the White House wants Paterson out “is to try to strangle a potential opponent in 2012.”

Other prominent voices with considerably more New York expertise than Rove are buying in, too.

Tell me: when in the era of modern presidential politics has a candidate run a campaign as epically disastrous as Giuliani’s 2008 effort only to emerge four years later and run again, much less capture his party’s nomination? The answer, of course, is never. And there’s absolutely no reason to think Giuliani will somehow be the exception to the rule.

To appreciate the insanity of the Rudy ’12 talk, let’s take a quick look back at the history of recent “second chance” White House candidates—that is, those who ran for the first time and lost, then followed it up with a second bid four years later. The key, it should be clear, is that each of these candidates performed surprisingly well in his first bid, thus making a follow-up run plausible:

* John Edwards (2004 and 2008): If their order had been reversed in the 2004 Iowa caucuses, it may well have been Edwards—and not John Kerry—who went on to win that year’s Democratic nomination. As it was, Edwards’ second-place performance, in Iowa and in the entire primary process, was enough to certify him as a logical second-chance candidate for 2008.

* Lamar Alexander (1996 and 2000): The former Tennessee governor began the 1996 Republican campaign in anonymity, but his plaid shirts, pleasant demeanor and “ABC” slogan (“Alexander Beats Clinton”) helped him stand out against old Bob Dole and gruff Pat Buchanan. He finished a very close third in New Hampshire (behind Buchanan and Dole) and Dole later admitted that, had Alexander edged him out for second, he would have dropped out—which might have cleared the way for Alexander to knock off Buchanan in subsequent states and claim the nomination.

This near-miss made Alexander an obvious second-chance candidate for 2000 (although, like many other G.O.P. candidates that year, he ended his campaign early when the extent of George W. Bush’s financial monopoly became clear).

* Steve Forbes (1996 and 2000): The publishing magnate was a late entrant in the ’96 G.O.P. race (he announced in September 1995), but he used his deep pockets to flood the airwaves with ads promoting a flat tax, establishing himself as the voice of the party’s Jack Kemp/supply-side wing. He also launched vicious attack ads that targeted Dole. Very briefly in January ’96, Forbes took the lead in polls, though he quickly fell back.

Still, he ended up winning a few states—a far better performance than anyone expected when he jumped in. From the moment his campaign ended, it was assumed he’d take another shot in 2000.

* Pat Buchanan (1992 and 1996): Yes, he also ran in 2000, but we’ll focus on Buchanan’s first two campaigns. His ’92 effort against George H.W. Bush began just 10 weeks before the New Hampshire primary, and his challenge to the sitting president was widely regarded as a nuisance.

But Buchanan tapped into populist resentment of Bush’s tax hikes and his seeming obliviousness to the faltering economy. He ended up scoring a Gene McCarthy-like moral victory in New Hampshire, losing to the incumbent by a respectable 16 points (early on primary night, the margin looked like it would be much closer). “I think King George is getting the message,” Buchanan told his supporters that night. He ended up accumulating more than three million votes during the primary season—not nearly enough to catch Bush, but plenty to build excitement for a second try in ’96.

* Jesse Jackson (1984 and 1988): “God is not finished with me yet,” Jackson, then 42, promised his supporters in a memorable 1984 convention speech. During that campaign, the civil rights leader had racked up 3.5 million votes—a breakthrough for a black candidate—and proven wrong skeptics who’d figured he’d be an afterthought. Jackson went on to double his vote total in 1988 and, after a shocking landslide win in Michigan that March, emerging for one amazing week as the Democratic front-runner (a role he surrendered when he was walloped in the New York primary).

* Gary Hart (1984 and 1988): Hart’s 1988 effort (or at least the early, pre-Donna Rice phase of it) is a classic second-chance campaign. After rocketing from obscurity to international fame and nearly stealing the 1984 nomination from Walter Mondale, he began the ’88 cycle (after the then-obligatory announcement by Ted Kennedy that he wouldn’t run) as the overwhelming favorite. Had scandal not capsized his campaign in May 1987, he probably would have been the Democratic nominee.

* Jerry Brown (1976 and 1980): Back in ’76, it was still possible for candidates to wait until the spring of an election year to jump into the race, hoping to win a few late primaries, build momentum, and grab the nomination at the convention. This was Brown’s game plan, and it nearly worked, as he upset Jimmy Carter in a string of primaries in May and early June, spurring talk that Democrats might dump Carter in favor of the 36-year-old California governor at the convention. But Carter survived, thanks in part to a key win in Ohio. After this showing, it made perfect sense for Brown to try again in 1980, but the star power of that year’s Democratic race—Carter vs. Kennedy—relegated him to a supporting role, and he failed to muster a credible showing.

* Ronald Reagan (1976 and 1980): Technically, ’76 was Reagan’s second campaign (he’d made a late convention-season push for the 1968 nomination), but it was his first full-fledged effort. Like Hart in ’84, he took the party establishment’s choice—incumbent Gerald Ford—to the wire in a months-long primary odyssey that wasn’t officially over until the convention. Like all of those listed above, Reagan gained credibility from this first-time performance, allowing him to enter the 1980 race in strong shape. The rest is history.

(I’m leaving fringe two-time candidates, like Dennis Kucinich and Alan Keyes, off this list.)

Giuliani, it should be obvious, simply doesn’t belong in this company. His campaign, which began with immense promise, was an utter train wreck. He won zero states, one delegate, and was outpolled by Ron Paul. In no primary or caucus did he exceed expectations. Nor can he claim credit for driving or altering the national debate during his campaign.

All of the candidates listed above emerged from their first campaigns with large, loyal and easily defined bases of support. Reagan in ’76 solidified himself as the leader of a growing, fervent right-wing base. Hart in ’84 seized the “neo-liberal” mantle, assembling a new coalition of educated, professional liberal suburbanites. Buchanan in ’92 asserted himself as the voice within the G.O.P. for economic nationalism. And on and on.

Giuliani did no such thing in 2008. He entered the race with universal name recognition and the “America’s mayor” reputation he gained after 9/11. He tried desperately to make G.O.P. voters forget about his views on abortion, gay rights and immigration and offered tired, half-hearted imitations of his opponents on economic issues. The idea that there’s some army of “Giuliani Republicans” eagerly waiting for their general to saddle up once more is ludicrous.

A far more apt parallel can be drawn between Giuliani and John Connolly and Phil Gramm—two Texans who waged similarly hideous presidential efforts and who never again came close to running again.

The Obama White House has its reasons for trying to get rid of Paterson. Worrying about a Rudy ’12 campaign just isn’t one of them. A Very Silly Idea About Barack Obama and Rudy Giuliani