Rudy Giuliani has a problem with the religious right. He's too liberal, too modern and not Christian enough for them. But the former New York mayor knows that this weakness may help him to victory.
Defeat is generally frowned upon in the political arena, where underdogs are quickly written off as losers. But the germ of triumph is buried at the core of many defeats. There are many examples of the steepest of political plunges that were in fact harbingers of success. Indeed, today's loser is all too often tomorrow's political winner.
For the public, a politician's defeat can even offer refreshing insights into his character. Voters, finally, are able to learn more about him. What is he made of? How much pain and humiliation can he withstand? Where does political flexibility end and where do the true values begin, the values that shape his thoughts and actions?
When former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, for example, was still the economic policy spokesman of his Social Democratic Party (SPD), he was fired by a man named Rudolf Scharping, the then head of the SPD. Schröder had expressed an idea that was considered blasphemous at the time -- that there is no left or right when it comes to economic policy -- and he stood by his statement. In a moment of defeat, Schröder revealed the basic character traits that would later lead him to become a reformist chancellor.
Badge of Honor
US Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Hillary Clinton, whose efforts to reform the US health care system failed 13 years ago in the face of opposition from lobbyists, is another politician for whom defeat is character-building. The debacle left her with scars she wears almost as a badge of honor today. It also helped shape her reputation as a tough woman with principles.
Republican presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani has now experienced his triumph in the guise of defeat, even though the media have roundly described it as a setback. At the Family Research Council's three-day Values Voters Summit this past weekend, America's Christian conservatives made it clear that, when it comes to faith, they have none in Giuliani.
When the 6,000 attendees at the values summit were asked to vote for their favorite among the current Republican candidates, Giuliani captured only 107 votes, or a meager 1.85 percent. Such a dismal approval rating among America's right-wing Christians, who spend much of their time praying and condemning anyone who lives outside what they consider the acceptable norm, is as good as excommunication.
But this is a defeat the former New York mayor can be proud of. If he becomes the party's nominee, it will prove to be a boon to his campaign. Perhaps the Washington Hilton, where the event was held, will even go down in history as the birthplace of the 44rd president of the United States.
America Is No Theocracy
In the political center -- a place where modern people rooted in pragmatism reside -- this reprimand by the religious right is practically a certificate identifying Giuliani as a man of sanity and reason. Most Americans have a low opinion of homophobia and understand the plight of women who decide to have an abortion as a last recourse. Many are also able to draw the line between their own spirituality and the common good. America is no theocracy.
What makes this defeat such a victory for Giuliani is that he never even tried to win over his audience of religious conservatives. The normally glib candidate, born in a poor neighborhood in New York's Brooklyn borough to a bartender and a secretary, spoke to his listeners like a social worker speaking to the unenlightened. "Christianity is all about inclusiveness," he said. America, he informed his conservative Christian listeners, is "a country that's committed to building a more civil society based on a spirit of mutual respect."
Candidates normally come to such gatherings armed with promises, and with phrases like: "When I am president of the United States, I will..." But Giuliani said that were he their president, he would do no different than that which he was doing at the Washington Hilton -- namely, coming to his constituents "with an open mind and an open heart." By then it was obvious to everyone listening that Giuliani had come to them empty-handed and had left his promises at home.
He told his party's religious base that it would be impossible for him to tell them exactly what they wanted to hear. "I may be a good actor if I do it well, but I'm a follower," he said. Instead, he told his audience, he preferred to take the opposite approach and offer them "the sum total of my intellect, my experience, my education, my conscience, my heart, my mind." "And then," he proposed, "you have a right to agree with that, disagree with it, partially agree, partially disagree, and then figure out if I'm the right person for you to support. But for me to twist myself all up to try to figure out exactly what you want to hear and today say one thing and the next day another thing and a year from now -- If you do that too long, you lose the sense of what leadership is all about."
Clinton's Worst Nightmare
He advised his audience of zealots to become more politically astute. And then he quoted former President Ronald Reagan, a man Republicans practically worship as a godlike figure: "My 80 percent friend is not my 100 percent enemy."
A man like Giuliani can be dangerous for Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton, who currently enjoys only a slim, four percent lead over Giuliani in the opinion polls. Indeed, an opponent who is considered tough on security issues but is not ignorant of the modern age could be Clinton's worst nightmare.
This is where politics and ordinary life part ways. We ordinary mortals are sometimes afraid of people who are different, and sometimes we would even like to see them become more like us. But the politician thrives on differences, and his greatest fear is that voters could discover similarities between him and his political rival, because they make him replaceable and possibly even superfluous.
After Giuliani's performance in Washington last weekend, the Democrats have every reason to prick up their ears. His defeat could eventually become theirs.
Der Spiegel,October 23, 2007
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