In a typically thorough, fair-minded, well-written article, the Washington Post's Dan Balz examines the indications that despite many predictions, Rudy Giuliani has a serious chance to win the Republican presidential nomination. You might have read a similar though at the time necessarily more speculative analysis six months ago. It seemed to be the rule from 1980 to 2000 that only abortion opponents could win the Republican presidential nomination (just as it seemed to be the rule from 1984 to 2004 that only supporters of abortion rights could win the Democratic presidential nomination). But rules in politics don't always last forever. They're good only as long as they're good. From its admission to the Union up through 1972, New Mexico voted for each winning candidate for president. In 1976, it voted for Gerald Ford.
One item of evidence Balz cites is Giuliani's performance in the straw poll at last weekend's Conservative Political Action Conference meeting in Washington. Mitt Romney, who has switched only recently to oppose abortion, led with 21 percent of the votes; Giuliani placed second with 17 percent. Third was Sam Brownback, far less well known to the public and a strong abortion opponent since 1995 (although in 1994 he faced and defeated a stronger abortion opponent in the Republican primary for the Kansas Second House District). Blogger and Giuliani backer Patrick Ruffini points out that Giuliani led in combined first- and second-choice support, with 34 percent; next were Romney and Newt Gingrich, with 30 percent.
I was able to attend CPAC for some hours and noticed that there were far more Mitt T-shirted kids running around and handing out literature than there were for any other candidate; Brownback seemed to be a trailing second. Their showings in the straw poll can perhaps be attributed in part to their organizational efforts, which were obviously much greater than any for Giuliani. I thought the reaction to Giuliani's speech was quite positive. He was introduced by George Will, who made a strong case for him as an effective conservative (and in the process had a few kind words for me). Giuliani spoke for 40 minutes, and there were some rather long intervals with no applause--but also with no whispering or buzzes: It was eerily quiet, and I got the impression people were genuinely interested in hearing what Giuliani had to say.
Interestingly, the one domestic issue that he emphasized more than any other was school choice. This was certainly not chosen to rouse this crowd; I suppose most people in the audience were for it, but they don't care much about it. Not red meat for them. Nor is there much in the way of an organized constituency for it, certainly not one that can be activated in Republican caucuses and primaries. Finally, it's an awfully tough issue to govern on. The teachers unions will oppose a general mandate for school choice with every bit of energy they have, and the Democratic Party is likely to be solidly on their side. To be sure, leading Democrats on education issues, like Edward Kennedy and George Miller, deserve credit for overriding the teachers unions on some issues of accountability and choice and leading the successful fight for the No Child Left Behind Act passed by Congress in 2001 and signed by George W. Bush in 2002.
In my Creators Syndicate column, I examine the chances that NCLB will be reauthorized this year; Washington education insiders doubt it, but I get the sense that the Bush administration, the lead Republicans on the issue (Mike Enzi in the Senate and Buck McKeon in the House), and Kennedy and Miller are sincerely trying to do just that. In any case, a Congress that has resolved the issues of accountability and money that will be on the table in this year's NCLB negotiations will not be in the mood to consider legislation for wide-ranging school choice, even by a triumphantly elected President Giuliani.
Giuliani's emphasis on school choice surely comes from policy analysis rather than pollster strategy. In the 1990s, states and localities made major progress curbing crime and reducing welfare dependency. Giuliani played no small part in these efforts. The federal government came chiming in late with the 1996 welfare act intended to spur changes in lagging states. On education, states and localities by the late 1990s were increasing accountability and choice, and NCLB spurred other efforts in this direction. But the modest improvements in test scores make it plain that there is still a long, long way to go. And Giuliani, it seems, is interested in leading us there. Even if it doesn't make much sense in terms of short- or even medium-term politics.