10:33 am Jan. 24, 2011
On CNBC late last week, Rudy Giuliani said that he “will take a look at” mounting a second presidential bid in 2012, and then followed up the next day by indicating that he’ll be more likely to run if Sarah Palin doesn’t.
His comments indicate either a streak of profound cynicism or a complete and perhaps final detachment from reality.
At issue is what is motivating him to speak like this. It could simply be that he knows the media can’t resist the spectacle of a big-name public figure expressing interest, or potential interest, in a race for elected office, especially if it's the presidency. Would anyone be talking about what he said on a financial news channel last week if he hadn’t made a show of leaving the door open to another White House campaign open?
Publicity isn’t as easy to come by for Giuliani as it was once was. When he left the mayoralty in 2002, he was one of America’s most respected and admired politicians. Every time he opened his mouth it was news. But things have changed, thanks in large part to his humbling showing in the 2008 Republican presidential primaries. The “America’s mayor” brand has been significantly devalued. No longer can Rudy cause a stir in the media and political worlds simply by sitting down for an interview and opening his mouth. Now he needs to give people a reason to write and talk about him. And what better way to do that than by pretending to flirt with another campaign?
New Yorkers know how this works. When Rudy came back home after flaming out in Florida back in ’08, he began signaling his interest in running for governor. Maybe he meant it at first; in late ‘08 and early 2009, it was still possible that a wounded David Paterson would emerge with the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in 2010, creating a real opportunity for the G.O.P. nominee in the fall. But soon the bottom fell out on Paterson’s numbers and it became clear that Andrew Cuomo would be the Democrats’ standard-bearer. At that point, the Rudy scenario vanished, and yet he spent the rest of ’09 mustering demonstrations of interest in a campaign, probably because every time he threatened to run, he was met with a chorus of pleas from Republican officials and a wave of fresh media coverage.
It’s very likely that Rudy is playing the same game now, speculating purposefully about 2012 so producers from Fox News and CNN will be enticed to book him. If this is the case, then his comments late last week reflect a smart, if nakedly manipulative, calculation: He wants people to talk about him, and he knows how to get them talking.
But let's suppose for a moment that there's another possibility, which is that Giuliani is actually serious and that he’s really considering running for president again. If this is the case, then he has left the reality-based political world.
Sure, it’s hardly unheard of for candidates to seek the presidency more than once. It took two tries for George H.W. Bush and Richard Nixon to win it, and Ronald Reagan was on his third attempt when he finally hit paydirt in 1980. (Nixon might technically have been a three-timer as well, if you count his sort-of campaign for the G.O.P. nomination in 1964.)
But as I’ve written before, credible second-chance presidential candidacies almost always require a strong (or stronger than expected) effort the first time out. Think of John McCain, who emerged from a crowded G.O.P. field in 2000 to become George W. Bush’s main competition for the nomination. McCain had begun his campaign in obscurity and was vastly underfunded compared to Bush, who entered the primary season as the overwhelming frontrunner. Thus, McCain vastly exceeded expectation by beating Bush by 20 points in New Hampshire and going on to win seven primaries. He failed to secure the nomination, but the process certified him as a legitimate contender for the next open nomination.
Just about every second-chance candidate in the modern era has a story like this. Reagan nearly knocked off a sitting president, Jerry Ford, in the 1976 G.O.P. primaries, making him the clear favorite heading into 1980. George H.W. Bush then gave Reagan a scare in the ’80 primaries, earning him a spot on Reagan’s ticket in the fall and the inside track to the 1988 nomination. We’ve seen the same thing on the Democratic side. Gary Hart very nearly swiped the 1984 Democratic nomination from Walter Mondale, allowing him to enter the 1988 cycle as the Democrat to beat. (He ended up beating himself, getting caught with a woman not his wife on a boat named Monkey Business.) And after he finished second to John Kerry in 2004, John Edwards was initially well-positioned to serve as the main anti-Hillary candidate in 2008—a role that was stolen by Barack Obama.
Rudy just doesn’t belong in this company. His 2008 effort was an unmitigated disaster: $57 million for one delegate (a delegate who ended up defecting from him anyway). The ’08 Republican field was unusually wide open and weak. That Rudy began the process far ahead in polls and flamed out so spectacularly strongly suggests that Republican primary voters will not embrace him as their standard-bearer under any circumstances. Candidates who fall flat on their faces like this—think John Connally in 1980 and Phil Gramm in 1996—just don’t come back and run again four years later.
I’m fairly certain Rudy knows all of this and that sometime this spring or summer, after a few dozen more appearances on national news shows, he’ll put an end to the charade. But that might not really be the end of it. Don’t forget: Kirsten Gillibrand’s seat is up again in 2012.
More by this author:
- Exit everyman: How the Jersey Democratic bosses destroyed Dick Codey and unleashed Chris Christie
- When Lautenberg's age met Booker's ambition: An elegy for the Swamp Dog