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The Flawed Christie-Giuliani Narrative

The political press has picked up the comparison between Chris Christie 2016 and Rudy Giuliani 2008 with gusto. This is a flawed comparison, though one can understand why reporters would be drawn to it. It fits a preexisting narrative and offers superficial similarities. But the problem is not only that the parallels may be weaker than they seem (they almost always are); it’s that the initial frames are wrong to begin with, and the press end up comparing new candidates to former candidates who never really existed.

That’s especially true in Giuliani’s case, since the “first draft of history” written about his campaign is demonstrably false. Yet it has somehow become Giuliani’s story anyway. And it finds its way into even solid stories by knowledgeable reporters. For example, here’s Politico’s latest on the Christie-Rudy comparison. It does a good job debunking many of the supposed similarities, but then we find this, as a red flag:

There are two constants between Giuliani and Christie – advisers Mike DuHaime and Maria Comella.

DuHaime, Giuliani’s presidential campaign manager, is a senior adviser to Christie since 2009. Comella, a Giuliani presidential campaign press aide, is Christie’s communications director.

DuHaime came under fire for Giuliani’s failed “Florida firewall” strategy, but has since been integral to Christie’s two successful campaigns. Comella is broadly respected and her team has shown the kind of web proficiency necessary in a modern campaign. …

Craig Robinson, a former executive director of the Iowa Republican Party and founder of The Iowa Republican website, argued that Christie’s team needs to show more than they did with Giulian (sic). If they do, he said, “the sky’s the limit” for Christie.

This “Florida firewall” myth has stuck, but it’s just that–a myth. That’s due in large part to Giuliani himself, who wanted to deflect concern about his early primary losses by suggesting he was waiting for Florida to turn the tide. But that’s not actually what happened.

“Rudy Giuliani would bypass early-voting Iowa and New Hampshire on his way to more moderate, voter-rich states like Florida and California, many pundits once predicted,” scoffed the New York Daily News in October 2007. “But a look at the presidential hopeful’s campaign datebook shows the former mayor is hunkering down in the two early battlegrounds far more than in other primary states.”

The Daily News backed up its headline, “Rudy Giuliani defies critics, campaigns hard in early states,” by reporting that Giuliani had spent more time in New Hampshire and Iowa than did John McCain, who eventually went on to win the 2008 Republican presidential nomination. The Daily News was onto something. In January 2008, after the New Hampshire primary in which Giuliani placed fourth, Jake Tapper and Karen Travers reported for ABC News that Giuliani held more events in New Hampshire than McCain, Mike Huckabee, Barack Obama, or Hillary Clinton did.

And it wasn’t just events. Giuliani spent millions on television advertising in New Hampshire–almost as much as McCain and more than Huckabee and Ron Paul combined. So what happened? Tapper and Travers explained:

But after a few weeks, when his poll numbers traveled downward instead of in the preferred direction, the former mayor’s campaign said it would stick with his original plan. In December an anonymous “top Giuliani aide” told The Politico newspaper that the new plan would allow the former mayor’s campaign “to marshal our resources for Florida and Feb. 5, while keeping options open for changes in the early states.”

He was competing and still losing, so he told Politico that he wasn’t really trying, that he was waiting for Florida and letting the other candidates tussle over the early states while he built his “firewall.” And so the “Florida firewall” story was ingested by Politico and remains a fixture of Giuliani-related stories to this day.

And now that Christie employs one of the same Giuliani advisors who was an architect of a plan that ultimately stayed on the shelf, the other comparisons between the candidates come alive, as if Christie would–or even could–run the same kind of campaign Giuliani did.

He can’t, though. Giuliani had to lean on 9/11 to a certain degree because he was otherwise incompatible with Republican primary voters. The former mayor ran as a pro-choice Republican. Christie is pro-life. And though Giuliani proved himself on 9/11 to be the kind of leader the country could count on in a crisis, national-security issues just don’t tend to dominate presidential elections.

Overall, the two candidates have major differences on nearly every subject of consequence. Yes, they’re both from the Northeast. But if political reporters can’t tell the difference between candidates because they hail from states near each other, 2016 is going to be a long silly season.