Saturday, October 06, 2007

Rudy Finds a New Topic


By GAIL COLLINS
Op-Ed Columnist
The New York Times
October 6, 2007

WINDHAM, N.H.

“Fiscal. Discipline.”

When Rudy Giuliani wants to make a point, he frequently opens his eyes very wide, eyebrows arched. The effect is eerily like Norma Desmond announcing that she’s ready for her close-up. He was in full Desmond mode this week in New Hampshire, explaining why he should be the next president of the United States.

People who live in New York tend to be a little stunned by the fact that their former mayor is the front-runner for the Republican nomination. Honestly, people, we thought you would have gotten over it by now. That the pictures of him in drag as Rudy/Rudina would have been enough all by themselves. Yet here he is, the leader of the pack. Obviously, the fishnet stockings went over better in South Carolina than we had anticipated.

To his credit, sort of, Giuliani has finally figured out that he cannot simply keep muttering “9/11 ... 9/11 ... 9/11” until February. The trick is finding something else Republicans are interested in, something that he has agreed with them about for more than six months. Which brings us back to: Fiscal. Discipline.

“New York City had government that was way out of control. I reduced the growth of government, and I reduced taxes 23 times,” he tells the voters.

When it comes to taking credit for reducing taxes, Giuliani has a fairly expansionist view. If it happened on his watch, it was his tax cut. If the tax in question happened to be a state tax, well — he urged it. Urging counts.

Giuliani does have bragging rights for coming into a liberal tax-and-spend government burdened with a huge deficit and balancing the budget. Unfortunately, his main opponent, Mitt Romney, has more or less the same résumé. (Amazing how the two most opposite human beings in the world can look so identical on paper.)

“Mayor Giuliani sued the Republican governor to keep in place the commuter tax! I lowered taxes on commuters!” Romney declared at a gathering this week. In response, Giuliani rolled out former Massachusetts Republican Gov. Paul Cellucci to call Romney a desperate candidate and a wimpy tax cutter.

Giuliani’s tax-cutting record really is better than Romney’s. That is mainly because the mayor of New York has much more power to control budgets than the president, a governor or pretty much any chief executive this side of Vladimir Putin. (If the New York City Council was lost at sea, it would take months before anyone noticed.) The commuter tax had been imposed by the State Legislature a long time before, and any sane mayor would have fought to keep it. Only a politician like Rudy Giuliani, however, could create so much loathing that New York City legislators preferred losing the revenue for their own city to helping him out.

When Giuliani and Romney talk about what they would do with the federal budget, they differ in very typical ways. Romney has been mind-bogglingly vacuous. Right now he’s running ads bragging that he signed a No New Taxes pledge — a megapander that even Mitt in less desperate times admitted was a gimmick. Obviously, with no new taxes, something’s got to give, and Romney has been extremely unhelpful in explaining exactly what that should be. (“We’ve got to rein in spending!”)

Giuliani, ever the tough-talking warrior, promises he’ll only fill half of the federal civil service jobs that become empty due to retirement, an effort that would reduce the number of workers by close to 20 percent over two terms.

“I have a very, very strong view that the smaller we can make government, the more prosperous our economy is going to be,” he added. This is classic Rudy-rhetoric, which is heavy on the very-very. “When I was mayor of New York City, I worked very, very hard to reduce the size of government. I will do the same thing as president.”

The only problem is that this is never going to happen. To dramatically reduce the number of federal workers over the long run you’d have to eliminate something huge that Congress really likes. Not even Ronald (Holy Be His Name) Reagan did that. Giuliani worked very, very hard during his first term as mayor and cut city jobs by less than 10 percent. By the time his second term was over, many of them were back. Thanks to Bill Clinton, others were being paid with federal funds. The total size of the city’s work force was almost exactly the same as when Giuliani first took office. And partly thanks to the cost of contracting out other services, he left his successor with a budget deficit that was worse than when he started out.

So what do you prefer, American voter, the guy who has a bold plan for controlling spending that is never going to work, or the one who would not say anything specific if you waterboarded him?

Welcome to campaign 2008.

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