This column was written by Stephen Spruiell.
Over 1,000 New York Republicans crowded into the ballroom of a Times Square Sheraton Thursday night to hear from presidential contenders Rudy Giuliani and John McCain, but the real elephant in the room was immigration reform. Neither candidate addressed the issue in their speeches, even though rank-and-file conservatives spent Thursday talking about little else.
McCain, of course, helped shape the immigration compromise that has so many conservatives in open revolt. For his part, Giuliani issued a statement in which he didn't really take a position on the bill, which would provide amnesty for millions of illegal immigrants living in the United States. He ignored that part and emphasized his commitment to border enforcement in general.
Conservatives hoping for either candidate to elucidate his position were left wanting. Neither candidate talked about the proposed compromise. Instead, both largely stuck to the same talking points they've recited dozens of times before, although Rudy tailored his in order to capitalize on his personal connection with New York and New Yorkers. "I didn't take a city that was unmanageable and ungovernable and make it into a city that was the best example of urban renaissance in the 1990s," Rudy told his fellow New York Republicans. "I didn't do it. You did it. We did it as a team. We did it with ideas that are the ideas we're going to put into place in Washington, and Washington needs these ideas badly." McCain delivered the keynote address (he was the first to accept the state party's invitation), but Rudy owned the crowd.
Both of the candidates also addressed Rudy's public scolding of hapless anti-war Republican Ron Paul. For those who missed last Tuesday's Republican presidential debate, Paul tried to argue that the September 11th attackers were partially motivated by U.S. missile strikes on Iraq in the 1990s. Rudy responded, "That's an extraordinary statement. As someone who lived through the attack of September the 11th… I don't think I've ever heard that before, and I've heard some pretty absurd explanations for September the 11th." The crowd gave Rudy a lengthy ovation. Many commentators argued that Rudy won the debate on the strength of this comeback alone.
So it came as no surprise that Rudy wanted to replay his game-winning jam for the crowd at the Sheraton. Speaking of the six jihadists recently busted for plotting a terrorist attack on Fort Dix, he asked the audience, "Why [did they want to kill our soldiers]? Because we had some attacks on Iraq in the 1990s? I don't think so."
"That was a reason given by one of our candidates on the stage the other night," Rudy added, in case anyone missed the reference.
When it was his turn to speak, McCain begrudgingly gave Rudy his props. "I'd like to express my appreciation," he conceded, "for the former mayor of this city, who Tuesday night corrected a terrible impression that might have been created that somehow we were responsible for the attack on the United States of America."
Excuse this interruption of presidential politics for a quick moment with a reality check: What's the big deal with admitting that our pre-invasion policies toward Iraq — the sanctions, the no-fly zones, the bases to protect Saudi Arabia from Saddam's lunatic aggression — were used to justify mass slaughter in Osama bin Laden's various fatwas against America? That doesn't make him right. It just identifies one dynamic at work in the evil worldview of a madman.
Nor does it make those pre-invasion policies wrong, although Ron Paul seems to think it does. Most Americans, even those who think this war was a mistake, agree that it's probably a good thing we kicked Saddam out of Kuwait and stopped him from gassing the Kurds. I think that's an honest debate that Rudy Giuliani and John McCain should be able to win without having to make Paul out to be some kind of Osama-lover.
But there's no denying it's great politics. That much was evident Thursday night, as McCain continued to praise his toughest competitor. "I was proud of Rudy Giuliani's comments," McCain grumbled in obligatory deference to the great smackdown of '07. "And I was proud of him as an American. So, and… so I'm very proud of him. As you are."
Just as I was starting to wonder whether there might be a little envy mixed in with that pride, McCain said, "Somehow, now we've had two debates, and they always have me standing next to Rudy, so I don't know if the fix is in or what." The audience laughed, relieved. Straight talk at last.
By Stephen Spruiell
Reprinted with permission from National Review Online