On Wednesday night Republican frontrunner Rudy Giuliani got booed during the CNN/You-Tube debate. The boos came during an acrimonious exchange on the immigration question with Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts. Or, more correctly, the boos came after what should have been a discussion of immigration descended to a mean-spirited and trivial squabble over the legal status of the landscape crew that Romney had hired to work on his home, at which point some members of the audience thought that Giuliani should have let the matter drop.
Were the boos justified? I will leave that question for others to decide, in order to focus on the challenge facing Giuliani as he tries to maintain his front-runner status in the race for the Republican nomination. If he wishes to stay on top, he must clearly grasp the distinction between coming across as tough and coming across as mean.
The American electorate has no problem with toughness, and this is especially true of the conservative Republican base that will ultimately decide who will represent their party in the upcoming Presidential election. In addition, toughness is Giuliani's great trump card. As mayor of New York Giuliani did more than talk tough or act tough in front of cameras—his personal toughness was translated into the public policy that is credited with saving New York City from its abysmal slide into a Third World hellhole. True, many who lived in the city may have hated him, but out-of-towners like me, who visited New York City before and after Giuliani, cannot fail to be impressed by the startling difference. The old New York City was a scary place, while post-Giuliani New York is simply delightful. Rightly or wrongly, it is hard for outsiders not come to the conclusion that whatever Giuliani did, it must have worked.
Today the overwhelming majority of Americans think that their country is heading in the wrong direction, very much like New York before Giuliani, and many of the discontented would be happy to vote for a man whose record demonstrates that he isn't afraid of getting tough with the tough problems, like immigration. These people constitute Giuliani's natural base of support among conservative Republicans, many of whom will be prepared to forgive Giuliani for his New Yorker's liberalism on social issues such as abortion and gay rights so long as he comes across as the candidate who is prepared to be tough on immigration and national security.
At the same time, Giuliani's reputation for toughness can only be advantageous to his candidacy as long as he scrupulously observes the fine line that divides toughness from meanness. Americans admire tough guys so long as they show no signs of being mean or nasty. Our tough guys, if they are to be acceptable to us, must prove that they are "above" being petty and mean-spirited, vindictive and spiteful. They must, above all, be fair. Indeed they will be held to a more rigorous standard of fairness precisely because they have such powerful personalities, and with good reason—the strong man is a danger to a free community if he is scornful of the rules of fair play and decency that protect those who are not as strong as he is. It is only by obeying these rules that the strong man can prove that he is not a bully waiting for the opportunity to push people around.
Consider the exquisite manners of Ronald Reagan. No one ever doubted that Reagan cold be tough as nails when toughness was called for. Yet no one ever booed him for acting like a boor.
The problem with meanness is that it is a human quality that can be so carelessly revealed. Because meanness is always thoughtlessness, it can easily burst forth without premeditation. It just slips out. Unhappily, once the meanness has slipped out, it is impossible to undo the damage--even a glimpse of malice leave an impression that is difficult, if not impossible, to erase from the minds of those who have witnessed it. All it takes is a cruel joke, a mocking word, a scornful expression, and the irretrievable damage is done.
The bizarre and often irrational appearance of the American electoral system should not deceive us. As I wrote in a piece for TCS nearly four years ago, apropos Howard Dean's infamous scream, Americans have unwittingly designed a system that ruthlessly tests for the slightest character flaws in those who seek to exercise power over us. Sometimes the system can seem heartless, as when it punishes a Presidential candidate like Edmund Muskie for a sudden flurry of tears. Sometimes it will come across as unduly severe, as when it roasted Dean for his raucous outburst—in retrospect was it really all that bad? Yet what both of these candidacy-crushing incidents have in common is the insistence on the part of the American electorate that those who would be our leaders must exercise a much higher degree of self-control than is required of the average Joe. We don't want our President to lose his head while all about are losing theirs, to paraphrase Kipling.
We don't want them acting mean either. That is why I suggest that Mayor Giuliani, who has so much to commend him, should pay attention to the boos he received in the last debate. They may have been the best advice that he could have possibly receive at this point in his campaign: stay tough, but don't play too rough. Many of us like the guy, and we don't want him to give us reason not to.