If John McCain's comeback seemed to be engineered by the goddess Fortuna, Rudy Giuliani's slow slide into irrelevance was vastly more predictable; indeed, it was sufficiently overdetermined that almost any explanation for why he didn't win the GOP nomination is likely to contain some element of the truth. Was it because he couldn't make peace with social conservatives? Absolutely. Was it the shadow of scandal from his years as Mayor? Almost certainly. Was it the waning political salience of 9/11? No doubt. Was it the unfavorable way the early primary schedule lined up - with no obviously Rudy-friendly states casting ballots before Florida - joined to the difficulty of making the leap from Mayor to President? Probably so.
To this litany, I'd just add the following: I think the Giuliani campaign was deceived by Rudy's leap to a dramatic early lead in the national polls, and allowed his huge, seemingly-enduring edge to shape how Rudy sold himself throughout the race. The polls said that he was the front-runner, so he behaved like a front-runner, running a cautious, uncreative campaign that apart from its deviations on abortion seemed designed to be as cookie-cutter conservative as possible. Tax cuts, border security, a strong national defense, school choice, strict-constructionist judges - it was an agenda ideally-suited to an establishment candidate trying to build a lead and hold it, but Rudy, despite his boffo poll numbers early on, was never actually that candidate. Whatever Gallup said, he was always a dark horse, always an insurgent running against the grain of his party, and to have any chance he needed to campaign like one, looking for ways to break the mold and capitalize on his sui generis appeal.
What should he have done instead? Well, he could have run on the Frum agenda, or something like it. He could have run as a populist of sorts, as Reihan and I suggested early on, trying to capitalize on his old-school Reagan Democrat roots and pick up on some of the themes that Mike Huckabee ended up emphasizing. Or he could have run as a radical federalist, as Dan McLaughlin has suggested, simultaneously attacking Roe and promising to cool the culture wars.
Maybe - probably - none of these strategies would have worked either. But any of them would have been better tailored to the obvious-in-hindsight reality that Rudy's candidacy was always much, much more of a long shot than it looked when he was riding high last spring. And if nothing else, they might have prevented him from coming in behind Ron Paul quite so often as he did.
Photo by Flickr User Joe Crimmings used under a Creative Commons License.
Ross Douthat is a contributing editor at The Atlantic.