Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani created a firestorm this week when he argued that President Obama doesn’t love his country and then later doubled down, insisting his remarks weren’t racist because the commander-in-chief was “brought up by a white mother.” And, now, those remarks are putting potential 2016 Republican candidates in an awfully tough spot.
White House hopefuls have a fine line to walk – they need to hammer the country’s Democratic president to appeal to a conservative base that is sick and tired of Obama, but going too far risks alienating mainstream voters who find the over-the-top rhetoric off-putting, if not downright vile.
There’s a rule for all 2016 candidates, said Republican strategist and former John McCain campaign adviser, Ford O’Connell: “Never take aim at the president personally, only his or her policies.” O’Connell says that potential candidates need to distance themselves from personal rhetoric as much as possible. “This type of thing fires up Democrats and continues to perpetuate the myth that Republicans are mean and nasty.”
“It does put candidates in an awkward position, but it also gives potential 2016 Republican candidates an opportunity to say they’re not going to engage in this type of personal attack,” said Jeanne Zaino, a professor of political science at Iona College and political campaign management at New York University. Then-presidential candidate John McCain took that approach in 2008, when he was approached by a woman at a town hall meeting who said she heard Obama was an “Arab.” The Arizona Republican shot back, “No, ma’am. He’s a decent family man [and] citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues.”
So far, however, potential Republicans aren’t taking a page out of McCain’s playbook. They’re either staying quite, expressing indifference or even agreeing with Giuliani.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker told CNBC, “The mayor can speak for himself. I’m not going to comment on whether—what the president thinks or not. He can speak for himself as well. I’ll tell you, I love America.” Walker was with Giuliani at a private dinner with several prominent GOP financiers when the ex-mayor made the remarks.
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal released a statement saying he would not criticize Giuliani’s remarks. “The gist of what Mayor Giuliani said – that the president has shown himself to be completely unable to speak the truth about the nature of the threats from these ISIS terrorists – is true.” Jindal added, “If you are looking for someone to condemn the mayor, look elsewhere.”
Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida was the most dismissive of Giuliani’s remarks, telling the Associated Press that while he has “no doubt” Obama loves the country, his “policies are bad for our nation.” Other potential candidates, including Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie have not weighed in.
The White House on Friday responded to Giuliani’s comments, although press secretary Josh Earnest said he was not aware of a reaction from President Obama. “The only thing that I feel is I feel sorry for Rudy Giuliani today,” Earnest told reporters during a press briefing. “It is sad to see when somebody who has attained a certain level of public stature, and even admiration, tarnishes that legacy so thoroughly.”
And late Friday, former Giuliani staffer Mike Paul told MSNBC’s Steve Kornacki that he strongly disagrees with his former boss, and wants to “distance himself” from the ex-mayor. “I actually think that this is an abomination,” Paul said, adding, “I want to separate myself from him as far as possible when I hear him say things like this.” Paul said Giuliani “put his foot in his mouth” with his comments about Obama, and accused Giuliani of “scratching and trying to hold onto some relevancy” ahead of 2016.
Giuliani in recent months has made a series of eyebrow raising remarks – saying former President Jimmy Carter has gone “off the deep end” in calling on the U.S. to recognize Hamas, arguing black violence is the reason for white cops in Ferguson, and calling on NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio to place police officers in the city’s mosques in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo shooting in Paris.
Giuliani’s over-the-top comments have been likened by some critics to the the seemingly intentionally rabble-rousing hysterics of Donald Trump and Sarah Palin.
“Here’s somebody who saw New York through 9/11 and won great accolades and could have spent his post mayoral time on something more productive,” said Zaino. “I’m baffled by what he’s trying to achieve. The only thing I can imagine is that it’s keeping him in the headlines. He seems to have lost an awful lot of respect he gained post 9/11.”