Giuliani and History: Precedents or President?

By Garry South

March 29, 2007

Capitol Week

Can Rudy Giuliani go from running the Big Apple to successfully running to be the Top Banana, president of the United States? Current polls suggest the answer may be yes, but one thing is for sure: History decidedly is not on Hizzoner’s side.

Giuliani, a national hero to many for his role in leading New York City when 9/11 struck, is now leading once-presumptive frontrunner Sen. John McCain in every national survey — in some of them, surprisingly, by 2-to-1 or better margins. The erstwhile “America’s mayor” also looks at this early stage to be competitive with the top Democratic candidates in a general-election face-off.

But before Giuliani starts measuring for new drapes in the Oval Office, he should reflect on the fact that no sitting or former mayor of New York City (and there have been mayors of that burg way back to 1665) has ever been elected president. Ever. Only one has even been nominated by a major party: DeWitt Clinton, by the Federalists in 1812, who went on to lose to James Madison.

The only other mayor or former mayor of New York ever to receive a single vote for president at a major-party convention was George B. McClellan, son of the legendary Civil War general who himself had lost badly to Lincoln in the 1864 presidential race as the Democratic nominee. In 1904, although not even an announced candidate for president, Mayor McClellan received three delegate votes at the Democratic National Convention that year — some speculated from Democrats with long memories still sore at Honest Abe over beating his father.

The last New York mayor to make a run for the roses was John V. Lindsay in 1972, who ended up with a dandelion instead. The tall, handsome Republican had represented a liberal, silk-stocking Manhattan district in Congress before becoming mayor. Near the end of his second term as mayor, Lindsay switched parties and announced very late that he would seek the Democratic nomination for president. An aloof, aristocratic figure, he finished second in Arizona, then sputtered completely in the Florida and Wisconsin primaries, finishing fifth in both. Needless to say, that was the end of his campaign and his political career, and he released the handful of delegates he had won to vote for whomever they chose. None stuck with Lindsay.

Only two presidents ever served as mayor of any city: Grover Cleveland, who was mayor of Buffalo, and Calvin Coolidge, who once served as mayor of tiny Northampton, Mass. But it should be pointed out that both had subsequently served as governors of their respective states before being nominated for president (Coolidge was first elected vice president, of course, and succeeded to the presidency on the death of Warren Harding and then won a second term.)

Curiously, being mayor of New York City has not proven to be an advantage even in running for governor of New York. The last sitting or former mayor to be elected Empire State honcho was John T. Huffman, a Tammany Hall Democrat who won the office in 1868. Besides Huffman, the only other New York City chief executive to be elected to higher statewide office was Clinton, the defeated candidate for president in 1812, who went on to serve non-consecutive terms as governor.

In fact, history has shown that actually losing a race for mayor of New York can be a more a propitious development for one’s political career than winning one. The now-storied Theodore Roosevelt came in third in the 1886 race for mayor, but then went on to be elected governor, vice president and president.

Former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, a silver-tongued orator once considered a sure future Democratic presidential nominee, lost the mayoral election to Ed Koch in 1977. But Cuomo won the Democratic nomination for governor in 1982, beating, ironically, none other than New York City Mayor Koch, and went on to serve three terms as the state’s chief executive.

Parenthetically, we Californians know that being mayor of our largest city also has proved no boon for those interested in higher office. In fact, there has never been a mayor or ex-mayor of Los Angeles elected governor of the Golden State. The last one to try was Richard Riordan, who fizzled badly in the 2002 GOP primary (well, OK, with a little help from his Democratic friends), blowing a huge lead and ultimately receiving only 31 percent of the vote. Mayor Tom Bradley, the Democratic nominee in 1982, came close that year, but was blown out in a ’86 rematch with Gov. George Deukmejian.

Now, despite the old aphorism that those who ignore history are bound to repeat it, it is not true conversely that political history necessarily repeats itself. In 1988, we Democrats knowingly reassured ourselves that George Herbert Walker Bush couldn’t possibly win, because no incumbent vice president had been elected to succeed the president under whom he served in 152 years (Martin Van Buren in 1836). That was historically accurate, but Bush nonetheless eventually smashed the hapless Michael Dukakis in the general election.

Similarly, here in California, Republicans in 1998 winkingly convinced each other that Gray Davis was just waiting to be had, because no sitting lieutenant governor had been elected governor in his own right for 72 years. The last No. 2 seeking to move up, Mike Curb in 1982, had lost his own Republican gubernatorial primary. So Republicans were also correct that the lieutenant governor’s post had not traditionally been a good launching pad for governor. But Davis still demolished Dan Lungren by 20 points in the November face-off.

Can Giuliani win the Republican nomination? The jury is still out on that despite his early lead, which is driven mainly by hero status and the attendant high name identification. His liberal views on social issues, and problematic personal life, are still huge hurdles to overcome with the hyper-conservative, “family values” voters who tend dominate the GOP primary process.

Can he be elected president? Anything is possible, but the former Mr. Mayor clearly will have to overcome more than 230 years of history to do so.