Commentary

Let the Clock Run Out on Rudy

By Patrick Basham
September 29, 2001
“Rudy!” “Rudy!” screams the adoring crowd. With time running out on his hopes of participating in the unfolding battle, the authorities finally relent. They permit the redoubtable Rudy — whose strength of character in the face of terrible adversity converted his many doubters — to compete and, thereby, to reap the public acclaim his efforts so richly merit.

This isn’t a prediction about the outcome of the race for mayor of New York City, starring the incumbent Rudy Giuliani. It’s a scene from the inspirational 1993 movie Rudy, starring Sean Astin as real-life Rudy Ruettiger. His dogged persistence and personal strength overcame seemingly insurmountable institutional obstacles and physical limitations that allowed him to achieve, at age 27, his ambition of playing a down of college football for Notre Dame in his last eligible game.

Today, many New Yorkers want their term-limited Rudy to be afforded his own crowning moment. In hypothetical match-ups, a new Marist College poll shows Giuliani defeating either of the remaining Democratic mayoral candidates by 30 points. New York voters know what they want — to keep Giuliani in office — and Giuliani’s September 26 comments to Dan Rather on “60 Minutes II” revealed he wants the same thing.

So what’s the problem? In this scenario, there are two problems with “everyone” getting what they want. First, it would be illegal. Along with hundreds of other cities across the country, electoral politics in New York City are now governed by term limits. On Election Day 2001, two-term Mayor Giuliani, the City Comptroller, the Public Advocate, four of five sitting borough presidents, and 35 of 51 Council members will be barred from seeking reelection.

Term limits didn’t arrive in the Big Apple on a whim. In a November 1993 citywide referendum, 60 percent of New York City voters supported limiting senior municipal politicians to two four-year terms in office. That vote was subsequently the subject of a failed court challenge by the City Council. In November 1996, the City Council asked New Yorkers to delay the implementation of term limits and to lengthen the allowable term in office to 12 years. New York voters said, “No.” A recent opinion poll found two-thirds of New Yorkers favor term limits.

When Giuliani ran for reelection four years ago, he knew that the term limits law (which he supported) prohibited a third term and, consequently, his tenure would end on January 1, 2002. Enter, stage right, the New York Conservative Party offering its mayoral candidacy. Astonishingly, this “conservative” organization pays such little heed to its ideological heritage that it is willing to dismiss the rule of law if the latter runs counter to the party’s current political infatuation.

As term limits are the law, their repeal would be a serious legislative matter requiring the agreement of either the New York state legislature or New York City Council. Fortunately, neither legislative body appears interested in revisiting an issue on which the voters have spoken. Whether out of high-minded principle or simple political expediency, most New York elected officials recognize that the rule of law must take precedence over the preferences of a political leader, no matter how popular he may be at the time.

Second, a scenario in which “everyone” gets what he or she wants rarely advances the public interest. During Giuliani’s controversial tenure he has enjoyed some notable policy successes, particularly in the areas of crime, employment and welfare. Although Giuliani’s record of accomplishment dwarfs that of his predecessors, let’s not forget that his second term hasn’t been dominated by visionary leadership or policy innovation but by the mayor’s martial difficulties, his serious health concerns, and his curtailed Senate candidacy.

As the day-to-day chief operating officer of New York City, Giuliani-the-policymaker has largely run out of intellectual steam. A third Giuliani term is far more likely to resemble his underwhelming second term than his noteworthy first term. This is part of the term limits rationale: even the better incumbents usually need a new challenge after two terms in office.

However, the Manhattan Institute’s Myron Magnet argues that Giuliani saved New York once “and now the city needs saving again.” Shaken by the events of September 11, New Yorkers do need reassurance that the city will be rebuilt quickly and properly. But won’t Giuliani’s expected appointment by his successor as New York’s “Rebuilding Czar” satisfy both the public’s need for a safe and experienced pair of hands overseeing the city’s redevelopment and Giuliani’s palpable desire for a new civic challenge?

At the end of Rudy, the movie, the new hero is raised aloft and carried triumphantly from the battlefield. Although he probably pondered what another competitive season might have brought him, Rudy Ruettiger always knew the time limits governing his eligibility for participation in his chosen endeavor. So, he accepted the plaudits of his peers and his new fans and moved on to other challenges.

In politics, as in sport, timing is everything. Therefore, while contemplating, as he told Dan Rather, “the right thing to do,” perhaps Giuliani should pay a visit to the video store. He could then reflect upon the example of another Rudy, one who graciously exited the public stage when time expired — and before the cheering ended.

Patrick Basham is a senior fellow in the Center for Representative Government at the Cato Institute.