DURING AN INTERVIEW at The Boston Globe last week, Senator Hillary Clinton was asked about a vote she had cast in 2005 against raising automobile mileage standards - a vote seemingly at odds with her stand on the issue. She answered that it had been a largely "symbolic" vote, since everyone knew the bill in question "would never pass," and voting no had allowed her to demonstrate good will toward the Big Three automakers.
It was, I thought, an unexpectedly candid acknowledgment of two things any voter this side of a coma already knows but candidates rarely admit, at least not about themselves: Politics sometimes involves "symbolic" gestures with no meaningful impact; and politicians' deeds don't always match their rhetoric. Why can't candidates drop the pose and acknowledge that more often?
In that connection, consider the increasingly noisy jousting between Republicans Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani over which is the truer fiscal conservative.
At their debate in Dearborn, Mich., last week, the former Massachusetts governor lambasted the former New York mayor for launching the 1997 lawsuit that led the Supreme Court to strike down a federal line-item veto. "I'm in favor of the line-item veto," Romney said. "I exercised it 844 times. Thank heavens we had a line-item veto."
Romney's heavy use of the line-item veto is one of the mantras of his campaign. In one of his most heavily-aired TV ads, he crows: "I know how to veto. I like vetoes. I've vetoed hundreds of spending appropriations as governor." What he never mentions is how few of those vetoes were sustained. According to the nonpartisan truth squad at FactCheck.org, 707 of Romney's line-item vetoes - more than 80 percent - were overridden by the overwhelmingly Democratic Massachusetts Legislature, sometimes unanimously. Most of the vetoes he boasts of issuing, in other words, were only, to borrow Clinton's word, symbolic. They ended up having almost no impact on state spending. Why pretend otherwise?
In the Dearborn debate, Giuliani trumpeted one of his favorite mantras, too: "I cut taxes 23 times when I was mayor of New York City. I believe in tax cuts. I believe in being a supply-sider." It is a claim he makes with great frequency and vigor in his bid to be seen as the most stalwart tax-cutter in the GOP race.
A tax-cutter Giuliani undoubtedly was - but not 23 times. As FactCheck documents (using data from New York City's Independent Budget Office, a publicly funded watchdog agency), at least eight of the tax cuts Giuliani takes credit for were undertaken not by the mayor but by the state government in Albany. Another cut on Giuliani's list, the repeal of a 12.5 percent income tax surcharge, was spearheaded by the City Council over the mayor's opposition. Only at the end of 1998 did he come around, after two years of lobbying hard to extend the tax - something the influential Club for Growth, which champions lower taxes and limited government, lists among a handful of "glaring flaws" in Giuliani's mostly "impressive record."
As the group's detailed white papers on Romney and Giuliani make clear, both men have generally shown respect for pro-taxpayer, pro-free market values. Both managed to hold spending growth to an average of less than 3 percent a year. Both tended to be voices of fiscal conservatism in liberal, big-spending environments.
But both have also strayed well into left field. The Club for Growth notes that Romney balked at signing a no-new-taxes pledge when he ran for governor, refused to endorse the Bush tax cuts in 2003, imposed a raft of fee hikes and tax "loophole" closures once in office, and only recently abandoned his radically anti-First Amendment view of the campaign-finance law. Giuliani not only led the fight to kill the line-item veto, he ardently opposed the North American Free Trade Agreement and just as ardently supported the wretched McCain-Feingold law. Both men used to be known as liberal Republicans - in fact, Giuliani ran for mayor in 1993 with the endorsement of New York's Liberal Party.
In short, neither man has been a model of conservative ideological purity. And neither is going to become one by belligerently trying to outdo the other in the rhetoric department.
In Garrison Keillor's fictional Lake Wobegon, folks do their shopping at Ralph's Pretty Good Grocery. In the same spirit, the GOP has to pick a 2008 presidential nominee from a lineup of pretty good - but decidedly imperfect - conservatives. Realistic Republicans understand that their choices in this campaign don't include Ronald Reagan or Adam Smith. The Mitt-'n'-Rudy smackdown is entertaining, but it won't change that reality.
Jeff Jacoby's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.