A Washington Monthly e-mail featured a column by Rachel Morris faulting Rudy Giuliani:
This Tuesday in New Hampshire, Rudy Giuliani gave a speech on terrorism that has already attracted attention for its retro (c. 2002) theme: that America is headed straight for another 9/11 if a Democrat wins the White House. "America will be safer with a Republican president," Giuliani announced. Democrats, by contrast, would simply "wave the white flag." ...
But the most disturbing thing about the speech wasn't its style -- although milking one's 9/11 reputation for crass political gain is, obviously, despicable. It was the rationale that lies behind it....
Now Giuliani's speech may well be unsound; I'm not a Giuliani partisan, and I have no desire to defend it on the merits. But I'm puzzled, as I often am about such arguments, by the claim that "milking one's 9/11 reputation for crass political gain is, obviously, despicable."
It seems to me that in a democracy, politicians are supposed to milk their reputations built on past successes for political gain, such as higher public office. ("Crass" here seems more a pejorative label than much of a limiting principle; Giuliani wants higher office, and that office would be no more and no less a crass political gain for him than for anyone else.) That's the incentive system: Do things that the public sees as successes. Build your reputation. Get more credibility when you discuss similar matters. Get elected or appointed to higher office when those matters are prominent in the public's mind.
Nor should there be something sacred about successes in dealing with deadly disasters or attacks that keeps them from being used this way. These are precisely the areas where we most want to give politicians an incentive to shine, and where we most want to reward politicians who have shone.
Imagine a surgeon who, in the wake of some disaster, does what many see as a superb job of saving many patients. He then goes to hospital managers and says that the hospital's patients will do better if he (rather than his rivals who he thinks haven't shown such skills) were given a promotion to an even more responsible surgical position.
Would we fault him because "milking [his] reputation [formed during a deadly disaster] for crass [careerist] gain is, obviously, despicable"? I think we'd say that it's good to make sure that hospital employees are rewarded for great performance, since that provides an extra incentive for great performance. (Sure, you'd hope that humanitarianism would be incentive enough, but harnessing selfish interests as well as selfless concerns for the public benefit produces better results than relying merely on selflessness.) And we'd probably even say that he has a point: If he did a great job before, maybe that is some evidence he'd do a great job again.
Now we might fault the surgeon if he seems too self-confident. We might ask whether indeed he performed as well as it seems at first. If he also derides his competitors, we might ask whether his criticisms are sound. But we wouldn't see anything despicable about his "milking [his] reputation" for his own professional gain. That's what professionally acquired reputations are for.
So I say again: Maybe Giuliani's speech can be faulted on all sorts of substantive grounds. But we should encourage politicians to run on their reputations, and encourage them to do things that would build reputations that can get them ahead. And this is especially so when the reputations are for sound leadership in tragic circumstances, where we need sound leadership most.