“Is Fred Thompson the next Ronald Reagan?” Fox News Sunday host Chris Wallace asked at the top of his show two weekends ago. The question echoed what I’d been hearing for days from National Review Online readers and in conservative circles. (“Ask What Would Reagan Do?” and the survey [that is, my inbox] says Elect Thompson!)
#ad#Wisely and humbly the 64-year-old former Tennessee senator dismissed the Reagan comparison as unwarranted. But Thompson didn’t rule out a run for the Republican nomination, saying he is “going to leave the door open.”
Without criticizing anyone now in the race (very Reaganesque!) the former McCain supporter (from 2000) told Wallace: “I think people are somewhat disillusioned. A lot of people are cynical out there. They’re looking for something different.” Echoing Newt Gingrich’s protest of the length of the current presidential-campaign cycle, Thompson noted that “the lay of the land in a few months will be different then it is today.” Last week in his Paul Harvey radio commentary (he’s Harvey’s back-up plan), Thompson homed in on “competence” as what that conservative yearning is for (something it is safe to say NR would agree with him on).
In a “lightning round,” Thompson answered Chris Wallace’s questions on a litany of hot topics, from abortion to energy independence. Not only did Thompson answer Right — pro-life, for traditional marriage (would leave civil unions up to the states), happy about the lifting of the D.C. gun ban — the candidate answered, and quite efficiently at times, like someone who was grounded in a conservative philosophy (on “gay rights,” he said “we shouldn’t set up special categories for anybody,” and while defending himself on campaign-finance reform he cited Barry Goldwater); he does not sound like he’s just checking the right Right boxes. And even where every conservative wouldn’t agree (he supports limited guestworker-program), he sounded eminently reasonable — a great communicator.
Fox News Sunday also played footage of the Law and Order star playing president in Last Best Chance, a docudrama distributed by the Nuclear Threat Initiative.
Later that Sunday morning South Carolina Republican Senator Lindsey Graham told CNN’s Late Edition that Thompson “makes a great president in the movies and he might make a great president in real life.” (Yet perhaps McCain’s pal has a plan to win Thompson-rallied voters over to the McCain camp. Thompson did endorse his former colleague in the 2000 primary season, and some jaded watchers wonder.)
Joseph Cella, president of Fidelis, a conservative Catholic political advocacy group, is intrigued by the possibility of a Thompson run. Cella says, “It is premature to make any final decisions about Thompson, particularly since he has yet to lay out a platform. But it seems he would bring a number of elements to the field that social conservatives, on both sides of the aisle, are looking for.”
My colleague Ramesh Ponnuru, who describes himself as a “McCain supporter,” announced last week on The Corner that he would jump ship if Thompson put his hat in the ring. But not every conservative is jumping on the Thompson bandwagon. Another NR-er, Jonah Goldberg, doesn’t get the thrill of Thompson; and on his radio show Tuesday morning, former Reagan Education Secretary Bill Bennett bemoaned Thompson’s campaign-finance reformist past in the Senate (at least his name isn’t on the legislation, like another GOP nominee wannabe), noting with a collegial but half-hearted enthusiasm: “He seems to have gotten more conservative in the last few years.” (He wouldn’t be the only one, of course.)
Is Fred Thompson playing a role right now? As a Reagan conservative? As a serious candidate? Is this all about raising more money for the Scooter Libby Defense Fund (Thompson said he would pardon Libby “now”). As for the Reaganesque factor, that may be a mere projection of desires on the part of Republican activists (way beyond the Draft Fred crew) — as Thompson says, no one, including Thompson, will come off looking good in comparison to Reagan. As for whether or not he’s running, John Fund said it this weekend: “Fred Thompson clearly hasn’t decided whether to run for president,” and if he is serious, has some significant hurdles to leap through and sacrifices to consider.
If Senator Thompson does make the leap, his entry has the potential to shake up the race — and likely kill the chances for others who want to be the conservative standard-bearer. National Journal’s Marc Ambinder reports that Ted Welch,
one of the nation’s most generous Republican fundraisers, would ally with Thompson in a heartbeat, except that he’s already allied with Mitt Romney. In the wake of Thompson’s Fox News Sunday appearance, Romney’s finance team did some checking. “Yes, Ted is still with us,” a Romney aide said.
No word on how long they expect that to last. (Ambinder also reports that Thompson and McCain had a phone conversation last week. Inquiring minds want to know…)
Who does know, though? Romney could get beyond the flip-flopper label. McCain could work that “inevitability” feeling his supporters have been counting on. Maybe Newt Gingrich makes the race more interesting in October like he teases he will. Looking at Fred Thompson’s varied talents and experience though, one thing’s for sure: Since it’s not his lifelong ambition, it won’t be “the end of the world,” as he recently said, if he doesn’t become president. Which, of course, only makes people want him more.