Fred Thompson told Jay Leno that he had been “testing the waters” of presidential politics and found them “nice and warm.” That was the right thing to say. But we hope the former senator appreciates that those waters are, in fact, chilly and hazardous.
The Republicans have a steep uphill fight to retain the White House, and Thompson is joining a field with two top candidates — Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney — who are formidable fundraisers, energetic campaigners, and good managers. Thompson’s unofficial campaign was lacking on all three counts. Giuliani tops national polls, while Romney holds a lead in key states voting early next year, including Iowa, New Hampshire, and Michigan.
Thompson’s rivals are talented — and preternaturally ambitious — politicians. But in the absence of a candidate dominating the race, it’s not too late for the entry of a standard-bearer with strong conservative convictions, a likable persona, and the ability to enthuse the center-right coalition that elects Republican presidents.
That opening is clear in theory, and it would be foolish to dismiss a candidate who places second in national polls, as Thompson does. He wants to run as a more conservative candidate than Giuliani, whose record in the New York City and positions on some social issues will be too liberal for many Republican primary voters. He also wants to be seen as more authentic than Mitt Romney, whose recent transformations on key issues have created doubts about his sincerity. The question is whether Thompson can translate this theoretical opening into real, sustained political support, and the answer will probably depend on how he rises to three challenges.
1) Intellectual freshness. Thompson can’t seem trapped in the 1994 Republican revolution that brought him to Washington. The issues that animated the GOP’s win then — crime and welfare — aren’t so salient today. And Thompson’s devotion to federalism, which we share, is unfortunately a political nullity redolent of the 1996 Dole campaign.
It’s true that Thompson has a more consistent conservative record than Romney, Giuliani, or McCain. But this difference, while important, is one of degree, as Thompson’s past stands on campaign-finance regulation, tort reform, immigration, and abortion suggest. In any case, what’s missing from the field is not consistent conservatism, but new ideas that can bring independents and conservatives together. Thompson shouldn’t submerge his past tendency to be a maverick, but rather channel it in new directions.
2) Fire in the belly. It’s amusing to read oped writers who have done little but sit in front of computer screens and dismiss Thompson as lazy, when he has had a wide-ranging and successful career, from prosecutor to senator to actor. But he didn’t build an impressive record in the Senate, and his laid-back demeanor and delay in entering the race create doubts about his desire to do what it takes to be the next president of the United States.
The way for Thompson to dispel these doubt is simple, if not easy: He must match Romney, Giuliani, and McCain fundraiser for fundraiser, town-hall meeting for town-hall meeting. He can’t run a “non-traditional” campaign, as his aides sometimes say he will — not only because presidential nominations are usually won the old-fashioned way, but also because such a campaign would play into criticisms that he is trying to win the nomination on the cheap.
3) Managerial skill. A strength of the Republican field is that it has two accomplished, proven executives in Romney and Giuliani. Thompson has never run a large enterprise — until now. The rigors of managing a presidential campaign are themselves a significant test of executive ability. If Thompson can manage his effectively, organize in key states, and raise enough money to be competitive, while crafting a compelling message and doing the retail politics necessary in places such as Iowa and New Hampshire, he will make an unmistakable statement about his administrative capacities.
We wish Thompson luck, and hope that he can fill his latest, and most demanding, role.