Well, Fred Dalton Thompson finally made it official, on The Tonight Show of all places: He’s running for president. Though so far it’s been more like strolling for president.
I like Thompson, but I’ve been pretty much immune to his cult of personality. It’s amazing: Just say “I don’t get it” about the man, and some Thompson fans will react like you disputed the wholesomeness of their mother’s recreational habits.
I still don’t really get the hoopla over the guy, but now that he’s officially in the race, I’m giving it a try.
Until recently, pundits — including yours truly — chalked up Thompson’s successful non-candidacy to Republicans’ dissatisfaction with their choices. Thompson, a folksy actor with considerable communication skill — some say he’s “Reaganesque” — was seen as the GOP’s white knight, even its savior.
One problem is that Thompson took a really long time getting into the race, and white knights and saviors usually don’t spend endless months lollygagging on the shady side of their “testing the waters” committee. Sir Lancelot didn’t wait for just the right weather, after all. Thompson’s critics point to this as Exhibit A in the case that Thompson is “lazy.”
Thompson’s response to the criticism is that he’s in second place without raising tens or hundreds of millions of dollars as the experts said he had to. So what do they know? And, as he told Jay Leno, “I don’t think people are going to say, ‘You know, that guy would make a very good president, but he just didn’t get in soon enough.’”
It’s a good line and a good point, but it leaves out an important consideration. Politics is about seizing your moment. By taking this long, Thompson’s Hamlet act may have cooled the ardor among his strongest supporters (and royally ticked off New Hampshire Republicans). He may be able to win over the uncommitted, but he also might have cost himself those he had at “hello” by saying “maybe” for so long. True believers are prized commodities in politics, and once their passions cool, they lose most of their value. Only time will tell if he’s hurt himself.
The question for his competitors is, can they hurt him? Which brings us back to this laziness charge. The notion that Thompson doesn’t have the “fire in the belly” to run for president has been bandied about Washington for a long time. But is it really a character flaw to think twice about jumping into the primary mosh pit earlier than necessary?
Mitt Romney, who’s been running since dinosaurs ruled the Earth, thinks so, though he is more threatened by Thompson than his better-known rivals are. In response, Romney is running ads touting his “energy” and is whispering through surrogates that Thompson’s lethargy is his Achilles’ heel.
I’m not so sure. The laziness charge was always an inside-baseball criticism among politicos. Thompson doesn’t have a lazy man’s resume. Moreover, he can easily rebut the charge by simply reminding primary voters “that’s what they said about Reagan.”
And, like Reagan, Thompson can use his personality to his advantage. His charm stems from his persona as the anti-candidate. Like his Arthur Branch character on NBC’s sagging Law and Order, Thompson’s appeal is that he doesn’t say ten words when eight will do (as opposed to, say, Sen. Joe Biden, who says 38,000 words when eight will do).
Romney wants to bring the slide rules and PowerPoint projectors of Wall Street to the White House. Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani wants to recreate his whirlwind transformation of the “ungovernable city” on a national stage. And John McCain, at least rhetorically, promises to bring Teddy Rooseveltian vigor to the White House.
Meanwhile Thompson seems content to sit on his porch whittling a piece of wood with his pocketknife while offering pearls of wisdom out of an old Bartles & Jaymes commercial. It’s all a bit hokey and canned, to be sure. But if Thompson’s back-to-basics rhetoric proves to be more than schmaltz, it could be very popular with conservatives.
Activism and energy in the Oval Office have not always been conservative priorities. Applying the best practices of the private sector to government, as Romney wants to do, is certainly one kind of reform. But trimming the responsibilities of government to a few important and constitutional functions would also constitute real reform. Right now, the only bandwagon for a message even remotely like that is the Ron Paul campaign, and unfortunately, that bandwagon has no brakes. It long ago barreled past conservatism to swampy territory outside the borders of common sense.
Thompson could be different. While all the other candidates have a “can-do” personality, Thompson has a “won’t-do” personality. And that’s something many of us think has long been missing from the White House.
© 2007 Tribune Media Services, Inc.