The conventional wisdom about Fred Thompson is that he might have waited too long to get into the presidential race, even though by the standard of past election cycles he’s right on schedule. The best question for the Thompson campaign doesn’t have to do with timing, but with rationale; it isn’t about “When?” but “Why?”
The Republican presidential field doesn’t obviously lack for a former senator with an unremarkable public record and a career as a character actor. Excitement built around him earlier this year as the default candidate, the “someone else” when underwhelmed Republican primary voters were looking for one. Now that he’s moved from “someone else” to “another candidate in a field of nine,” the default position no longer will suffice.
Thompson isn’t “lazy” — the rap against him — by any reasonable measure. He didn’t become a Watergate investigator, prosecutor, actor, and senator by sleeping late and watching daytime TV. But his Senate career tells against him. Not because he didn’t have the energy to make much of it, but because he apparently didn’t have the desire.
His time there is a notable contrast with that of Bill Frist. Both Thompson and Frist were political novices who won Senate seats in 1994 from Tennessee. Frist determined to do everything he could in the Senate. He headed the Republican Senate campaign and eventually rose to majority leader. Thompson coasted. He was chairman of a committee investigating Clinton fundraising abuses, but got stymied by his unimpressive Democratic counterpart, John Glenn. In 2002, Thompson gave up his seat, not with a bang, but a whimper.
His delay in announcing his presidential bid needn’t seriously hurt him if he is a candidate on par with or better than his top rivals. In the national glare, both Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani have proven themselves good fundraisers, adept debaters, and indefatigable campaigners with appealing outsider reformist messages. It’s not clear yet that Thompson is any of these things.
Thompson has two main draws. One is stylistic, even though he has a kind of anti-style — a low-key, no-nonsense bearing that gives him a sense of quiet authority. The downside is that this can seem to be a lack of passion. His appearance on The Tonight Show With Jay Leno announcing his candidacy was so somnolent that you could be forgiven for wondering if he wasn’t already bored with running for president.
His other appeal is ideological. Thompson has a more consistent conservative record than Romney or Giuliani. But, a product of the moderate-conservative Tennessee GOP, he was never a firebrand either. In the gotcha environment of the primary race, Thompson will have to defend past heterodoxies on abortion, immigration, campaign-finance reform and tort reform. The deeper problem, though, is that what ails the Republican Party isn’t a lack of down-the-line conservatism.
Republicans need more fresh thinking, and Thompson’s devotion to federalism emphatically doesn’t count. In terms of domestic policy, the best news in the Republican race so far is that Romney and Giuliani have offered forward-looking health-care proposals. Thompson will have to excel in the ideas race rather than rest on a conservative voting record.
The one advantage Republicans might have in a tough election year in 2008 is that they likely will be running against a Democratic senator or former senator with no executive experience. That creates an opening for Romney or Giuliani — both successful executives who made their political reputations outside the beltway — to argue they are better suited to fix Washington. Thompson, in contrast, has a similar profile as the Democrats — a former senator with no experience running things, whose kitchen table is in the haute Washington, D.C., suburb of McLean, Va.
All that said, it’s the most wide open Republican primary race in 50 years. Before even announcing, Thompson was in second place in national polls. It is understandable that when considering a run he looked at those polls and concluded, “Why not?” Now, he has to answer the tougher question: “Why?”
© 2007 by King Features Syndicate