In an election about change, Fred Thompson valiantly and unsuccessfully tried to run a Back to the Future campaign. From day one, he invoked the most sacred icons of the conservative past — Conscience of a Conservative, Ronald Reagan, the 1994 Republican takeover — and set out to convince Republicans that the way to win in 2008 would be to nominate a conservative who had always been true to his principles.
“Who’s the genuine conservative in the race?” Thompson campaign manager Bill Lacy asked a group of reporters at Fred’s first official campaign event in Des Moines back in September. “What matters to the voters is where the candidate has come down on these issues in the past.” While it’s true that consistency matters, Fred’s past adherence to principle wasn’t enough to convince voters that he was the right man to lead them into the future.
If that much wasn’t clear before last Saturday, Thompson’s disappointing third-place finish in South Carolina’s Republican primary confirmed it. His speech at a gathering of supporters that night had all the hallmarks of a farewell address: He thanked his supporters for traveling “a very special road” with him, and he urged Republicans to stay true to the “strong, consistent, conservative beliefs that founded this country.”
The winners in the Republican party that day had been John McCain in South Carolina and Mitt Romney in Nevada, both of whom have embraced the theme of change. Everywhere he goes, McCain portrays himself as the man who changed the course of the Iraq war through his early advocacy of the successful troop surge. Meanwhile, Romney tells voters that Washington is “fundamentally broken” and that he can bring the change to make it work again. And Mike Huckabee, who finished second in South Carolina, did so espousing a political philosophy that many Republicans don’t recognize as being conservative at all.
Fred’s campaign had a different tone. He was not a candidate of change. On almost every important issue, he offered the same policy prescriptions conservatives have championed for years. On Social Security, he offered a plan that included private accounts and a modest slowdown in the growth of benefits. On immigration, he rejected the false dichotomy in which our only options are to deport millions of people or grant them citizenship; instead, Fred proposed new border-security measures and a strategy of reducing the illegal population through attrition. He promised to appoint strict-constructionist judges, and he proposed conservative solutions to the problem of rising health-care costs. On Iraq, he favored giving Gen. David Petraeus time to do his job.
Fred Thompson exits after addressing supporters following the SC primary. Photo Credit: Nathan Goulding
These positions earned him the ardor of Reaganite Republicans, who looked at their field and didn’t see much to like. Unfortunately, Fred lacked the salesmanship to make these old ideas seem new at a time when new seems to be what the voters want. It also didn’t help that, as Byron York put it in a dispatch last week, “Thompson showed great impatience with some of the ridiculous demands presidential campaigns place on candidates.”
An exchange that occurred during a Jan. 6 Fox News debate in New Hampshire is illustrative. Moderator Chris Wallace asked each of the candidates about “this whole issue of change” (Barack Obama had just won the Iowa caucuses). This is how Fred replied:
I think that what is more important is leadership. And what’s more important, as a part of leadership, is telling the American people the truth and having the courage to do that. Telling the American people — for example, we were talking about:
Social Security, something everybody knows [is in trouble], but nobody wants to talk about; that the war is going to be protracted, probably, it’s going to take some time and more resources than we’ve been devoting as a percentage of our economy; that we’re not going to be energy independent in a few years.
It’s going to take a longer time. We’re going to have to move that big battleship as much as we can in as short a period of time as we can, but it’s not around the corner. That we’re spending our next generation’s money, and we’re bankrupting them, in many respects, as far as our entitlement programs are concerned. Those are truths. We’re going to have to go to the American people and say, “Here’s the deal. Here’s what we need to do. Let’s do what generations have done in times past: Come together. Do the right thing.”
That’s the change that we need. I wish we could change to that.
Thompson surely deserves much of the blame he’s going to get for running a lackluster campaign, and people — most of all his supporters — will wonder if his heart was ever really in it. But his campaign always had a bigger obstacle, a “change deficit” that he could not have overcome without changing who he was. That would have negated his reason for running, but more importantly, it would have cost conservatism a valuable defender.
– Stephen Spruiell is an NRO political reporter.