Conventional wisdom is hardening around the proposition that Fred Dalton Thompson is too lazy, ill-prepared, tired, old, lackluster, inexperienced, inconsistent and bald to make a successful run for President. Of course, conventional wisdom rarely gets anything right. When it does, it's only by accident.
In this case conventional wisdom is not just wrong but comically so. Thompson will win the Republican nomination for two reasons. First, he's a very impressive candidate. Second, there's no realistic alternative. He will win the general election for the same two reasons.
Let's start by considering the Thompson's Republican competition.
John McCain's candidacy may not be dead, but then again, neither is Ariel Sharon. McCain has been at war with the Republican Party for a decade. The idea that he could win the GOP's presidential nomination was never more than a fantasy. His presence in the race will soon become an embarrassment, if it isn't one already.
Mitt Romney oscillates between the low teens and single digits in national polls. He does better in Iowa and New Hampshire where he has spent a great deal of time and money in the hope that he can ride a wave of early momentum to victory. It won't happen.
The only evidence that Romney can generate significant support comes from states where he has campaigned essentially unopposed by kicking his effort into high gear months before anyone else. In the last few weeks before the voting starts the political landscape will be very different and much more crowded.
Romney can't sustain the support he currently shows in Iowa and New Hampshire unless he can make himself considerably more appealing that he has managed to be so far. Even his greatest admirers usually concede that he is too slick and too packaged to seem entirely trustworthy. As the polling data so far indicates, the great majority of Republican voters are going to choose somebody else when they judge him alongside their other choices.
Oddly, Mitt Romney gives me new insight into Bill Clinton's career. I always used to wonder how much of Clinton's appeal, such as it was, depended on his flaws rather than his strengths. Could Clinton have been so charming to so many without the selfishness, the total lack of self-discipline, the sexual incontinence, the dishonesty, the flabby physique and the swollen nose? Did he depend on his repulsive and dysfunctional traits to humanize him?
Romney's struggle to connect with voters suggests that he did. Sorry Governor, the voters just don't warm to guys who are classically handsome, athletic, rich , intelligent, decent, and also ambitious enough to be supple about their political principles. You could try taking a personal interest in some interns, but that probably won't work for a Republican.
Romney would do better, despite his slippery persona, if he could only learn to communicate without dropping into MBA speak. Everything for Mitt is a PowerPoint presentation to potential investors. Consider his approach to the central problem facing our war planners - what to do about Iran? He has a five point plan:
Specifically, we must:
- First, continue to tighten economic sanctions.
- Second, impose diplomatic isolation on Iran's Government.
- Third, have Arab states join this effort to prevent a nuclear Iran.
- Fourth, make it clear that while nuclear capabilities may be a source of pride, it can also be a source of peril. The military option remains on the table.
- Fifth, integrate our strategy into a broader approach to the broader Muslim world--including working with our NATO allies and with progressive Muslim communities and leaders to build a partnership for prosperity.
This is drivel.
The fourth point is supposed to be a threat, but it sounds pro forma. The rest of it is perfect nonsense which leaches away any impact the anemic threat might have had. There are no meaningful sanctions to tighten. We can't impose diplomatic isolation on Iran and if we did the Iranian government wouldn't care. Arab states can't do anything to stop Iran's nuclear ambitions and even if they could they wouldn't dare. As for number five, what is he talking about? Dumping money on an Arab world already awash in petrodollars?
If I were one of the mad mullahs I wouldn't be losing any sleep for fear that Mitt Romney might be the next Commander-in-Chief. As a voter, I can't see any reason to entrust my family's safety to him. He plainly isn't the guy to inspire a nation at war.
What about America's Mayor? After the McCain campaign went on life support, conventional wisdom converted from the belief that Republicans would anoint McCain because it was "his turn" to a new and equally irrational faith. The catechism goes something like this: Republicans are probably doomed in 2008. Their only chance lies in swallowing hard and nominating Rudy Giuliani who can, supposedly, compete with Hillary for votes in left-leaning states like New Jersey , New York, Pennsylvania and California.
This argument is a hardy perennial of conventional commentary, and it is utterly inane. You can't win by appealing to people who won't vote for you under any imaginable circumstances at the cost of alienating your core supporters. Trading a perfectly good cow for a handful of beans only makes sense in fairy tales.
The Democrat Party was once the dominant political force in American life. It lost that position for two reasons. First, because the electorate discovered that Democrats, beholden as they are to leftist, anti-American supporters, can't be trusted to defend the country. Second, because voters also discovered that Democrats lacked the strength and the wisdom to defend our culture against all sorts of bizarre social experiment.
Democrats have worked very hard to draw the camouflage nets over their irresponsible attitude toward national defense. Republicans have been extremely timid about exposing it. The point of distinction between Republicans and Democrats which works most strongly in the GOP's favor is that Republicans fight back when vandals try to deface fundamental social institutions and Democrats stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the vandals. Nominating Rudy Giuliani would neutralize this advantage.
With Rudy on the ballot millions of "values voters" would stay home. Millions more who are beguiled by socialism's promise of something for nothing but often vote for Republicans anyway because Democrats are just too weird, would vote for the Dem. With Giuliani as the candidate Republicans would limp into the fall of 2008, both feet riddled with self-inflicted bullet wounds.
Giuliani's supporters like to complain about the petulance of "single issue" voters who would ignore their man's many sterling qualities and help elect Hillary merely because they have some serious disagreements with the former Mayor. This complaint is a waste of time and energy. A Giulliani nomination would hurt Republican prospects. This is as predictable as the tide and just as impervious to argument. If Giulliani's supporters insist on shattering the Republican coalition and, as a result, Hillary wins, they should blame their own arrogance not the petulance of others.
Giuliani had a clear chance to unify the Republican coalition and step forward as it's natural leader. If, at the outset of his campaign he argued forcefully that Roe v. Wade was wrongly decided and needs to be overturned, Republicans could have had confidence that he would stand with society's defenders and against the vandals.
Henry Clay once said he would rather be right than President. Giuliani would rather be wrong about Roe than President and by now his choice is irrevocable. Apparently Rudy doesn't understand that Roe is a travesty, which puts him squarely on the wrong side of the culture war. For both moral and political reasons, Republicans can't choose him as their nominee.
But isn't Rudy so tough on terrorism that voters will flock to him? No, he isn't. Giuliani has given no indication on the campaign trail that he has an especially clear understanding of our strategic situation. Nor has he given any indication that he will be particularly forceful in dealing with our enemies. Once again, the acid test is what he has to say about dealing with Iran. Rudy flunks that test even more dramatically than Romney does. At least Romney is talking about the subject, however ineptly.
When Giuliani talks about the "War on Terror" he says we need to "stay on offense," which presupposes that we have been on offense. We haven't. We have been trying to fight a limited proxy war in Iraq and avoid taking the fight directly to the enemy's center of gravity. That isn't offense. It isn't smart either but that's another subject for another time.
When Rudy mentions Iran at all he gives no hint that he understands that, one way or another, the road to victory leads through Tehran. He says, as does George W. Bush, that Iran can't be allowed to have nuclear weapons. Like the President, he never says how we are going to stop Iran from getting them.
Giuliani has very little foreign policy experience and he seems to be in thrall to the same establishment groupthink on the subject that has largely paralyzed the Bush administration. Giuliani was level-headed on September 11. That doesn't make him a latter-day Patton, or LeMay.
Fred Thompson is quite different from the other candidates. The conventional critiques of his candidacy all say much more about his strengths than his weaknesses.
Dick Morris complains that he is too lazy to prepare well-scripted answers to questions about local issues. In Florida, for example he deflected a question about the Terri Schiavo case saying he wasn't familiar with the details but in general he preferred local answers to local questions. To a question about oil drilling in the Everglades he said that he wasn't aware of major oil resources there but that we couldn't be in the business of putting energy resources off limits.
Each of these answers was perfectly reasonable and part of a package that is likely to have broad appeal. Neither shows a lazy candidate. They both show a mature and sensible candidate who isn't willing to pander. Thompson, unlike all the others, has important themes to project and can't be bothered to pick up a few supporters here and there by promising to serve the interests of those few at the expense of the many.
This isn't politics as usual in 21st Century America, but it is likely to sell. When it does, it will make a mockery of Dick Morris's entire career, which was grounded on the idea that pandering conquers all.
What about Thompson's experience? He never ran anything. Mitt was Governor of Massachusetts and a successful business executive. Rudy was Mayor of New York. Shouldn't those qualifications trump a lawyer who is also an actor and used to be a senator? They would if we were hiring a manager in chief, but we aren't.
We have gotten so used to speaking of the President of the United States "running the country" that most of us no longer notice how unrealistic and unAmerican that expression is. The whole point of the American Revolution was to establish a country without anyone to run it. We don't want or need a president who is inclined to run things. We need a President who leads and inspires. Fred, with his non-managerial background, is the only candidate of either party who seems to get this.
Much ink has been wasted making the obvious point that Thompson is not an "outsider." After a long career in Washington as a staffer and Senator, as a lawyer and a lobbyist Fred Thompson is as well connected as any "insider" here. But for his entire career Thompson has stood outside the bipartisan consensus that, when it comes to government activity, more is better. His commitment to governmental modesty is most often expressed as concern for the principle of federalism. That commitment put him on the short end of some very lopsided votes as a Senator.
Thompson's view on the proper scope of federal government activities is neither shallow nor passing. It has deep roots and he can defend them against heavyweight attacks. At National Review Online last spring, Ramesh Ponnuru challenged some federalist positions Thompson took as a Senator. Thompson wrote a response which dismantled Ponnuru's arguments. Ponnuru's reply was both snarky and beside the point. It came as close to sputtering incoherence as it is possible to come in print. Ramesh Ponnuru is no fool. The man who can beat him like a rented mule in a battle of the keyboards thoroughly understands the subject of their dispute.
Thompson's commitment to governmental modesty makes him the only serious candidate for president who isn't part of the bipartisan Party of Government. He is the only candidate qualified to build on the success of Ronald Reagan and the only candidate who can counter the Democrat drive for more socialism, particularly as it applies to health care.
Reagan turned America away from the socialist morass of the 1930's and reconnected us with our deepest political traditions. He reminded us that we don't want a government, let alone a President, to run the country. Unfortunately, his successors never understood this essential pillar of Reagan's success. When George W. Bush perpetrated the atrocious statement that "when somebody hurts government has got to move," the Republican break with Reagan was complete.
Fred Thompson isn't Ronald Reagan. But he can restore the Republican Party to Reagan's default settings. He can make the GOP once again the party of the American Revolution and distinguish it sharply from the party of the French, Russian, Chinese, and Cuban Revolutions.
Does Thompson have the rhetorical skills to be the leader we need? Let's put him to the same test both Romney and Giuliani just flunked. Does Thompson understand that our problem with terrorism is now primarily an Iranian problem? Can he face that problem and discuss it in terms most Americans will understand?
Thompson's reaction to General Petraeus' recent testimony before Congress suggests that he can. Before Petraeus said a word everyone knew that our efforts in Iraq have become vastly more successful under his command. Everyone understood that Al Qaeda and Iran's proxies will probably be humiliated in Iraq unless they can adjust to the tactics we are now using with such success. The $64,000 question was this: What is Iran doing to forestall humiliation in Iraq and what will we do to stop them?
General Petraeus dropped some very interesting hints on this subject and Thompson zeroed in on them. His statement on the subject was simple and direct: "Gen. Petraeus' report also leaves me even more concerned about Iran's role in Iraq. Iran is headed down a dangerous path, and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad must understand that."
Thompson reinforced this barely veiled threat with his reaction to a controversy over Ahmadinejad's request to visit Ground Zero while he is in New York to address the UN. He said "I wouldn't let him in the country." He went on to say , according to the Dallas Morning News, that "the Iranian regime was a threat to Americans and should be dealt with accordingly."
At last a candidate who understands that Iran is at war with us and who is willing to speak as though we are at war with Iran. It's a bonus that he speaks in clear declarative sentences and that everything in his manner and appearance demands that you take him seriously.
When Thompson speaks the chattering class often sputters that he is too laid back, even soporific. People who have never seen him speak themselves often adopt this critique and endlessly repeat the same clichés on various conservative websites - "lackluster," "underwhelming," "tired," "old," "no fire in the belly." Conservatives are hungry for a Hillary slayer and many of them fear that a thoughtful, deliberate senior statesman can't possibly play that role. They are wrong.
Watch a Thompson speech that was widely panned as dull. Just because Fred talks slowly doesn't mean he's stupid, or uninspiring. Notice that he is saying important things and saying them well. How many politicians can talk about Russell Kirk's The Conservative Mind in terms which indicate that he has both read and understood it?
Consider that Fred's calm, sensible demeanor permits him to say things that would terrify many ordinary voters coming from someone who seemed less steady. Thompson can say radical things and nobody turns a hair. If any other candidate talked about overhauling social security and the tax code while we fight a global war of which Iraq and Afghanistan are mere outcroppings, a substantial part of the electorate would faint dead away. Try to wrap your mind around the reality that coming off like an old coot having a conversation as he whittles next to the pot-bellied stove down at the country store is an excellent way to attract most American voters.
Political strategists aren't known for consensus, but they all agree that the public loathes passionate and polarized politics. Attacking Hillary with self-righteous zeal like St. George all set to slay the dragon would be a tactical mistake. The best way for a Republican to beat Hillary is to talk to the American people calmly, simply and sensibly, and let her be the poster child for all the bitterness and anger of the last decade. Fred is just the man to do that.
After a recent Thompson speech in Iowa a member of the audience called out: "Kill the terrorists, secure the border, and give me back my freedom." Thompson replied "you just summed up my whole speech."
No other candidate could have carried off that quip because no other candidate is capable of delivering a convincing speech focused on those powerful themes.
Certainly Hillary's theme - A kinder, gentler America at home and abroad - can't compete. Socialism never had the electoral appeal in the United States that the chattering class expects it to have. Nowadays it is painfully passe. Segolene Royale couldn't find a socialist wave to ride into power even in France.
Besides, Hillary is indelibly stained by her close association with Moveon.org and the other moonbats of the pseudo-pacifist left. When the calendar reads November, 2008 the world is likely to be much less hospitable to anti-war tomfoolery than it is today. By that time either Iran will have had to cede control of Iraq to the United States giving us an historic victory, or our conflict with Iran will have broken into the open. Either way, the defeatists and obstructionists aren't likely to be in good odor. Hillary will try to cut them loose, too late.
I'm looking forward to Fred's first Inaugural Address.