When Fred Thompson enters the Republican primary in September, he’ll bring considerable charm, a nearly perfect pro-life voting record, a base of support from conservative opinion makers and a useful distance from the calamities which have befallen Republicans of late.
Still, the still-hypothetical Thompson candidacy is likely to prove a lot more vulnerable to attack than it seems on paper, and his opponents will have plenty of ammunition at their disposal.
Here are five relatively simple arguments that could give the Thompson campaign serious trouble.
“He’s no Washington outsider.”
Much of Fred Thompson’s charm lies in his seeming aloofness from Beltway politics. He hasn’t wanted to be president his whole life, he repeats again and again. He hasn’t made a career as a politician and doesn’t “need” to be president.
His opponents’ answer should be to repeat the “L” word—lobbyist—endlessly. Mr. Thompson’s lobbying for a pro-choice group was more significant for the lobbying part than the pro-choice part. In defending himself against charges he aided the pro-choice cause Thompson was forced to reveal that he’s lobbied for dozens of clients, so many he can’t remember them all. Suddenly he was less outside and more inside than some of the current contenders. Add to that his gamesmanship in manipulating the “testing the waters” rule (which allowed him to prolong his entry, keep his TV series on the air and delay financial disclosures) and Mr. Thompson suddenly looks like a Beltway pro who built a career exploiting all the angles.
“He loves small government and federalism except when he votes.”
Mr. Thompson, to the extent he has talked in detail about any subject, has touted the benefits of returning to a Republican version of limited government and re-establishing that principle that the federal government should play a more limited role (focusing, for example, on securing the borders and fighting terrorism). Savvy opponents will argue that Thompson talks a good game, one that appeals to traditional Republican themes, but has actually contributed greatly to the expansion of federal power. The most obvious illustration will be McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform which he championed, co-sponsored and defended in a brief before the Supreme Court. Nothing rankles conservative activists more than federal regulation of political speech and Mr. Thompson, his opponents will say, bears as much responsibility as McCain for this intrusion of the federal government into campaigns, political speech and interest-group advocacy. They will no doubt also point to his vote in favor of No Child Left Behind, which federalized education, hugely expanded Washington’s spending on education and helped undermine state and local control of schools.
“We need a tough executive, not another amiable conservative.”
The Bush has been an embarrassment in its mismanagement of the war, the failure to deal with natural disasters like Katrina and the creation of personnel disasters like Alberto Gonzales. Republicans are well aware that they have something to prove before the public once again thinks of Republicans as tough, businesslike stewards of effective government. Three of Mr. Thompson’s toughest opponents—Mitt Romney, Rudy Giuliani and Mike Huckabee—all boast records as executives and will remind voters repeatedly of their successes and executive know-how. Mr. Thompson, as rival campaigns will no doubt remind voters, has never run anything, and, so far, isn’t doing a very good job of running his own campaign. Being a conservative is nice, they will say, but it’s not enough.
“There’s no there there.”
To date, Thompson has gotten by with no tax plan, no health plan, no proposal for Iraq and no suggestions for returning Washington to fiscal sobriety. His opponents have reams of commitments, plans and programs which they say show that they are ready to hit the ground running. What is Thompson offering? He has hinted that entitlements are an issue—hardly a revelation to anyone following the news in the last decade—but hasn’t offered his own prescription for Social Security or Medicare reform. If Thompson can’t go toe-to-toe with opponents in detailed policy debates, they will be able to make the case that he’s simply not ready for the job.
“Hillary will kill him.”
Electabilty is certainly on Republicans’ minds these days as they come to the recognition the public is not pleased with their party and will be seeking to throw the rascals out. Mr. Thompson may have a harder time than any of the leading Republican contenders demonstrating that he can put any states in play for the G.O.P. in the general election. Nearly 80 percent of his initial round of contributions came from southern states—a sign that voters from purple and blue states have yet to discover his attractions. When Mr. Thompson attacks New York City in his pro-gun and anti-immigration ads, he’s not making friends with voters who like New York City and live in other urban centers. Are suburban and urban voters really ready for another folksy figure with rural props? (A red pickup truck? Really?) Couple all that with polls showing that his gender gap –a traditional Republican worry—is vast and that he badly trails Hillary Clinton in one-on-one match ups, and the arguments against Thompson ’08 start to make themselves.