The Problem With Fred Thompson’s Clinton Boast

As he listlessly confirmed to Jay Leno that he’s running for President on Wednesday, Fred Thompson provided the latest – and most egregious – example of a candidate staking a false claim to cross-party appeal.

“I won in Tennessee – if I can brag a little bit on myself politically – by 20 points in two races in a state that Bill Clinton carried twice,” he pointed out.

The narrow 2000 and 2004 contests suggest an electoral map hopelessly locked in place: Between those elections, only three states (New Mexico, Iowa, and New Hampshire) switched their partisan allegiances – and by tiny margins, at that. It’s understandable, then, why Mr. Thompson would pitch himself to the G.O.P. faithful as a man uniquely positioned to turn blue states red.

But his depiction of his two Senate campaigns as uphill fights on hostile Democratic turf is laughable. Yes, Bill Clinton carried Tennessee twice. But his success is the exception – not the rule – for Democrats in the Volunteer State and across the South.

Let’s try to place Mr. Thompson’s political success in Tennessee in the proper context. Like the other states of the old Confederacy, Tennessee’s political roots are deeply Democratic, stemming from an era when Southern segregationists existed in an awkward alliance with northern liberals in the national Democratic Party. The Civil Rights movement, though, eroded that partnership.

“There goes the South for a generation,” Lyndon Johnson supposedly forecast when he signed the Civil Rights Act in 1964.

He was right, although it took some time until Dixie was a complete loss for the Democrats. In the fall of ’64, five southern states that had provided John Kennedy with his winning margin in 1960 flipped to Republican Barry Goldwater – this as Goldwater lost by historic margins in northern states (53 points in Massachusetts, for instance). From that point on, the South became a reliable Republican bloc at the presidential level. But that shift did not extend to the congressional, gubernatorial and state legislative levels. Some segregationist Democrats – most notably Jesse Helms and Strom Thurmond – switched to the G.O.P., but otherwise Democrats continued to win down-ballot contests in the South years after L.B.J.’s fateful bill signing.

The G.O.P.’s presidential domination of the region was actually twice interrupted after ‘64 – when the Democrats nominated Jimmy Carter and Mr. Clinton, sons of the South both. And it was the first two years of Mr. Clinton’s presidency – when the right, aided by his many missteps, skewered his White House as a symbol of liberal excess and cultural hedonism to devastating effect – that hastened the complete down-ballot transformation of the South that L.B.J. had envisioned. 1994 is remembered as the year of the Republican Revolution – but the key to that revolution was the South’s willingness to turn completely from its inherited Democratic loyalties.

And nowhere in 1994 was that shift more pronounced than in Tennessee – where Fred Thompson ran for the Senate seat vacated by Al Gore’s election to the Vice-Presidency. His Democratic opponent was Jim Cooper, a wonkish congressman with limited retail aptitude who was then best known as the author of a “Clinton lite” national health care plan. Not that his plan helped Mr. Cooper any – the early days of the Clinton presidency had provoked a virtual panic throughout the South about encroaching Big Government. When he “bragged on himself” on Mr. Leno’s show Wednesday, Mr. Thompson actually low-balled his ’94 performance: He beat Mr. Cooper by 22 points, and it surprised no one.

The Thompson-Cooper contest was actually one of three statewide races in Tennessee that fall. In the other Senate race, Democrat Jim Sasser, a three-term incumbent who was in line to succeed George Mitchell as the Senate’s Democratic Leader, was trounced by Bill Frist, then a relatively unknown heart surgeon. And Republican Congressman Don Sundquist won a ten-point victory over Democrat Phil Bredesen in the race for Governor. The G.O.P. tide also knocked out two of the state’s six Democratic congressmen, giving Republicans a majority of Tennessee’s House delegation for the first time ever.

It’s true that Mr. Clinton and Mr. Gore recovered to carry Tennessee again in 1996 – by a mere two points over the hapless Bob Dole – just as it’s true that Mr. Gore famously lost his home state’s 11 pivotal electoral votes in 2000, and that George W. Bush’s margin swelled to 15 points in 2004.

In other words, Mr. Thompson’s wins – his ’94 victory entitled him to serve out the final two years of Mr. Gore’s term and he then won a full six-year term against Democrat Houston Gordon in 1996 – don’t say a whole lot about his potential to peel off blue states. Forget that it voted for Bill Clinton: Tennessee is a red state and Mr. Thompson won office in a year when the Republican label was all a candidate needed to succeed there.

If Mr. Thompson gets to the general election in 2008, it’s possible that he’ll be able to demonstrate some sort of crossover appeal. Until then, though, he’s just bragging.