When I survey the disaster that is the current Republican party – a leaderless, rudderless, dispirited mob without a clue of how to begin fixing what’s broke – the obvious question that leaps to mind is can anything be salvaged from the current situation? Or is the GOP condemned to walk the earth like Zombies for the foreseeable future with no direction, no heart, and little in the way of motivation to animate its followers?
You think I’m being too hard on Republicans, huh? Quick, name the leader of the Republican party. Time’s up. If you said Bush, I’ll give you points for loyalty but then take away your Haliburton Club card. The President of the United States is busy doing what every second term president has done since the beginning of the republic; fashioning a legacy for the history books. If you think he cares much for the Republican party – especially this president – I would just as soon you remain on the sidelines while those of us who have to deal with the reality of the situation take over.
Who else as leader of the GOP? Mr. Boehner? Mr. McConnell? Fine gentlemen, adequate legislators both. But as leaders of a national party, they both leave much to be desired as far as personality, temperament, and the ability to move large numbers of people toward a common goal. Herding lawmakers is a lot different than inspiring voters. And frankly, neither one of those gentleman has got “it” – that ineffable quality that draws the legions to your standard and inspires personal loyalty above and beyond attachment to party.
Leadership certainly can’t be found in the gaggle of presidential candidates fielded so far by the Republicans. While some of those qualities I mentioned are present in a few of the candidates, they have no standing to grab the reins of leadership and begin the process of bringing the party back from the dead. Perhaps when a clear winner emerges early next winter (and it will be early), the Chosen One can work on re-energizing and re-tooling the party. This will be in addition to trying to organize a national campaign in order to effectively challenge the eventual Democratic nominee. Somehow, I think that party building will take a back seat to the more important task of getting elected in the first place.
And that brings us to Fred Thompson and his slow, steady (some would say stodgy) progress toward entering the race for the Republican nomination. It used to be true back in the day that a candidate waited until after Labor Day the year before the election to formally announce his candidacy. This was because no one in their right mind would eschew FEC “matching funds” available to all candidates in favor of abandoning those limits in order to raise obscene amounts of cash (Hillary and Obama are expected to raise close to $120 million each). It was considered bad politics and bad strategy back then. But times change as does the way candidates run for president. An early announcement is almost a necessity now so that a candidate can compete in the upcoming heavily front loaded primary season.
But Fred Thompson has done things a little differently and as a result, has made an effective splash in the race. Running a “Front Porch” campaign from Tennessee, Thompson has cautiously ventured out to speak at a couple of friendly forums while using the internet to great effect. His presence on the web is not measured in hits at a website but rather the buzz created by his web activities. A You Tube video of a response to Michael Moore swept the net like wildfire. He has also blogged a bit as well as written some widely disseminated Op-Eds, garnering a much larger readership on the net for those pieces than in the publication they originally appeared.
Thompson has accomplished much in a short period of time. He has moved up the ladder into the first tier of serious candidates given a realistic shot at the nomination. And he has done it without much of an organization, virtually no paid staff, and no paid media. This is remarkable feat when one thinks of the way modern campaigns are conducted and speaks well of the Senator’s abilities.
In short, Thompson gets it. And when a Republican leader emerges from the current crop of presidential candidates, it should be someone who can use the net as a major means to rebuild the party. In one fell swoop, someone like Thompson could close the gap that most everyone agrees has opened up between the liberal netroots and the conservatives on the internet. By bringing the right “home” to the party (without venturing too far from the center) as well as being a focal point for organizational activities – fund raising, volunteers, and other party building efforts – a candidate could make huge strides in bringing the GOP back from the dead.
But much depends on Thompson himself and what kind of a candidate he might be. We’ve only gotten glimpses of Thompson the Campaigner; a rather disappointing appearance in California (Bob Novak writes that he threw away prepared remarks and winged it), and a more recent and more successful appearance in Stamford, Connecticut.
That Stamford appearance is much more instructive as to what we can expect from Thompson:
Thompson implied at Stamford that Republicans, along with Democrats, are responsible for making Americans cynical. While so far not spelling this out publicly, he deplores ethical abuses, profligate spending and incompetent management of the Iraq war. He becomes incandescent when considering abysmal CIA and Justice Department performance under the Bush administration. He is enraged by Justice’s actions in decisions leading to Scooter Libby’s prison sentence.
In his Senate voting record and his public utterances, Thompson is more conservative than Giuliani, McCain or Romney. He takes a hard line on the war against terror (referring in Connecticut to the danger of “suicidal maniacs” crossing open borders) and worries about immigration policy creating a permanent American underclass. His one deviation from the conservative line has been support for the McCain-Feingold campaign reform, much of which he now considers overtaken by current fundraising practices and perhaps irrelevant. Overall, his tone, in a soft Tennessee drawl, is less harsh than that of other Republican candidates—a real-life version of the avuncular fictional D.A. he plays on TV.
Beyond ideology, Thompson envisions a 21st-century campaign, utilizing the Internet more and spending less money than his opponents. When speaking to a friendly audience or ruminating off the record, the 6-foot-7 actor-politician does not look or sound like the GOP’s announced candidates for president. His challenge will be to convey that impression when he appears with opponents on the same stage in the immediate future.
If true, this makes Thompson an even more impressive candidate in my mind. The untapped potential – and not just for fundraising – in organizing a net based campaign means that Thompson has a real chance to blow the rest of the GOP field out of the water. The danger is that expectations will creep so high that when he finally emerges from his front porch, the Savior of the Party will instead be seen as something a little more ordinary.
The same thing happened to Wesley Clark in 2004:
Fred Thompson is to the Republicans in ‘08 as Wes Clark was to the Democrats in ‘04. In other words, the highpoint of his campaign will be the day he gets in the race, because once he’s a serious candidate—and not just the fevered daydream of a dissatisfied base—voters will realize he’s not all that. Remember, you heard it here first. And if Thompson doesn’t flame out and actually goes on to win the GOP nomination and (gulp) the White House, well, forget I ever wrote this.
Update: Ana Marie Cox writes in to point out that you only heard it here first if you don’t read Swampland. And, in comments, MrCookie1 lays claim to the same thought. That’s three people who think Thompson=Clark. It’s a bona fide trend!
Wishful thinking by the left or prescient analysis? Clark’s problem was that the left was looking for a war hero to blunt the GOP’s huge advantage on national security issues. The fact that Clark proved to be an empty suit on domestic policies as well as a stiff-as-a-board campaigner didn’t help. And the charges that he was a “Democrat of convenience” – fed by his stated admiration for Colin Powell and Condi Rice – hurt him badly right out of the box.
No, Fred Thompson is no Wesley Clark. But there is still a danger that expectations won’t be met immediately as the Senator goes through the inevitable shake down problems all campaigns have at the beginning. Overcoming those problems will be a test of his leadership and communication skills. And his debate appearances will also give voters the opportunity to see how well he thinks on his feet. All in all, a Thompson candidacy will certainly alter the dynamics of the race as the other frontrunners attempt to sharpen their differences with the Senator.
The GOP race for president is about to get very interesting.