This article appeared as the cover story of The American Spectator’s May 2007 issue. Click here to subscribe.
IT’S VERY EARLY, BUT WE ARE already seeing surprise shakeups in the potential 2008 presidential field. Perhaps the most stunning is how a casual remark by former Senator Fred Thompson of Tennessee that he would “leave the door open” to a presidential bid has ignited a grassroots campaign to convince him to run.
Just recently, without being on the ballot, he won county GOP straw polls in South Carolina and Georgia. Both the Gallup and Zogby polls show Mr. Thompson in third place or tied for third among all Republican presidential prospects — and all without spending a dime or even stepping over the borders of Iowa or New Hampshire. “Run, Fred, Run!” signs are popping up around the country, and Thompson websites — from Nebraskans or Iowans for Thompson to Latinos for Thompson — are proliferating online. And all without an organization.
Of keen interest to GOP primary voters is that Thompson would likely be a formidable opponent for Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama. And that’s what Democrats are saying. Bob Beckel, who managed Walter Mondale’s 1984 presidential run, says Thompson is the only potential GOP candiate “who scares me” because of his communications skills and ability to appeal to swing voters.
Then there’s Lanny Davis, who as the Clinton White House’s chief spinner in the 1990s clashed with Thompson during the investigations into the 1996 Clinton-Gore campaign fundraising scandal. “I hope he isn’t the GOP nominee because he would be very difficult to beat,” Davis wrote in the Hill newspaper. He directly addressed Thompson by saying: “An awful lot of Democrats and independents would share with me their high level of respect for you, as well as their concern that you may be the most difficult Republican to beat in November 2008.”
Some of Mr. Thompson’s popularity is no doubt simply due to his high favorable name recognition. Over the past 20 years he has appeared in a series of feature films playing strong authority figures, and since leaving the Senate in 2003 he has played conservative prosecutor Arthur Branch on the hit NBC series Law & Order. The role fits the 64-year-old Tennessean, who first came to public attention in the 1970s as the lead Republican counsel on the Senate Watergate committee and then as a prosecutor helped bust a cash-for-pardons scheme operating out of corrupt Democratic Governor Ray Blanton’s office.
But much of Fred Thompson’s appeal is due to the fact that many Republican voters are hungry for an outsider candidate who can inspire Republicans disappointed with both the current GOP field and the Bush administration. Thompson understands this craving, as I learned when he recently sat down with me for an interview in his dressing room next to the New York soundstage where Law & Order is filmed. He served up political and policy pointers between calls from the director that it was time to go back to the set.
I START OUT BY ASKING THOMPSON why he is leaving the door open to a presidential bid. Is it because he finds something lacking in the other candidates? After all, the latest New York Times/CBS poll found that 57 percent of Republicans are dissatisfied with the current field.
He leaned forward as if to emphasize that he didn’t have any beef with anyone currently running. “Those Republicans in the race are all good guys, and would be good presidents,” he said, ticking off all the contenders already in the race. “But there are truly vital issues — from the looming entitlement crisis to nuclear proliferation — I’m not afraid to talk about. Lots of people have such a low regard for politicians that they’re open to a campaign that would be completely different.”
So how would a possible Thompson campaign be distinctive? “Politics is now one big 24-hour news cycle, but we seem to spend less time than ever on real substance,” he muses. “What if someone harnessed the Internet and other technologies and insisted in talking about real issues in more depth than consultants would advise? What if they took risks with their race in hopes that the risks to our children could be reduced through building a mandate for good policy?”
I note that some critics openly question if he has “the fire in the belly” to really make a serious race. A few are even speculating that he is toying with a presidential campaign to boost interest in his budding radio career with ABC, where he will launch a national program in April.
“There is nothing wrong with being underestimated,” he chuckles. “I am serious about what I believe in, committed to communicating that with people, and I’ve proven I can convince them. Remember, I won every one of my races by more than 20 points in a state Clinton carried twice.”
Other critics of a Thompson bid say he would be entering the race too late, after many of the big donors and key campaign strategists have been snapped up by other candidates. Thompson calmly replies that is what one would expect to hear from people who run traditional campaigns, and he has already received such an outpouring of grassroots support that he is convinced “money and talent would not be a problem. This is a big country.”
INDEED, THE ISSUE OF CAMPAIGN FINANCE has been on his mind of late. Perhaps the single biggest beef conservatives have with his voting record is his backing of the campaign finance law sponsored by his friend John McCain. His repeated votes for that measure are the major reason his lifetime score by the American Conservative Union was only 86 percent. Mr. Thompson won’t retreat from his belief that fundamental reform of a broken campaign finance system is needed. “There are problems with people giving politicians large sums of money and then asking them to pass legislation,” he states matter-of-factly. Still, he makes clear he understands the need for people to participate in the political process — he proposed the amendment to raise the $1,000 per person “hard money” federal contribution limit to the current limit of $2,300.
But there is a chance his thinking may evolve even further. Conceding that McCain-Feingold hasn’t worked as intended, and is being riddled with new loopholes, he throws his hands open in exasperation. “I’m not prepared to go there yet, but I wonder if we shouldn’t just take off the limits and have full disclosure with harsh penalties for not reporting everything on the Internet immediately.”
A man of faith in a godless age is hitting Americans where it hurts.
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It won’t take long for conservatives to scratch this presidential wannabe off their 2008 scorecard.
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H/T to National Review Online