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Should he run for president, I point out that Mr. Thompson will have to lay out a platform. That’s enough to animate Thompson to lean forward in his chair and begin a lengthy monologue outlining what’s on his mind.
He is clearly passionate about national security issues in a world he says is becoming increasingly dangerous for the United States. He serves as chairman of the International Security Advisory Board, a high-level panel charged with evaluating long-term threats to the nation’s security. Thompson told me the board recently received an unclassified briefing that convinced him three or four countries in the Middle East are “on the cusp” of acquiring nuclear weapons should the Iranians carry through with their own weapons program.
He urges continued pressure on Iran, which he says has grave domestic problems. “Iran may fall of its own weight, and we can help that by offering vocal support to dissident groups and making effective use of the airwaves to reach its people.”
He is certainly skeptical about handling Iran the way the Bush administration wound up dealing with North Korea, another rogue nation with a nuclear program. “The North Koreans have welched on every agreement they have ever made with everyone,” he says shaking his head. “I know the Chinese are finally involved in this in an attempt to make the deal stick, but I’m still not sure it’s a good deal.”
Thompson has focused on nuclear proliferation for years. He was considered one of the Senate’s leading voices on the threat, and introduced legislation imposing sanctions on countries and companies caught proliferating to rogue nations. He also pushed for legislation that required companies raising funds in U.S. capital markets to disclose their activities in countries placed under American sanctions.
As for Iraq, he admits “we are left with nothing but bad choices.” However, he says the “worst choice” would be to have Osama bin Laden proven right when he predicted America wouldn’t have the stomach for a tough fight. The costs of Iraq have been high, but they could be even higher “if we have another stain on America like that infamous scene from Saigon 1975 in which our helicopters took off leaving those who supported us grabbing at the landing skids.”
Moving to domestic issues, I ask Thompson what he thinks are the key issues.
“Beyond national security, the greatest single legacy a president has are the judges he puts on the federal bench,” he says. He notes that President Bush tapped him to serve as “the sherpa” to accompany Supreme Court nominee John Roberts on his rounds of Senate offices as he rounded up votes for confirmation in 2005. I asked him what the biggest lessons of the Roberts and Alito nomination fights were. “Very simple,” he said. “If conservatives nominate qualified candidates who believe in upholding the Constitution and fight for them, they can win Senate confirmation even if the other party is clearly hostile. Public opinion clearly is on the side of naming judges who don’t overstep their authority.”
IN THE EXECUTIVE BRANCH, what worries Thompson is that the sprawling, chaotic design of the federal government is undermining public confidence in its authority — and even threatening the national security. He says one of the things that struck him most during his tenure as chairman of the Senate Government Oversight Committee was the pervasive lack of accountability in government, where no one pays any price for failure. When asked about President Bush’s awarding the Medal of Freedom to outgoing CIA Director George Tenet after U.S. intelligence failures in Iraq became apparent, he shakes his head: “I just didn’t understand that.”
The next president, according to Thompson, needs to exercise strong leadership “and get down in the weeds and fix a civil-service system that makes it too hard to hire good employees and too hard to fire bad ones.” He doesn’t offer specifics on what to do, but notes the “insanity” of the new Congress pushing for the unionization of Homeland Security employees. “Have we forgotten the lessons of 9/11?” he asks in wonderment. “Should we tie ourselves up in bureaucratic knots with the terrorist challenges we may have to face?”
He notes that when President Bush made the desire of congressional Democrats to force Homeland Security employees into federal government unions a campaign issue in 2002, it helped net the Republicans key Senate seats in Missouri and Georgia.
“Holding government accountable and making sure it can do its necessary functions resonates with the public,” he emphasizes, noting the public outcry over the federal government’s responses to Hurricane Katrina and the treatment of some soldiers at Walter Reed hospital. “People get the lesson that if government overreaches and tries to do too much it won’t get the basics right. A government that focuses on doing its most important functions well will be more efficient, smaller, and have far more of the public’s confidence.”
That’s one reason why he championed government-management reforms to improve the performance of the federal workforce. He pushed for the enactment of a provision to link promotions and advancement at the new Transportation Security Administration (TSA) on performance.
Keeping to his theme of smaller, more effective government, Thompson clearly believes a major reason Republicans lost last November was that they aided and abetted runaway government spending. “We had some people who came to Washington to drain the swamp and then stayed longer than they should have and became alligators,” he notes with a grin that could swallow a canary. Thompson came to Washington in 1995 as a freshman senator who strongly believed in term limits. He still does. “Citizen legislators have a long tradition in American history. I think the professionalization of our political class has a tendency to create people who worry more about their careers and honors than what the voters sent them to Washington to do.”
In late March, he put some real teeth into his thinking on the subject. When a group of his admirers in the Tennessee legislature introduced a bill naming a stretch of highway after him, he politely declined. “My daddy’s car lot was on that stretch of road, so it’s special to me,” Thompson wrote in a letter to state Rep. Honorable Joey Hensley. “But the fact is that I didn’t build it and I didn’t pay for it. The taxpayers did. So it is entirely appropriate that it remain U.S. Highway 43 the way I remember it when I was a boy.”
A man of faith in a godless age is hitting Americans where it hurts.
Mr. and Mrs. American Spectator Reader, let P.J. O’Rourke talk sense to your kids.
In Britain, defending your property can get you life.
The debacle of this president’s administration is both a cause and a symptom of the decline of American values. Unless Congress impeaches him, that decline will go on unchecked. An eminent jurist surveys the damage and assesses the chances for the recovery of our culture.
It won’t take long for conservatives to scratch this presidential wannabe off their 2008 scorecard.
The American Christmas, like the songs that celebrate it, makes room for everybody under the rainbow. Is that why so many people seem to be hostile to it?
Was the President done in by the economy, or by the politics of the economy?
H/T to National Review Online