THE POLLS SAY WAIT. He’s on top in South Carolina, without even trying. He’s running a solid second in Florida, where Rudy Giuliani’s counting on a clear win. And Rasmussen shows, as of July 12, that he leads all Republican contenders: one of four respondents choose Fred Thompson. Why throw that formal hat into the race now, when Fred’s seemingly reaped all the benefits of candidacy and none of the disadvantages that come with an official announcement? Because time’s no longer on his side.
According to Rasmussen, Fred’s now three points down from a June 19 high of 28%. Of course, polls are polls, and three percentage points in one national poll remain as insignificant as gossip. But in Washington, the line between hearsay and has-been is as long as it is thin. Fred’s high profile — the product of the most successful undeclared run for the presidency in modern memory — has brought on a wave of bad opinion press. For a campaign fueled, before it declares, by the authenticity of patience and the free publicity of media fixation, strikes called in inside baseball can send a non-candidate back to the dugout sooner than he can make it official. The Thompson shadow campaign, so effective in its early weeks, cannot be said to have mastered the latest news cycle.
The string of media bumps is small but significant, and growing. In the short term, the L.A. Times flap — in which the Fred camp has sort of (but not quite) denied that Lobbyist Thompson of sixteen years ago carried water for an abortion rights group — has shown longer legs than expected, and than ought to be expected. Fred’s rush to breakfast with the chief of the International Association of Firefighters — just a day after that organization earned Rudy Giuliani’s ire for “swift-boating” his 9/11 leadership — struck a note of crass opportunism at odds with the methodical, purposeful style that Thompson has cultivated so well as a candidate-in-waiting. Though fantastically popular with the grassroots for a man so long out of office, Fred now finds himself vulnerable to dissection in the blogosphere. Granted, James Wolcott of Vanity Fair is no Red State partisan, but when Ross Douthat reluctantly agrees that, instead of an A-list address, the National Right To Life Committee was told that “Terrorists Hate Lemonade, Y’all,” the campaign has to consider itself on notice. The time to sit back, relax, and beat people spending millions more than you to be president has come and gone.
This is all to say nothing about the effect Thompson’s capable and highly motivated wife Jeri has had, inside and outside the Beltway, a topic a separate column could contain. The point remains the same: when your public image — the ace card in an undeclared candidate’s hand — slips into the public domain, it’s time to put your mouth where your money is. Fred needs to run for real.
IT’S NOT A SHOW OF WEAKNESS. To the contrary, it’s a show of strength: you’re ready for hardball. And hardball is what you’re going to get, whether you’re formally filed or not. Especially this time around. The fact of the matter is — a point not lost on the savvy Thompson campaign — that no Republican has even come close to clinching the ’08 nomination. The reason is that no Republican has convincingly repudiated the Bush administration. Love ’em or hate ’em, the administration has racked up a legacy which no American can smile at without squinting, and which many — conservatives included — cannot contemplate without enduring a bout of nauseous perplexity. On offer for this season’s candidate is a track record which, on balance, is as toxic to the Republican Party as it is to the GOP’s nominee — if not more so. Any winner in ’08 needs to make a clear break with Bush: on the war, on immigration, on nearly everything but taxes and judges, apologies to good intentions included.
Can Thompson — a man taking foreign policy lessons from Liz Cheney — be that winner? Not if he doesn’t try. But now that the administration’s admitted al Qaeda is back to full strength, a guy can be twice as tough on terror as Bush and still get the presidential albatross off his neck. Anyone with Fred’s conversational appeal should be able to sell a national audience what they’re already buying: that Bush’s strategy on terror — fight and win — was right on; Bush’s tactics — not so much. This is a natural next step for a candidate who’s already talked trash to great advantage. At the height of the immigration drama, Thompson flatly declared that a sovereign nation unable to control its borders is “not a sovereign nation.” And, lobbyist’s past or no, it seems safe to bet Thompson has no plans to run on a platform of higher taxes, higher spending, more pork, and bigger entitlements. Indeed, at ImWithFred.com entitlements constitute no less than an “unresolved economic threat.” Fred’s perfectly positioned to make a substantive break with Bush where it counts. He ought to go whole hog.
Given a template where the promising outsider draws the attention and admiration of conservatives feeling uneasy over the viable choices and administration refugees looking to stay viable, I expected Thompson’s first big leadership challenge — and, hopefully, not his last — to be the big decision over whether to embody true conservatism or go truly establishment. But now, with the question of when best to declare hanging in the balance, Fred has a prior, and more important, decision to make: whether to go all in now, and take what lumps may come, or to continue riding the crest of novelty into what sun may set.
IT SEEMS TO ME that the great promise of Fred’s Future Campaign was to part from the heavy, wearisome baggage of the Bush administration. Even better, of all the candidates, only Thompson positioned himself to do so in a way that cleverly could abandon failed, overwrought policies by jettisoning a failed, overwrought campaign system. By taking his time, Thompson revealed what a disservice it is for both parties to race clenchfaced toward the coronation of their respective Mr. or Ms. Electables as promptly and painlessly as possible.
Broad appeal, as anyone will tell you, is a good thing. Dalliance in the Elysium of warm possibility is not. America groans out for a certain kind of candidate — committed to principle, not ideology; conscious of follies past as well as follies future; and beholden more to the long-won successes of country than to the all-too-quickly squandered successes of party. The surge of hope aimed at Fred’s campaign, infant as it is, echoes that groan. Whether or not it remains for his campaign to not only capture those hopes but make them its own is an open question. The first step in that process is to return the seriousness of its supporters in kind.