Thursday, September 6, 2007

Fred ’80! – uh, Fred ’08!

Coming to you not-quite-live from the bully pulpit of a chair next to Jay Leno, former Republican Sen. Fred Thompson last night threw his hat, head and presumably his heart into a bid for the GOP nomination for the presidency, more or less formally launching the quest for the White House he’d been hinting at for the last six months.

The forum was no accident. By declaring on “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno,” Thompson borrowed from the playbook of Arnold Schwarzenegger, who announced his candidacy for California governor in 2003 on “Tonight” and went on to a decisive victory over incumbent Democratic mannequin Gray Davis.

The party Thompson represents similarly hopes to rebottle lightning. There’s a hope, and hardly a secret one, that Thompson’s plain-spoken nature, his long standing in Congress and his pop-cultural appeal as a high-profile Hollywood actor will evoke actionable memories of Ronald Reagan, who on paper at least, took a like trajectory into the White House. There’s a wish that a twist of numerology might portend their political future – that the campaign of ’08 might somehow become the campaign of ’80.

Conservatives have already been rallying around Thompson. The Club for Growth, a conservative policy organization (whose name suggests a hair replacement service, but we won’t go there) trumpets Thompson’s consistent votes for lower taxes, a brake on government spending, the flat tax, and support for reforms on entitlements.

Now that his ghost campaign has substance, Thompson is forcing a recalculation of the Republican campaign math. Invariably – we’re guessing within a month – minor quixotics like Duncan Hunter and even the refreshingly candid Ron Paul will close up shop, rightly sensing a shift in the campaign’s gravitational pull toward heavier hitters like Thompson, former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney and, maybe, Arizona Sen. John McCain.

The one-issue campaign of Colorado Rep. Tom Tancredo may persist a while longer out of sheer obstinance, but the handwriting’s on the wall for him too.

In fact, Thompson makes many things for the GOP easier than before. If his conservative bona fides are in fact bona fide, Thompson gives Republican voters the option of one-stop shopping: he adheres to traditional GOP values; he’s been an experienced player in Congress going back to Watergate; and with a long TV and movie resume, he holds the high ground according to American pop mythology.

The Republican leadership may not say it, but it’s obvious they’re searching for Ronnie the Sequel. Conservatives are looking to Big Fred to be, if not the savior of the Republican cause, certainly the embodiment of that cause in the post-9/11 world – someone in a straightforward, non-ambiguous package who can convincingly carry GOP ideals and values to the nation.

That’s a heavy load for any candidate, especially one getting in the game so late, and with so little money. And the potential for fatal error is built into that heavy mission.

The Republicans may be on the way to making a foundational mistake in the 2008 campaign. They’re hoping to reawaken the vision of Reagan Republicanism without really thinking about why Reagan Republicanism worked – without understanding the differences between that era and today.

Two presidential election cycles ago, Richard Goldstein of the Village Voice observed the process of Reagan Republicans’ way to victory: “The right was reconfiguring itself along populist lines. These new conservatives weren’t led by an instinct to rebel … They were willing to be patient, building a network of like-minded partisans, school board by town council. They spent their money wisely on think tanks and publications. And they grew these affinities into a well-disciplined force that could enlist the resentments of the moment. In 1980, they came to power with Ronald Reagan as their spokesmodel.”

The drive of today’s Republican party to anoint a new Reagan has its problems. The first problem is, it’s so clearly manufactured, the sincerest form of political flattery. Ronald Reagan emerged as the GOP standard-bearer as a result of an organic, grassroots search for new leadership. Today’s frantically telegenic culture often creates such “leaders,” and discards them, in the blink of an eye. Thompson will have to honestly ring with Americans – show he’s got the constitution to uphold the Constitution, prove he can apply the weight of experience to challenges ahead – to win in 2008. Real leadership won’t be conveyed by spot favorable associations with the party’s icon. Not even Michael Deaver could light a candidate that well.

Second, and more important, is the Republican failure to appreciate – or admit – the party’s own role in making America a nation in need of rescue by a Reaganesque savior. The Republicans, the party and the administration, have been tone-deaf to all the ways they have created the same “resentments of the moment” – the Iraq war, disregard of election results that rejected that war, rampant inequity in health care, neglected infrastructure, a series of GOP ethical scandals, failure of judicial leadership – that the party would summon a superman to overcome.

In many sobering ways, the Republican party is the very problem it’s trying to solve.

That’s the steep hill in front of Big Fred, and the rest of the Republican field that may, or may not, fade in his six-foot-six shadow. There are already questions about his timing and the presence of “fire in the belly.” For some pol watchers, Thompson’s spring- and summerlong chinpulling has been less than inspiring. Their sense is that the long deliberation may well have damaged his prospects.

And ironically, it may not have done him a bit of good. After six months of “testing the waters,” in the spirit of test-marketing a new snack food or laundry detergent, Thompson and his frequently-shifting campaign staff have come to the realization that the water is, in fact, wet. With the first open seat for a president in decades, in a field as crowded as the GOP’s is, there could be no more of a political certainty than that, for Thompson or anyone else in the current flock of candidates. For all his caution, Thompson may as well have gotten into this thing months ago; in a relentless 24/7 news cycle, waiting has conferred only a slight advantage, and maybe none at all.

Fred Thompson will be the golden one for a brief period before he settles into the echo-chamber experience of a high-profile political campaign. Once that faintly circular glow around his head begins to fade, and bet your subprime mortgage that it will, he’ll become just the freshest target of opportunity.

Politically and physically, Big Fred got the stature, that’s for sure, and it works for him and against him. Sure, when you’re six-six and you walk in a room, you see everyone and everyone sees you.

But when you’re that tall, and a member of that party … it’s pretty hard to keep your head down.
Photos: Wikipedia>originally posted to Flickr by freddthompson, reviewed by Wikipedia, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 2.0

1 comment:

  1. Interesting perspective. I think one of the reasons Thompson has no chance in the election is that his record is thoroughly unimpressive. He's known for being lazy, and scandals are already plaguing his fledgling campaign (i.e. his first wife divorcing him for "cruel and inhuman" treatment). He's not all that eloquent. In short, Reagan was successful because he was genuinely Reagan. Nobody's going to be able to pull off a Reagan imitation, because that by definition becomes completely unlike Reagan.


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