Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Law & Order: Missing Candidate

It could be an episode of one of the “Law & Order” shows, part of the franchise that’s become the 31 flavors of TV law-enforcement drama: A capable, popular politician with a national reputation, a man seeking the presidency of the United States, suddenly goes missing on the campaign trail. His supporters are stumped, his Web site is largely noncommittal about his whereabouts, and even the press (which prides itself on knowing about such things) has no idea where he is. (Cue that signature two-note “chung-chung” sound between scenes.)

That’s the scenario taking shape around the conspicuous absence of Fred Thompson, the former GOP senator from Tennessee and latecomer to the 2008 presidential campaign. Slow off the mark to begin with, the Thompson campaign was trying to gain some momentum, with the candidate dutifully stumping for votes and campaign donations with a folksy demeanor that couldn’t conceal certain … shortcomings about Thompson’s ability to think fast on his feet.

Many in the Republican camp saw Thompson as the heir apparent to the Reagan mystique. With his six-foot-six frame and his long standing in popular culture as a high-profile actor (most recently as New York District Attorney Arthur Branch on “Law & Order”), Big Fred was seen as the one who would rescue the GOP from a relatively uninspiring field of hopefuls. Then came Thompson’s first debate, on Oct. 9.

Call it the debacle in Dearborn: Thompson was, to quote The New York Observer’s Steve Kornacki’s charitable assessment, “rhetorically overmatched” against his challengers for the nomination. Even knucklehead nonentities like Duncan Hunter piled on, fulminating at will. Hunter weighed in against Thompson, slapping him with various haymakers.

“Senator Thompson and some of the other senators here: You all voted for Most Favored Nation trading status for China,” Hunter said. “That set the groundwork for 1.8 million high-paying manufacturing jobs going off-shore, some of them never to return.”

When Thompson had the chance to respond to Hunter’s blistering ad hominem broadside, he was bereft of emotion, offering only a lame retort. “Free and fair trade has been good for America,” he said, saying little more than suggested any passion, any reasoning, any command of the facts.

The response from the crowd, then and later, was predictable: a silence you could almost imagine punctuated by the sound of crickets chirping at night.

It didn’t get any better that evening. Several of the other nonfactor candidates – including Sam Brownback, getting his last licks in before formally pulling the plug on his own campaign’s respirator this week – made telling points at the Dearborn debate. Even Ron Paul kicked ass!

The candidate is no doubt coming to grips with the biggest challenge of his young campaign: less concerned with how to take on his rivals, more worried about how to climb the mountain of expectations his stature and presence in the public eye have created among grassroots supporters in the GOP.

“One of Mr. Thompson’s biggest obstacles is supposedly the high expectations that initially greeted his candidacy,” Kornacki smartly noted in his Oct. 9 column. “That he failed to meet them in several appearances over the summer and in the month after he officially entered the race produced wide – and corrosive – skepticism among the opinion-shaping class.

“The bigger problem is that the fervor that essentially drafted him into the G.O.P. race had to do with style, not substance. That Mr. Thompson seemed to hold positions in-line with the party base and its interest group establishment didn’t hurt, but it was the notion that he could communicate those positions in a powerful and compelling way that led Republicans to demand his candidacy. Like Ronald Reagan, another actor who didn’t always exhibit a command of policy details, Mr. Thompson would win over the masses with a public style that would warm up and win over any audience.

"But faced with an auditorium full of Republicans in Dearborn, he managed to put them to sleep.”

Since then, Thompson’s gone missing from a fundraising breakfast for a New Hampshire mayor. He’s only been in that pivotal state once since he declared in September.

Thompson’s shown signs of getting up off the mat. Earlier today he offered an immigration plan that would cut federal grants for cities and states that fail to report illegal immigrants, or which offer them public benefits.

“It's not only necessary for any meaningful immigration reform, but border security plays a key role in both the interdiction of illegal drugs and in defending America against terrorist threats," he said stumping in Florida.

It’s a start, but only a start. Invariably, Thompson’s handlers and mouthpieces will refer to Thompson's relative absence as part of the process of “retooling the campaign,” a phrase that presumes there were tools at the ready to begin with.

If there are any tools at Thompson’s disposal, he better find them and use them fast. A campaign that started late amid chin-pulling and long deliberation has stumbled badly with months to go before it’s over. It’s something of a given that the wheels have come off the Thompson campaign bus; these next few weeks may show us if the candidate himself is under it.

Image: Photo by Alexander Muse 7/25/07 > Flickr > Uploaded to Wikipedia under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 license; Thompson logo from Thompson ’08 campaign

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for checking in and giving me your new blog link. Interesting stuff about Fred Thompson! His campaign is a great mystery of this election. It's amazing how candidates like John Edwards and Mitt Romney are doing 7 or 8 events in Iowa every day and Thompson has less than that on a weekly basis! And what's stranger is why he's still doing so well in the polls. I would hope that Republicans wouldn't be so dumb as to elect a guy based on his movie/TV career, but I guess the GOP hasn't given us much faith in the past 8 years in that regard. I guess we'll find out soon enough...


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