Fred Thompson is on the verge of declaring his candidacy for the 2008 race for President of the United States. With his star quality and down home demeanor, he is already running second among the Republicans in some polls and first in others. Thompson’s “late” entry to the race and his quick rise to the top have to be frustrating to those candidates who slogged their way through organization building and the early debates. It helps, of course, that Thompson has a well-connected wife with PR savvy and legions of powerful political friends willing to support and endorse a candidacy before it gets off the ground.
One of the stars of the popular TV show, Law and Order, Thompson is often described as Reaganesque; he is tall, muscular, has a populist style, sincere manner and has an appealing show-biz quality that other candidates envy. The Reagan comparisons, of course, increased when he went to England to seek the endorsement of Lady Margaret Thatcher, a close friend, political ally and colleague of President Reagan.
Obviously, when he declares his candidacy he will be scrutinized by opponents in his own party as well as by the opposition. He has a 10-year record as a Senator; reporters will be combing through that record and all the related rhetoric for indications of where he stands on various pivotal issues. His problems will likely stem from interviews in the early 90s when he said that he opposed criminalizing abortion and opposed a constitutional amendment protecting the sanctity of life. Further, at that time he told reporters that while he was pro-life, he didn’t support the prohibition of early term abortions.
Those documented statements contrast with his solidly conservative voting record in the Senate. Thompson explains the difference by citing the effect of seeing his now 3-year-old daughter’s sonogram. At that time, he explains, the pro-life issue became a position of the heart as well as of the head.
Another inconsistency that will haunt Thompson is the fact that he helped get the McCain-Feingold bill passed. That controversial legislation prohibited advocacy groups from explaining candidates’ positions from 30-60 days prior to primary and general elections. Though an original co-sponsor of the bill, Thompson now says that McCain-Feingold went too far. The Supreme Court agrees. Just this week, the Supreme Court reversed restrictions on “issue advocacy” – a move that will enable groups like Concerned Women for America to inform the public about candidates’ positions on critical issues during the last weeks of a campaign.
Conservatives, then, will have to decide whether to put their vote on the line with Thompson’s rhetoric or stand with his record.
A very experienced businessman once told me, “Managers don’t always hire the most qualified person; they hire the candidate that they are most comfortable with.” I’ve seen that happen over and over again. People hire people like themselves – job candidates with whom they are comfortable. I think the same principle applies in the voting booth. People vote for the candidate they “like” and Fred Thompson is very likeable. People vote for the candidate that they feel they can trust, and Fred Thompson seems trustworthy. Voters go for the person who makes them feel comfortable, and Fred Thompson has the gift of making people feel like he is one of them. At the same time, he combines natural authority and a certain down-home dignity; no wonder his name comes to mind when producers are looking for someone to play an authoritative official for a movie or television program.
It is entirely possible that, come November 2008, the voters will turn Fred Thompson’s way simply because he is likeable, seems trustworthy and they are comfortable with him. At this point, though – about a year-and-a-half before the election – Thompson has not even declared his candidacy, so any analysis of his potential in the race is pure speculation. It’s pretty significant, though, that nobody counts him out and people are falling all over each other to join his campaign.