Monday, May 14, 2007


Is Fred Thompson the New Wesley Clark?

Think back to the election cycle of 2004 (I know it hurts, but try). More specifically, recall the fall of 2003, and think of the circumstances in which the Democrats were choosing their presidential nominee.

There was a clear front-runner who, despite his moderate track record and questions about his electability, held the positions on military and defense issues that motivated primary voters.

There was an “entitlement” candidate many had expected to be chosen but was lagging behind, do to a floundering message and lackluster fundraising. There was also a candidate who had switched positions on abortion, but was solidly in line with the party’s position on business/labor.

Yet, the base was dissatisfied. They called openly for another choice, and soon settled on one in particular. They felt he had the right qualities to take on the other party’s standard bearer. Movements to “draft” him became all the rage, and soon he joined the race.

The last two paragraphs describe the Democrats in 2003, but do they also illustrate the Republican sentiment in 2007? If you think about, they fit both. Howard Dean was seen as a fiscal conservative during the decade-plus he spent governing Vermont. However, his position against the war in Iraq electrified the liberal base. Likewise, many conservatives may decry Rudy Giuliani’s position on social issues, but like his masculine approach to national security.

John McCain, once the presumed front-runner, is currently performing an accurate imitation of John Kerry during much of 2003, as he struggles mightily to connect with primary voters and raise money.

Meanwhile, Mitt Romney is the flipside of Richard Gephardt. Both had awfully convenient changes of heart regarding abortion before they launched presidential bids. Whereas Gephardt relied on his strongly pro-union stance to win over Democrats, Romney is banking on his business and management record to reel in Republicans.

A comparison of these two races is certainly inexact (for example, the Republicans have no counterpart to Joe Lieberman’s failed ’04 bid), but the speculation surrounding former Sen. Fred Thompson is awfully reminiscent of what prompted Wesley Clark to join the race four years ago.

The Democrats of those days felt the need to beef up their security credentials through the participation of a four-star general. In the eyes of many Dems, only a decorated warrior who’d commanded militaries and survived being shot four times could overcome the hated but certainly imposing George W. Bush.

The three front-runners in the current race for the Republican nomination certainly aren’t lacking in qualifications, but are not trusted by voters in the primaries. There are a handful of sufficiently right-wing candidates trailing them, but the faithful don’t suspect any of them of having a chance against Hillary Clinton next year.

So, just as Michael Moore openly encouraged Clark to get in the race, the Cal Thomases of the right pen columns calling for Thompson to “Run, Fred, Run.” The question that supporters of the actor-turned-senator-turned-actor-again and his return to politics ought to ask themselves is this: will he repeat Clark’s trajectory once he commits?

Clark, as you may recall, was recruited to be the anti-Dean. However, soon after entering the race it appeared that he struggled in choosing whether to take a different position on Iraq from Dean, or to be just as anti-war but more Southern and likable. His loyalty to the Democratic Party was also questioned, with some believing that he was running for office with the only party that didn’t have a nominee yet.

Due to these factors and his inexperience, his candidacy never caught fire, and when Dean imploded Clark was no longer the alternative Democrats wanted.

Thompson is seen as an alternative to the top three, but he’s really the anti-Giuliani. McCain and Romney are both more conservative than the former New York mayor but have even less appeal to the right. Thompson, on the other hand, is also considered more conservative than Rudy and has the added selling point of being a recognizable film and television star.

Unlike Clark, no one will question whether Thompson is a Republican. However, they may question other things.

For example, if his campaign plays up his stance on abortion in an attempt to contrast him with Giuliani, how is he going to respond when the pro-life activists dig up his statement in 1994 that “government should stay out of (abortion)” and “the ultimate decision should be made by the woman?”

How popular will he be with the right when they start paying more attention to his past support for the hated McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform bill and his vote against impeaching Bill Clinton?

When these issues catch up with his campaign, his record of public service won’t be enough to save him. During his eight years in the Senate, his legislative achievements could hardly be compared to Ted Kennedy’s, or even John McCain’s.

Will he be able to campaign his way out of trouble? He only has experience in two senate races, one in 1994 with the wind of the Republican Revolution at his back, and in 1996 against a little-known opponent. He has never experienced anything like a divisive primary campaign against big-name opponents.

Furthermore, it was a surge in the polls from John Kerry that made Wesley Clark irrelevant. Should the Republicans start responding to McCain’s dogged defense of the Iraq War or be convinced that Romney will enact a socially conservative agenda, Thompson will have nothing left to sell.

As was the case with Wesley Clark, the idea of a Fred Thompson candidacy may be more appealing than the candidate himself. If so, he will regret leaving the cast of “Law & Order” to join Clark in the hall of presidential losers.

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