Friday, January 18, 2008
Fred Thompson: The Anti-Soundbite Candidate
January 18, 2008
Fred Thompson is not the most inspiring speaker in the GOP race for President. Nor is he the best looking or the smoothest talking among the candidates running. He doesn't have Mitt Romney's hair or Mike Huckabee's glibness. He isn't as aggressively positive as Rudy Giuliani. And while his personal story is compelling, it can't compete with John McCain's inspirational journey from POW to the gates of the White House.
But Fred Thompson is perhaps the most substantative candidate to run for President in many years. He has taken the time to think about what should be the relationship between the government and the governed. He has framed his thoughts within the context of a set of bedrock conservative principles that animates his thinking and generates sound ideas about where America should be headed.
There is a heft to Thompson, a seriousness of purpose that none of the other candidates can match. It is most pronounced during the debates where Thompson's answers to questions are more subtle and nuanced than those of his rivals. His sometimes laconic style zings his opponents with brutal accuracy. Often, the candidate will answer a question by stating "Yep" or "Nope" and pause a few seconds to gather his thoughts. What follows is almost always coherent and is informed by years of experience in government.
His now famous moment during the Des Moines Register debate where he refused to raise his hand like a schoolboy when the moderator asked who believed in global warming was a metaphor for the entire Thompson campaign; keeping the Mickey Mouse to a minimum while trying to be as substantative as possible with the voters. In short, Thompson is running the campaign his way and not in a manner dictated by any previous candidate's success or any criticism that comes his way from media pundits.
He has well thought out policy positions - "White Papers" the campaign calls them - have won him almost universal praise from sources as wildly divergent as the Washington Post and the National Review.
For instance, the Wall Street Journal had this to say about Thompson's tax plan:
"However, what's refreshing about the Thompson plan is that it goes well beyond the current Republican mantra to make "the Bush tax cuts permanent." That is certainly needed, but the GOP also needs a more ambitious agenda, especially with economic growth slowing. The flat tax has the added political benefit of assaulting the special interests who populate the Gucci Gulch outside Congress's tax-writing committee rooms. Lower rates and simplify the tax code, and you instantly reduce the opportunities for Beltway corruption. It is both a tax policy and political reform.
ABC had this to say about his plan to save Social Security:
Republican presidential contender Fred Thompson's plan to save Social Security and protect seniors, which he introduced Friday afternoon in a Washington, D.C., hotel, differs starkly from standard election year pabulum on the subject in one key way: He's actually treating voters like adults.
If all of this is true, why is Fred Thompson fighting for his political life this Saturday in the South Carolina primary?
It is a question that, if Thompson's bid falls short, will be asked by many who saw the former Tennessee senator's entry into the race as a godsend. In the end, the candidate must look to his own efforts and the way the campaign began.
Leaving aside the question of whether Thompson's September entry into the race could be considered "too late" there is the reality of how that campaign was conducted. Looking back, one could see it was unfocused, even aimless, in its first weeks with the candidate himself trying to find his voice. His early efforts were spotty and sometimes dreadfully boring. By many reports, voters came away perplexed and not a little disappointed.
Thompson's Socratic style of addressing those early crowds was a good way to discuss issues on a substantive level but a lousy way to run for president. Voters more attuned to snappy, one sentence solutions to the problems of the world coming from other candidates found that when listening to Thompson, they had to think, not react emotionally.
In this way, Thompson appealed to people more on an intellectual level. This was fine as far as it went but it brought him few converts and elicited nothing but contempt from the media.
How often have we heard the refrain that the American people wanted a campaign that dealt with issues not personalities? Well, here was Fred Thompson supposedly giving people what we were told they wanted and his once robust poll numbers began to plummet. Seeking an explanation, reporters and pundits who saw Thompson arrived at the conclusion that the candidate didn't want it bad enough, that he had no "fire in the belly," that he hated campaigning and didn't extend himself as the other candidates were doing.
There may be a glimmer of truth in some of that conventional wisdom. Perhaps the candidate believed it was enough that he put his ideas on the table and let the American people decide whether or not they were worthy of consideration. Indeed, Thompson has said as much in the past. What perhaps the candidate didn't realize is that fighting for those ideas and tying them to overarching themes is the most effective way to reach the voter.
But for whatever reason - the befuddlement of the press over his style of campaigning or a perceived lack of energy and desire - the candidate found himself at the end of November trailing badly in the polls. It was then that the campaign seemed to find itself and Thompson found those themes as well as his issues and tied them together. Crowds began to react more positively. It appeared the candidate himself was more energized and active.
But Thompson was pushing against weeks of very negative press and a conventional wisdom that had all but written him off. It was a daunting task to turn the campaign around but he has. Now he must convince voters in South Carolina and beyond that the conventional wisdom about his candidacy is wrong and that he deserves a second look.
His most recent appearances in South Carolina have shown an entirely different candidate than the one who appeared unfocused and low key during the first three months of his campaign. He has now found his mission; that the campaign is for the heart and soul of the Republican party and the future of the old Reagan coalition. When speaking in this vein, the candidate exudes a passion that may have been lacking in his earlier campaign stops. It carries over into his contrasting the records of his opponents with his own as he hammers away at their lack of true conservative credentials. He still talks specifics and issues but in a way that delineates his positions from those of his rivals. In short, he has found the bridge between a way to campaign effectively without sacrificing his belief that the voters hunger for substance in their candidate.
Thompson still pauses and thinks before he answers questions either from the media or voters. He speaks in complete sentences. He treats voters like "adults" as ABC mentioned above. In this sense, he is the anti-soundbite candidate. Whether Thompson's no-nonsense approach to campaigning will give him victory will depend largely on whether voters are moved to support a man who views running for president not as the fulfillment of raw ambition but as a chance to serve the people.
Rick Moran is associate editor of American Thinker.