By all rights, the campaign of Fred Thompson for the Republican presidential nomination should have unfolded much differently than it has to this point. Logic combined with expectations virtually assured the former Tennessee senator that once he entered the race, conservatives would flock to his banner, placing him in the first tier of candidates with a real shot at grabbing the brass ring.
Unfortunately, politics is not a logical undertaking. And expectations – especially when they are unmet – can be a deadly a trap for a politician. In Thompson’s case, his problems are mostly of his own making; a curious and, for his supporters, maddening lethargy that seemed to grip the campaign from the outset. Instead of excitement, passion, and a sense of destiny, the candidate was almost listless at times and uninspiring.
Things didn’t start out that way. When news began to circulate that Thompson was seriously considering a run, conservatives were extremely interested. And the putative candidate started by hitting the internet hard. He established a strong presence on the net by writing blog posts and op-eds for several publications, even using a clever and funny YouTube video to respond to a challenge on health care from Michael Moore. As his net personae grew, it created a lot of positive buzz with a consequent rise in his poll numbers.
Thompson was running a classic “front porch” campaign where the digital world became his parlor and conservative bloggers and pundits would set a spell and drink a mint julep while the candidate advocated classic conservative positions on issues like federalism, 2nd amendment rights, immigration, and entitlement programs. The pundits would then fan out and create positive buzz while Thompson himself never moved from the porch swing.
But then came trouble. According to longtime GOP political operative Bill Lacy who currently runs the campaign, the original volunteers who sat around Thompson’s kitchen table planning the initial stages of the campaign were not seasoned in the ways of national politics:
“You had a lot of bright, well-meaning people. But there was kind of a disconnect between ideas and operationalizing ideas,” said Bill Lacy, the man Thompson brought in to clean up the staffing mess. “There’s a major step from saying ‘This is an idea’ to actually making it reality.”
Thompson began to bleed staff. Hemorrhaged might be a more accurate assessment. Some blame the candidate’s wife for being too involved in the day to day operation of the campaign. One staffer described the problem as systemic:
There was an irrational exuberance for Internet campaigning,” one former staffer said. “When this exaggerated faith in the Net collided with reality, the impact was pretty severe. Once the real campaign began, an organization that placed no premium on having a real campaign was ill prepared to deal with it.”
In the end, the revolving door for staff ended up costing the campaign focus – and time. It’s hard enough trying to create a national staff in less than 90 days that will take a candidate to the White House. It’s quite another to have the kinks worked out in a very public way with the candidate’s judgment being questioned as a result of the defections and firings.
This was the campaign when Thompson announced for the presidency on September 6. And after the first couple of weeks, people were already becoming disillusioned with the candidate.
Part of the problem was certainly the fact that Thompson was expected to be the second coming of Ronald Reagan – a movie actor who could connect with the voter on a gut level through superior communications skills while articulating a vision of conservative governance. This was terribly unfair to Thompson, a thoughtful man who appeals more to the head than the heart. Indeed, of all the candidates running for president from either party, it can fairly be said that the Thompson campaign put more meat on their policy positions than anyone else. Immigration, national defense, the War on Terror, health insurance – Thompson has fleshed out the issues of the campaign in a well rounded and thoughtful manner.
And he had the political courage to offer up a plan for the future of social security – a not inconsequential risk considering the radioactive nature of the issue, especially for Republicans.
But despite all of this as well as solid conservative credentials on the so-called social issues, the campaign never got off the ground and began foundering almost immediately after the official announcement was made on The Tonight Show. Thompson began to stumble. Verbal gaffes like his offhand comment that Osama Bin Laden “was more symbolism than anything else” uttered less than a day after he announced set the stage for a series of faux pas that had tongues wagging inside the beltway. There were whispers that Thompson was “stupid” (a notion gleaned from a Watergate oval office tape where Nixon offered his opinion of Thompson’s ability to do his job as Minority Counsel), that he was “lazy” and “didn’t really want to be president.”
Unfortunately, the candidate did little to disabuse people of the idea that what was being whispered was, in fact, the truth. His stump speeches failed to arouse anything except ennui and threatened to put people to sleep. Supporters were perplexed. There didn’t seem to be a sense of purpose or urgency to the campaign.
Starting as late as he did, one wished that Thompson would hit the ground running and never look back. Instead, his appearances had an air of diffidence about them. The candidate was thoughtful, direct, and singularly boring. There were few interruptions for applause except when he hit upon red meat issues like the War on Terror or Iraq. At one Iowa campaign stop, he actually had to ask for people to clap .
Audiences simply weren’t warming to him. And it is hard to figure out why. Certainly he has a commanding presence, a deep, mellifluous voice that is easy on the ears. But it appears that there was no spark, no underlying fire that animated his speeches and gave off heat. He was just ole’ Fred holding forth at the diner. He sometimes rambled, sometimes lost his train of thought which made for some excruciating moments. In the end, people came away disappointed.
Reinforcing the notion that Thompson was lazy and didn’t want the presidency was the buzz from inside the beltway – media pundits who find it amusing to deconstruct, decompile, and eviscerate candidates they have spent previous months urging that they run. It’s kind of like the way little boys like to pull the wings off of flies except kids do it out of curiosity while pundits do it for a living.
Thompson was savaged by the press who tried, convicted, and sentenced the candidate for not living up to their expectations. Dick Morris led the charge:
He may be the tallest candidate in the race for president, but Fred Thompson is clearly in over his head! In both his fumbling pre-candidacy period and his hesitant, attenuated post-announcement campaign, he’s given the clear impression that that he is ill-informed, inarticulate, badly briefed and downright lazy.
Then there were questions about his pro-life stance, his lobbying activities, and his support for the execrable McCain-Feingold Campaign Finance bill. The whispers on the campaign trail about the candidate became actual questions asked by reporters; do you really want to be president?
This was not lost on the voters as evidenced by the polls. In Iowa, Thompson is mired in 4th place with 11%. It’s even worse in New Hampshire. Republican gadfly Ron Paul beats Thompson in the Granite State with the candidate pulling down only 5%.
State by state, his high numbers from September and October have disappeared. At one time leading in South Carolina, he now trails both Romney and Giuliani. In Florida, where he once challenged Giuliani for the lead, he is now stuck in 3rd place. In delegate rich California, he’s a distant second to Giuliani. And in Nevada, the latest poll has him losing to Rudy 2-1.
Is there any way to retrieve the situation? There are signs of life from the candidate as he has gone on the attack against both Romney and Giuliani. And recent appearances have shown some fire from Thompson as he tries infuse his campaign with some passion.
The good news is that only a fraction of Iowans and New Hampshirites have definitely committed to one candidate. He has just begun his media buys – commercials that don’t knock your socks off but rather highlight his conservative credentials and his folksiness. And if he can establish a greater presence in those early states, he could perhaps change a few minds about him by showing how badly he wants the job and that he will fight to get the opportunity to run.
And then there’s history. Fred Thompson has always been a strong finisher. In his first Senate race, running to fill out the unexpired term of Al Gore who had just been elected Vice President, Thompson trailed his opponent by 20 points before roaring back and beating him by an even larger margin.
He’s going to have to pull something similar if he hopes to have a chance for the presidency.
Rick Moran blogs at Right Wing Nut House.