When Newt Gingrich wanted to dismiss Barack Obama, he did it in a phrase. Obama would make a great president, said the former House speaker, “if the country wants therapy.” Like the claim that John Kerry “looks French” from the 2004 election, this quip works on many levels for GOP voters. It refuses to treat Obama seriously and paints his supporters as frail, emotional, and needy. It also reasserts a broader claim about the difference between the two parties: Republicans are adults focused on serious issues; Democrats engage in sentimental swooning that will get us all killed at night in our beds.
Given the self-image of conservatives, it’s a little surprising, then, that so many are excited about Fred Thompson, a candidate whose chief qualification seems to be that he makes them feel good. The former Tennessee senator has less experience than all the other top GOP contenders and yet he is being talked about as the savior for a party that is unhappy with its current crop of candidates and its chances in 2008. Thompson has not entered the race, but in television appearances two weeks ago, he hinted that he might.
This flirtation has ignited talk, Web sites, and a draft movement led by former Tennessee Sens. Howard Baker and Bill Frist. In a recent Gallup poll, Thompson shot into third place ahead of Mitt Romney; he’s done the same in polls in the early caucus state of Iowa. Romney, who looks even more like an actor playing a politician, must be depressed that Thompson has so quickly overtaken him, since the former Massachusetts governor spent a great deal of time gaining experiences and building a résumé that might actually be useful for a president.
Thompson’s chief appeal is emotional. Until now, many conservative Republicans have had to wince when they thought of their plausible presidential choices. Giuliani is too liberal, McCain is too unpredictable and too well-liked by the media, and Romney seems like a flip-flopper on the issues they care about. The possibility of a Thompson candidacy excites the Republicans I talk to. He’s an “outsider”—having left Washington for Law and Order before the Beltway rot set in. He’s a good communicator, which means he can sell conservative policies and has the star power to battle Hillary or Obama. Though he hasn’t been through the press-vetting process, his voting record and talk-radio performances suggest he holds conservative enough positions. Oh, and he can raise Hollywood cash.
Authenticity and star power conjure visions of Ronald Reagan. But Reagan had genuine experience running something—namely the state of California. Thompson’s résumé is thin—an undistinguished eight years in the Senate, an acting career, and a youthful turn as co-counsel in the Watergate hearings. Supporters try to pump up his résumé by boasting that he shepherded John Roberts through his confirmation hearings—but that was the legal equivalent of walking Michael Jordan onto the court.
What’s most puzzling is that Thompson is liked by Republicans who say the war on terror is the single most important issue facing the country. They claim they understand the reality of the threats we face and that Democrats don’t. And yet Thompson’s security résumé is puny compared to his potential rivals. He has no executive experience and the wars he’s fought have all been in the movies. Sure, you can argue that experience is overrated—after all, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld had plenty of it. The problem is that Thompson’s supporters like Cheney and Rummy.
The myth behind the Thompson quasi-candidacy is a dangerous one that bedevils both parties: If we just get a better communicator, people will love our policies. But once Thompson enters the race, he will have to either embrace or distance himself from GOP policies, which will either ruin his chances in the general election or hurt him with his conservative supporters. In short, he’ll become just like any other candidate—something he might not like after such a big buildup. Thompson also has a reputation for not enjoying the grind of campaigning.
The blows are already coming. Conservative radio host James Dobson has announced he doesn’t think Thompson is sufficiently Christian because he doesn’t speak openly and loudly about his faith. Dobson prefers Newt Gingrich, who went on Dobson’s show and confessed to a series of moral lapses in an exchange that sounded a lot like therapy.