It’s understandable that Fred Thompson fever is increasing around the time of the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. In spring, Washington’s political class falls in love with B-list celebrities. But the Thompson love fest is no mere fling. It will endure as long as only 65 percent of Republicans say they are happy with the current field of presidential candidates and as long as the actor and semiretired politician continues to flirt. Last Wednesday, Thompson met with 50 or so House Republicans and left most of them with the impression that he was running for president.
After the meeting, his audience was ready to gobble him up. “He has charisma dripping off him,” says Tennessee Congressman Zach Wamp, who is leading the draft-Thompson movement. “I don’t want you to take this the wrong way, but when you play a president in a movie and you fit the part, people believe you can carry it out in real life. That’s one thing that Fred believes that no one in either party can bring.”
I have been fascinated and a little puzzled by the mooning over a Thompson candidacy. The swooners are legion, and their love blinds them to problems that would count as black marks against any of the other Republicans currently running. Here are a few blemishes that Republicans overlook in their infatuation with this smoldering president-type:
His past McCain habit: Before the Thompson boomlet, the fastest way to excite a room full of conservatives was to mention John McCain’s name. They just don’t like him. They may have qualms about Romney and Giuliani, but they regard McCain as a political traitor. Thompson co-chaired McCain’s 2000 presidential campaign and was his ally when the two served in the Senate.
He supported campaign-finance reform: When conservatives list their grievances against John McCain, the first is usually the McCain-Feingold legislation that restricted unlimited donations to political parties. They see it as an unconscionable attack on free speech. Thompson co-sponsored that legislation!
He was soft on Clinton: News flash: A lot of movement conservatives really, really dislike Bill Clinton. During Clinton’s impeachment trial, Thompson was one of only five Republicans who voted not to convict him for perjury. It wasn’t the sex; it was the “rule of law” at stake. No other Republican would live that vote down so easily. Just a few weeks ago, fellow conservative Newt Gingrich explained that the Clinton perjury charge was so deadly serious that it inspired him to ignore the hypocrisy of his own ongoing extramarital relationship at the time.
He’s a consistent federalist: Believing in states’ rights is a central tenet of conservative thinking, but so is opposition to homosexuality and support for sweeping tort reform. Thompson opposes gay marriage but believes states should be allowed to sanction civil unions, as the governor of the early-primary state New Hampshire has just said he’ll do. While in the Senate, Thompson, a former trial lawyer, also resisted one of the tenets of the Contract With America that called for limitations on malpractice awards—an issue he thinks should be left to the states.
He’s a former trial lawyer: See above. If you’re John Edwards, this is pronounced with the same intonation as “convicted child molester” or “treatment-resistant fungus.” If you’re a jowly character actor from Law & Order, no problemo.
Don’t get me wrong—Thompson is a conservative. He supports gun rights and lower taxes, opposes abortion, and doesn’t like Iran one bit. But he’s not the conservative gold standard that some of his supporters claim. Won’t that set them up for disappointment as the campaign wears on and he starts to look like all the other guys? “Please don’t compare him to Ronald Reagan,” says Wamp, repeating for me the pitch he gives fellow conservatives in the hopes of trying to manage their expectations. “Compare him to the other candidates. He’s not a hardcore conservative, but when you grew up in Lawrenceburg, Tenn. and you grew up in his skin, you are a conservative at your core.” In the end, it is a message appropriate to a thespian candidate: Please suspend your disbelief.