At the heart of the all-but-declared Fred Thompson campaign is the witty aphorism. In his speeches and writings, he’s always got one handy. A man who walks around smiling all the time can’t know what’s going on. Trying to improve the comprehensive immigration bill is like putting lipstick on a pig. Support from bloggers is like a net at your feet. You can’t pay the IRS with a smile. (They don’t accept them.) He’s got enough clever sayings and simple truths to fill a daily-devotional calendar.
These Chiclets work politically for Thompson because they’re at the heart of both his screen and real persona. It’s the kind of earthy wisdom you’d expect from a solid man who grew up in Lawrenceburg, Tenn., and they’re what you’ve come to expect from his various acting roles. Arthur Branch of Law & Order rolls in, gives a little guidance, solves the problem, and everyone’s home in time for dinner.
But wouldn’t Fred Thompson the aphorist look at a guy like Fred Thompson the presidential candidate and say: “What’s he ever done? Before he runs a country shouldn’t he at least run a coffee shop?”
Well, no. On this one, Thompson is the other guy on the porch rocking chair or at the end of the bar (where this kind of folksy conversation takes place), saying that if having experience is what’s gotten us this mess in Washington, maybe we ought to try something else. Out on the porch or in the bar, there is nodding. Someone passes lemonade. To criticisms that he lacks experience, Thompson has quipped privately, “I wonder how I got so far in life.” It’s a winning retort because it dismisses the charge and shows voters that Thompson is comfortable in his skin, something they have approved of in the past.
In turning his lack of executive experience into a campaign theme, Thompson is promising to run a different kind of race as an outsider. Never mind that he’s lining up a class of political veterans and pollsters to work for him—he’ll slice through the cynicism and traditional ways of Washington. “This is not a corporate campaign,” says one of his backers. He’ll take it to the Internet! As he told USA Today, the Web has already “allowed me to be in the hunt, so to speak, without spending a dime.”
Thompson’s outsider strategy also gives his opponents an opportunity. One of the biggest (and longstanding) knocks against the former senator is that he doesn’t have the heart for the race or the job. In short: He’s lazy. A campaign that relies on pithy lines and the Internet feeds the lounge-chair image. It looks like he’s trying to elevate laziness into a virtue. Several of Thompson’s rivals, who know him from his time in Washington, elaborate on that theme. He wasn’t known for his hard work in the Senate. Exhibit A, they say, was the 1997 campaign-finance hearings he chaired, which he started with a bang by promising grand disclosures but ended in a fizzle without uncovering much.
Fair or not, the laziness rap against Thompson is like the rap that former presidential hopeful Sen. George Allen isn’t a genius. Or that John McCain is a hothead. It’s an unresolved issue waiting for its moment to become a crisis for the campaign. Thompson’s spokesman, Mark Corallo, brushes off critics with a line Ronald Reagan used when belittling what he considered his opponent’s hysterical distortions: “There they go again.”
The laziness charge can be deadly because however much voters like the notion of no-sweat solutions, they also want to be sure that their president is up at night worrying about terrorist attacks so they don’t have to. They also like to know they’re getting their money’s worth from their public officials. After the early-to-bed Bush administration, this may be truer than ever.
The other problem with being a lazy candidate is that laziness makes you think you can wing it. This may explain Thompson’s much-discussed (by Republicans anyway) lackluster performance at the California Lincoln Club in May. He tore up his speech and just ad-libbed. The lack of direction showed, at least as far as influential conservative columnist Robert Novak was concerned. Because Thompson’s candidacy benefits so much from his performance abilities, like Barack Obama on the Democratic side, he pays a bigger price than other candidates if he doesn’t consistently excite party activists each time he gets on stage.
The upside about the laziness charge, especially as an alternative to being dinged for lack of experience, is that Thompson can do something to push back. There are people who have worked with him who will testify to his depth. Years ago, before he was running for president, they described him with terms like brilliant and smartest guy in the room. Those backing his presidential campaign argue that what some call laziness is a misapprehension of his Southern style. He is not a hummingbird of activity, they argue, but a person who works efficiently and wisely.
Thompson’s supporters say that once he officially enters the race around July Fourth, it will soon become apparent that he’s out there humping it just as hard as the other guys. He’ll have to. There’s only so much you can do virtually. Howard Dean proved in Iowa in 2004 that enthusiasm, love, and the Internet do not lead to victory. A methodical, disciplined ground game matters, and Thompson is way behind.
Thompson will also face a tough set of issues once he gets in the race. He is a vocal opponent of comprehensive immigration reform, which is a crucial part of his appeal but also means he enters in the middle of a brutal fight within his party. Thompson is seen by many as a savior who can unify the unsettled GOP. Not when the putative leader of the party, President Bush, has characterized people who hold Thompson’s view on immigration as offering “empty political rhetoric trying to frighten our citizens.” Thompson’s old friend John McCain is also on the other side of the issue and has said he was “disappointed” that Thompson has flip-flopped from a previously more-supportive view. The debate has gotten ugly, and aphorisms alone won’t do the trick.