The Timing of Two Thompsons

A day before the Republican “straw vote” in Iowa that spelled his exit from the presidential race, former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson mused publicly about whether he should have run in 1996 or 2000 instead of now.

His “might have been” soul-searching brought back memories to me.  Twelve years ago (see HUMAN EVENTS, June 16, 1995), I speculated about a possible candidacy by Thompson — fresh from a landslide re-election to a third term as governor and just elected chairman of the National Governors Association.  “Wisconsin’s Thompson Likely to Go,” was my headline’s conclusion, my story noting that the governor had received national publicity for a rich conservative agenda of rolling back business taxes, “tough love” welfare reform, and support for vouchers.  The man known as “America’s most conservative governor” and “the Reagan of the Badger State” had hit his stride and appeared ready for national politics.

More importantly, there was no obvious conservative favorite for the ’96 nomination.  While Thompson was certainly not a perfect candidate, I felt someone with a record of achievement and reputation as a good campaigner (in 1986 he was one of only two Republicans nationwide to unseat a sitting governor) had as good a chance of anyone of being nominated.  Thompson felt so, too, or he did for a while anyway: after setting up an exploratory committee for the presidential race in June, the governor pulled the plug on it a month later.

By 2007, Thompson was 65 years old, seven years removed from the governorship, a former Bush Cabinet member and Washington attorney.   His best days of political were nearly a decade behind him.  Placing all of his chits on the “straw vote,” Thompson got a mediocre 7% of the vote and watched as another former governor only months removed from office, Mike Huckabee of Arkansas, came in second to Mitt Romney  with 18% and thus became the “B-Team” candidate on the national talk shows.  Thompson withdrew.

“Timing is everything in politics,” is the last line in the Thompson saga, and one that I have seen played and replayed in 28 years as a political reporter, and too often in presidential politics.  Too many candidates with great potential make the fatal mistake of waiting too long that, when they actually make the race they  have been ballyhooed for, they are yesterday’s news. 

As mayor of Indianapolis in the 1960’s and ‘70’s, young Dick Lugar was a Republican superstar who was clearing going places.  I met him in 1971 when he was one of two featured speakers at an event for Hartford (Conn.) Republicans (the other was then-Secretary of Housing and Urban Development George Romney, Mitt’s father.)  The very fact that Mayor Lugar was speaking in Hartford signaled he was eyeing a future in national politics.  He would make it to the Senate on his second try in 1976 and rose to become chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.  But by the time he actually made his long-anticipated presidential run in 1996, Lugar had become part of the political furniture.  After four decades in which he was listed as a “Republican to watch” and “potential president,” Lugar was no longer fresh.  He flamed out.

When I interviewed Bob Dole and mentioned two people who worked on his bid for the presidential nomination in 1988, he told me: “When you see them, give them a big thank you for me.  ’88 would have been our year.”  Dole said a mouthful: although  he finally did win the GOP nomination in 1996, he was eight years older, years more familiar, and more a figure of “the establishment” than when he challenged Vice President George Bush for the top job in ’88.  Had he overcome Bush, there is little doubt Dole would have demolished Michael Dukakis and sat in the Oval Office. 

Perhaps the person who could learn the lesson of timing from Tommy Thompson is the other Thompson, Fred.  The former senator, widely boomed for the nomination in 1996, sat out the race, backed John McCain in 2000, and retired from politics two years later.  Now he is back and, when it appears as though there is no obvious Republican candidate for President in ’08, the Tennnessee senator-turned-TV actor is poised to jump in the race.

Or is he?  Having raised more than $3.5 million and signed up numerous supporters without a formal announcement, the 65-year-old Thompson frustrates — not too much, but more so with each day — potential enthusiasts by putting off a declaration of candidacy.  In so doing, he avoids debates with other candidates, can selectively pick and choose the sites of his speeches and interviews.  But, in putting off what initially was thought to be a July 4 announcement until August 8 and now suggesting it will be sometime after Labor Day, Fred Thompson runs the risk of letting people who might be major help to him jump on other bandwagons.

While Thompson may today benefit by being “none of the above,” that could easily change in weeks or days.  Mitt Romney could easily build on his comfortable win in Ames and line up the conservative support troops Thompson is counting on.  John McCain shows no sign of going anywhere, the turmoil surrounding his campaign notwithstanding, and one New Hampshire source says he is getting a hero’s welcome in the state of his biggest triumph seven years ago.  Mike Huckabee appears a post-Ames fixture on TV talk shows and could well move into the top tier of Republican candidates, usurping the mantle Thompson obviously covets.

So take a lesson from the page of your namesake Tommy, Fred.  Timing is not everything in politics, but it’s an important thing.  Make a move or at least let your intentions be known a little more firmly.  And don’t forget the admonition of former Secretary of State James Baker: “Overnight is an eternity in politics.”