Thompson Makes It Official

After months of soul-searching, testing the proverbial political waters, skipping televised debates, and putting off a formal announcement at least once, Fred Thompson finally made it official last night:  he will seek the Republican Presidential nomination in ’08.

By now, anyone following politics is familiar with the 65-year-old former Tennessee senator (1994-2002) and star of TV’s Law and Order series and the strong movement encouraging him to become a candidate.  By merely putting his name out as a possible candidate and making a few speeches — from the Lincoln Club in Orange County, California to the Prescott Bush Republican Dinner in Stamford, Connecticut, to the Midwestern Republican Leadership Conference in Indianapolis, Indiana — the tall man from the Volunteer State has become an overnight Republican superstar.  Virtually every poll of likely Republican voters nationwide shows Thompson running second as the presidential favorite behind Rudy Giuliani and ahead of Mitt Romney and John McCain.  Political powerhouses in different states ranging from Missouri Lt. Governor Peter Kinder to Pennsylvania House Speaker Dennis O’Brien endorsed Thompson before he entered the race or they had even met him.  His unofficial “Friends of Fred Thompson” campaign brought in more than $3 million before the announcement last week made it official.

So now, the major question, will Fred Thompson hold up to the closer scrutiny from the media and Republican party leaders that is sure to accompany his formally entering the race?
One complaint voiced often by listeners to his speeches during the exploratory stage is that, his television presence and magnetism aside, Thompson has so far been unclear as to where he stands on certain issues.  Luke Messer, former state legislator and executive director of the Indiana Republican Party, spoke for many when he told me after Thompson’s speech to the Midwest Leadership Conference, “In conversations with delegates, I heard repeated reference to his ‘presidential demeanor,’ ‘star power,’ and ‘charisma.’  Many of those same delegates, however mentioned that while they like his speaking style, they are looking forward to seeing more detail and substance once his campaign kicks off.”

With a lifetime rating of 86% from the American Conservative Union, Thompson, like friend and fellow presidential candidate John McCain (lifetime ACU rating: 82%) generally votes the conservative line with occasional breaks.  In Thompson’s case, he has opposed ceilings for damages in trials (a major cause for trial lawyers) and attempts to place constraints on tobacco companies.

In scores of interviews, Thompson has pointed to his belief in smaller government and more freedom as the reasons he became, in 1964, the first member of his family to become a Republican.  In interviews with me before and after he became a senator, Thompson cited the writings of Barry Goldwater and conservative scholars Russell Kirk and M. Stanton Evans.  Most recently, he told David Broder of the Washington Post that part of his motivation in running for president was to try to get a handle on entitlement programs and government spending.

But now that he’s in the race for real, Thompson will have to score quickly to rebound from the inevitable diminution of his polls post-announcement.  How quickly he bounces back and begins to pull ahead may determine the success of his candidacy.  Here are some areas in which Fred Thompson might be more specific in the weeks ahead:

Taxation:  Thompson has a consistent rating from the National Taxpayer’s Union for being a “taxpayer’s friend” and was a strong backer of all the Bush tax cuts and ending the estate tax.  However, Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform, told HUMAN EVENTS correspondent Steve Browne last week that he had “concern” over Thompson’s failure to sign the Taxpayer Protection Pledge, whereby candidates and incumbents bind themselves to oppose any and all tax increases.  Norquist emphasized he was expressing concern, not outrage, but added that with a Democratic-controlled Congress, pressures to support tax increases are far stronger.  Thompson has a lifetime rating of 87.5% with ATR on a list of 20 tax issues, which Norquist says is “OK.”  But he noted Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback is the highest-rated Republican presidential candidate with 97.5% and has signed the Taxpayer Protection Pledge.

Abortion:  According to biographer Steve Gill, Thompson recently described himself as “pro-life,” said Roe v Wade was “bad law and bad medical science,” and has promised to appoint strict constructionist jurists in the mold of Chief Justice John Roberts, whose nomination he helped through Senate confirmation.  Noting that he was rated zero by Planned Parenthood, Thompson also expressed puzzlement to Gill over reports that he was “pro-choice” in his first Senate race thirteen years ago.  Actually, Thompson rarely discussed the issue in that campaign but in 1996, he said that abortion should not be a major issue at GOP national conventions and that the party should embrace less divisive issues.  During a Senate debate, he once said: “Should the government come in and criminalize, let’s say, a young girl and her parents and her doctors as aiders and abettors?…I think not.”

Campaign Finance:  Thompson was a key player behind the McCain-Feingold campaign finance legislation enacted by Congress and signed by President Bush in ’01.  He campaigned for the measure, worked hard for its passage, and was present with McCain when it was signed into law.  The measure is hated by conservatives and all but one of the Republican presidential candidates have pledged to work for its repeal.  When he began thinking of running for president this year, Thompson began to have second thoughts on the bill and was told quoted by John Fund of the Wall Street Journal as saying “maybe we just lift the limits and have full disclosure.”  In a later, private dinner with journalists in Washington, Thompson maintained he had not repudiated the legislation he was so key to passing.

Foreign Policy:  Never closely identified with foreign policy, Thompson has begun to speak out on Iran and Iraq.  He supports U.S. action in Iraq and told Hannity and Colmes on June 6 of this year”wait and see what General [David] Petraeus says in September.  I listen to him.  I think he may be one of the best people we’ve got in the entire military and I think he’ll tell us the truth.”  Thompson also takes a hard-line on Iran, and in a speech in London earlier this year, said some of the problems with that country “might work in our favor especially if we ratcheted up the sanctions a bit more.  I would think that certainly a blockade would be a possibility, if we could get the international cooperation to do that.  I think regime change might be an option. But you can’t take the military option off the table.”  Thompson media consultant Nelson Warfield confirmed that his foreign policy team includes Mark Esper, onetime national security advisor to former Sen. Bill Frist (R.-Tenn.), Joel Shin, former Bush-Cheney 2000 campaign staffer, and Liz Cheney, former State Department official and daughter of the vice president.

Immigration:  As senator, Thompson did vote against the asylum seeker amendment, the citizen verification pilot program, and public assistance to illegal immigrants.  He did support a temporary farm workers amendment and foreign student education amendment.  Most recently, as a radio commentator, he came out strongly against the comprehensive immigration measure favored by the Bush Administration.  

Over the next week, touring at least four states on his post-announcement sweep, Fred Thompson needs to make a very strong showing to voters and the media.  He’ll face much more hostile press, more oblique shots from his rivals, and undue skepticism from a lot of his friends and allies.  If he rebounds quickly and his campaign shows organizational strength Thompson may grab the big “mo”:  from here on, momentum is what this campaign is about.