The Thompson Effect

With the actor and former senator Fred Thompson set to enter the race for the GOP nomination, I suppose it’s high time to take a hard look at exactly how his presence will affect the field.

In trying to read the tea leaves of the to be candidate’s future, it is important to understand the dynamics swirling around the Law & Order star, and a good place to start is George Will’s latest piece. Likening a Thompson run to the Tulip boom in Holland of the 1630’s, Will at least identifies correctly many of the pratfalls, or at least the biggest pratfall that he may face; namely meeting expectations.

At a time when Repulicans in general seem rather unsatisfied with their prospective field of candidates, Thompson provides what many see as a winning alternative, evoking memories of Reagan as a Great Communicator, and insiting talk of such past candidacies such as John McCain when he is referred to as an outsider.

He embodies, at least stylistically, the very thing Republicans want, regardless of what they want from one voter to the next, perhaps in spite of a lack of real substance on the issue. Dissenting this, Ed Morrissey of Captain’s Quarters, seeks to thrust into the discussion both Will’s naive approach to Thompson, and Thompson’s own vast substance, not to exclude a seemingly single handed bringing about of the Watergate, forget Woodward and Bernstein and Deep Throat.

The substance of the two opposing opinions is only so much significant; I’ve often pondered the validity of the style versus substance meme. How much substance is good, and is there such a thing as too much? And how much substance do you want an executive to have given his constitutional inability to create laws based off of said substance? I’ve thought for some time now that the whole style over substance is more of a function of political triangulation and tactics than of any kind of valid commentary or use, an easy way to say that your candidate only did worse in a debate because the other guy is better stylistically, not because of his grasp on the issues.

On the other hand, the debate’s existence is in and of itself important, and can give us an idea where the crux of a Thompson run lay, and ultimately it is a matter of how close reality and fantasy match.

Up to this point, it has been wise for Thompson to stay officially out of the race because without having to fund a campaign staff, and without having to utter a single word, Fred Thompson has been rising in the polls and garnering a great deal of hype, warranted or not, to the point where he is billed as the next Great Communicator, a true conservative, and an outsider who therefore has not been corrupted by the perils of DC.

It’s a lofty pedestal he’s been put on, and the first hurdle he has to overcome is facing that hype with the reality that he is. As Ed says at the end of his post, essentially, he’s going to have to answer for his record (which essentially was George Will’s point), and to at least a couple of these images of him, his record is not going to be able to stand up. The big one I speak of is that of Washington Outsider. It’s hard to call yourself an outsider when you spent eight years in the senate and then went on to become an “L word”… lobbyist.

And then there is his communication abilities. Sure he’s an actor, and this will undoubtedly help him deliver stump speeches and get the big cheers at debates, but even this has to be taken with a certain measure of skepticism. How much of this will be attributed to his acting chops, and how much will he be compared to Reagan whose own prowess have most likely inflated posthumously?

Not that Thompson is the only politician to face such circumstances. On the Democratic side of the aisle, Obama’s rockstar status has been both a blessing and liability. At once it has resulted in a surge of support in a world where political growth often takes a lot of time and money, and yet we see that it has submitted the candidate to charges of not meeting the hype, and being weak on substance.

But there is an interesting thing here. Despite rookie campaign mistakes and mediocre at best showings in the first Democratic debates, Obama’s seen nothing but overall increases in polling trends. So we see an interesting thing develop in which the politician is rising in spite of discrepencies between the hype and reality, pointing to either voters sticking by him either because they don’t like what they see in the rest of the field, or because when faced with the “real” Barak Obama, they still like what they see.

Which brings us back to Fred Thompson. His announcement which will undoubtedly come on the 4th of July, will in all likelihood result in a pretty substantial bump in the polls. But whether Thompson becomes a heavyweight or fades into the lower tiers will hinge primarily on that disparity between hype and reality. Will voters see Fred the candidate and not the potential candidate as favorably? Will he meet expectations? Or will he find support despite not meeting expectations.

That’s the big question facing Thompson, and one that I don’t think anyone can answer in total, so it will bear watching the polls for a few weeks after his announcement, and most importantly after the first debate he participates in before we’ll know for sure.

If he does manage to maintain his groundswell of support, the picture gets a little easier to paint. We already know that Fred Thompson has already caused severe damage to John McCain’s camp, and will most likely continue to do so. McCain, the most conservative of the top three, or at least the one with the most bona fides, is essentially running as a more trustworthy conservative Bushite, but still faces the problem of supporting two of Bush’s most unpopular initiatives in Iraq and immigration. With this, he serves as probably the one candidate who can suffer the most from Thompson joining.

But with Romney, who has been trying to portray himself as a conservative but has received large amounts of skepticism as a result of a past frought with social liberalism also is at risk to a Thompson run, and it is very possibly that Fred could bump Mitt straight out of the top tier. What I do think may possibly save Romney’s campaign, though, is a solid machine in place in New Hampshire and Iowa, and polls show he is doing considerably well in both states, and with McCain and Giuliani both opting out of the straw poll, this makes Romney’s fortunes there very good and could possibly win him the state. A big or strong showing in Iowa or New Hampshire could provide a quick boost at the tail end of the primaries.

And then there is “America’s Mayor.” Which, luckily for him, he may not see too much of a leak early on in a Thompson run as he has no claim to the socially conservative branch of the party, and those who are supporting him now are not backing him because of his conservative bona fides so much as they are backing him for his hawkish position to foreign policy and terror. That’s not to say that Rudy is safe from a Thompson campaign. In the end, Thompson’s conservatism elsewhere actually helps him in the foreign policy/terror fight against the former New York mayor.

The reasoning here is simple. Republican voters want a conservative, just as the Democratic base wants a liberal. This means that as long as Fred can show himself within striking distance of Rudy on homeland security and such, he’s going to start siphoning off support from Rudy as well when the socially conservative demographic of his support sees that they can get someone who is both conservative and tough on terror as opposed to a guy who may be tough on terror, but likes to wear dresses… something I’m pretty sure Kansans aren’t all that wild about.

Of course, all of this is going to depend upon a solid campaign staff, but assuming Fred puts a good team together, it comes down to overcoming that first hurdle. Either meeting those lofty expectations that people have thrust upon him, or at least keeping their support in spite of them. If he can manage to do that, then Fred becomes very much a heavyweight who has better than a good chance at taking the nomination.

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