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Lazy Boy

Fred Thompson's laziness is just what the GOP needs

Presidential obsession du jour for anxious GOPers: Does Fred Thompson's announcement that he's in remission from lymphoma mean that America's favorite lawyer-turned-lobbyist-turned-movie-actor-turned-senator-turned-TV-actor is more likely or less likely to join the 2008 hordes? I'm betting on Option A, especially since early reaction to Thompson's revelation ranged from the blasé to the encouraging. And, while I obviously am hoping that Republicans are nutty enough to nominate someone in 2008 who'll prove utterly unelectable in the generals--like Kansas Senator Sam Brownback or, better still, Newt Gingrich--I wouldn't mind seeing Thompson jump in and shake things up a bit.

It's not that I find Thompson's politics any more appealing than say, John McCain's or Rudy Giuliani's. (As for Mitt Romney, God only knows what his politics are--or how many times they'll change between now and Iowa.) He consistently voted for guns, against gays, for tax cuts, and against abortion rights. But Thompson has one thing to recommend him that his Republican opponents don't: a long-standing reputation for lacking any passion, zeal, or vision for governing. Plus, he's said to be just the teensiest bit lazy. This was the rap on him over a decade ago, when I began cataloging his many charms for a Washington Monthly piece predicting that he'd make a helluva POTUS candidate if he could just find himself a good wife (something he has since done), it remains the rap on him today, and it is by far my most favoritest thing about good ol' Fred. Seriously. I get a little nervous when confronted by any presidential aspirant itching to transform society as we know it. (Just look what Team Bush has wrought trying to democratize Iraq.) So my idea of a top-notch standard bearer for a party whose views I find increasingly unpalatable is one too lazy and too apathetic to cause much trouble should he actually win.

Yes. Yes. Yes. I'm familiar with all the breathless posts at political sites like about how Fred is the true conservative hope of this race. I read Bob Novak's mashnote to Thompson, in which he weirdly acknowledged that the former lawmaker's chief asset is, in fact, his eight-year tenure as district attorney Arthur Branch on NBC's "Law %amp% Order." Then, of course, there was Bill Kristol's offhand and totally unexplained assertion that Thompson is the "most manifestly Reaganite" of the 2008 bunch. At this point, conservatives are so desperate that even Thompson's laziness is being spun as an asset and compared to the Gipper's famous refusal (or inability) to work hard.

But a major difference is that Reagan, while not exactly a type-A hard-charger, clearly cared about and believed deeply in certain issues, most notably national defense. What does Thompson care deeply about? Hard to say. His political schooling took place at the knee of mentor Senator Howard Baker, who, as godfather of the more liberal branch of Tennessee's GOP, was not exactly beloved by state conservatives. And, during Thompson's own Senate stint, the issues about which he was most energetic were in the area of government reforms--most notably his strong support for McCain-Feingold-style campaign finance reform. Somehow, this doesn't strike me as an issue likely to thrill the base. (Nor does the fact that Thompson was, as recently as 1995, openly pro-choice.)

As proof of their champion's conservative soul, Thompson fans vigorously point to his career rating of 86 percent by the American Conservative Union. Not to be a wet blanket, but I feel compelled to point out that McCain--the GOPer the base loves to hate--has a career rating of 82 percent. Four points lower than Thompson. Wow. Talk about your yawning ideological chasms. (And, while we're on the subject of McCain, please recall that Thompson served as Senator Straight Talk's national co-chair in 2000. Given a choice between George W. Bush and McCain, Thompson went with the candidate who made his name running around the country sticking his finger in the eye of his party's base.)

This isn't to suggest that Senator Thompson wasn't a loyal Republican foot soldier. Indeed, back in 1996, he was one of a handful of GOP senators atop Project Vote Smart's list of members to most consistently vote along party lines. But voting with your party as a legislator is one thing. Setting its priorities as president is quite another.

And here is where Thompson's lack of vision and storied laziness comforts me. For starters, my guess is that, if he ran into very many tough days on the campaign trail, he'd take his toys and amble on back to NBC before most "Law %amp% Order" fans noticed he had been gone. (Hell, he might even get his own spinoff out of an aborted run.) But even assuming he made it to the Oval Office, my guess is that a Thompson administration's aims would be modest--or at least manageable. Unlike Bush, Thompson doesn't appear to have any burning Oedipal issues to address or, worse yet, any grand delusions of having been hand-picked by Jesus to shepherd this nation. (In fact, Focus on the Family founder-turned-unofficial-Gingrich-shill James Dobson has already decreed that Thompson is not a Christian.) Just as importantly, there is every reason to believe that Thompson would be facing one or both houses of Congress controlled by Democrats. This means that, to get anything substantive accomplished, President Thompson would have to get in there and mix it up with the opposition--a messy, mud-slinging business even on a good day. A naturally combative leader (think Rudy) might seek out these sorts of fights as a way to keep his blood pumping. An ideologically passionate one (think Gingrich) might do it to keep the cause alive. But a kinda lazy guy who doesn't really believe in much of anything? Well, he'd probably be happier just tinkering around the edges and watching reruns of himself on DVD.

Now that is my kind of Republican.