Editor's Note: Today, we begin a four-part debate between TNR senior editors Jason Zengerle and Jonathan Chait about whether Fred Thompson has what it takes to be elected president in the 2008. If and when Thomspon enters the race, will he steamroll the competition or fail to live up to the hype?
Last week every Republican presidential candidate with hopes of emerging as "The True Conservative" in the race--Mitt Romney, Sam Brownback, Duncan Hunter, and Ron Paul--traveled to Kansas City to speak to the National Right to Life Convention (NRLC). And then there was Fred Thompson. Although he's not yet an official candidate, Thompson clearly plans to run--and he plans to run as the Truest of True Conservatives. So it seemed that a sojourn to Kansas City to stoke an important segment of the conservative base would be in order. But Thompson skipped the trip, choosing instead to address the NRLC by a pre-recorded two-and-a-half-minute video. His reason? He had a scheduling conflict.
When I first read about this, I was dumbstruck. What sort of scheduling conflict could Thompson have that would prevent him from going to the NRLC? Since he's not even an official candidate yet, it's not like his schedule could be that busy. But then, a few days later, I learned what the conflict was: Thompson was going to London to kiss the ring of Margaret Thatcher and give a speech to Policy Exchange .
Now, there were obvious political benefits from such a trip: He got to associate himself with the last living conservative icon (since Ronald Reagan is dead and President Bush is in disrepute) and give a hawkish speech on foreign soil. But I think this episode reveals something about Thompson that makes me doubt he'll do much in the presidential campaign once he does officially enter it. At a basic level, he's a lazy dilettante--someone who would much rather go to London than Kansas City. Which is a perfectly understandable preference for you and me, but not for someone who wants to be president.
I understand the flaws of the other Republican candidates--particularly the big three of Giuliani, McCain, and Romney--and the reasons each one of them will have trouble capturing the nomination. And I realize that there's an opening for another candidate to enter the field late in the game--relatively speaking, of course, since it's only June--and win the nomination. But I doubt Thompson is that candidate, mainly because there's nothing in Thompson's background that suggests he has the stamina and desire to actually mount a serious presidential campaign. If Richard Ben-Cramer were writing What It Takes about the '08 presidential crop, I don't know how he'd be able to eke out more than just a few pages on good old Fred.
Thompson's Senate career, of course, was completely undistinguished. His highest-profile moment came on the opening day of the 1997 campaign-finance hearings he chaired when he asserted that the Chinese government was pouring illegal money into American campaigns. But then, when it came to the hard work of actually backing up that assertion, he completely whiffed. Even his acting career, I'd argue, reflects a certain lack of follow-through. On one level, maybe it's not Thompson's fault that he's been pigeonholed as a character actor; but most character actors, at some point, get tired of being character actors and at least take a stab at playing a leading role. Thompson's never done that--contenting himself to play the same straight-talking, tough-minded rear admiral (The Hunt for Red October), NASCAR commissioner (Days of Thunder) or district attorney (Law %amp% Order) in role after role. Indeed, in the last feature film Thompson appeared in, Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World, he played "Senator Fred Dalton Thompson." Talk about stretching himself.
Of course, Thompson has done a masterful job, to this point, of positioning himself as the GOP's great conservative hope. But his pre-campaign--which has consisted primarily of Internet videos and radio commentaries--doesn't require much heavy-lifting. It's the real campaign itself that will be Thompson's true test. And, right now, I don't see anything in his past that suggests he's up to the challenge.