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Can Fred Thompson Win in 2008?

Is Fred Thompson presidential material? A TNR debate, Day 2

Editor's Note: This is the second installment in 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? Read Part 1.

Dear Jason,

I think Fred Thompson has a very strong chance to become the GOP nominee, and every time I see somebody argue against that proposition, it just seems to make me think it even more. Let's start with his trip to London. I thought it was a brilliant move myself. Thompson is looking for ways to hint to the conservative base that he's one of them without harming his general election viability. The Thatcher trip was a perfect way to do it.

Likewise, I think you're missing Thompson's niche. I don't think his appeal is as the truest of the true conservatives. I think his appeal is that he can check all the boxes and has the personality to be a strong general election contender. He's extremely good at playing authority figures, and conservatives understand that this is a valuable asset to have in a nominee. He doesn't have to be 100 percent pure, he just needs to be pure enough. The Thatcher trip is one of the ways he's showing he's pure enough. After all, Ronald Reagan himself inaugurated the practice of phoning in his remarks to the Right-to-Life rallies in Washington.

In some way, Thompson's ability to keep his distance from parts of the conservative base is also part of his appeal to conservatives. The other contenders all have massive conservative liabilities. Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney both held office in very liberal places and took liberal positions. John McCain went to war with the conservatives from 2000 through 2004. For that reason, all of them almost have to go over the top in establishing their conservative bona fides. But the mere fact that they have to embrace George W. Bush and the conservative base to such an extent explicitly undermines their general election viability and makes them less useful to the party elite.

Thompson's luxury is that, in his stint as senator, he was basically a party regular. So he doesn't have to shout his fealty to the right from the rooftops. He can send out more subtle signs.

But, hey, maybe you're right that Thompson decided to make a transatlantic trip just because he's lazy. I will concede that the lazy stereotype about Thompson is probably true. Is this a liability? Sure. The key question is, compared to what? Giuliani was and is pro-choice, pro-gay rights, and was wildly pro-illegal immigrant. He seems to step on a landmine every week. And talk about lazy--he seems not to have prepared himself for a question about Roe v. Wade before the first Republican debate.

McCain voted against the Bush tax cuts, violated Republican orthodoxy on just about everything, is despised by enormous chunks of the base, and is ten years older than Thompson. Romney has been defined as a flip-flopper in a way that just destroys his public persona, and his religion makes him utterly anathema to the very constituency he hopes will be his strongest supporters.

Compared to these liabilities, I'd take the candidate who spends a few less days pressing the flesh in Iowa diners. I think the principle of diminishing returns applies to shoe-leather campaigning anyway. I also think the Republican Party is a hierarchical organization, and the party elite is pretty good at deciding what it wants and getting the grass roots to follow along.

Thompson is the one contender who hasn't alienated a major segment of the party. He may not win voters over one by one over coffee klatches in Des Moines, but by the end he'll have Rush Limbaugh and Fox News making his case for him.