I have been and continue to be a Fred Thompson skeptic. Not so much about him, per se, but about his candidacy. On Friday, the day after the Presidential Debate, Thompson spoke to the Orange County Lincoln Club. Here’s the video:
Several things struck me, as they relate to Thompson, his candidacy, and his past. The most important is that Thompson is talking large ball politics.
The conventional wisdom is that Thompson left Washington not because he was lazy, although there may well be some substance to that charge, but that he felt that you couldn’t really accomplish anything in Washington anymore. Too many entrenched interests, etc. Even incrementalism is hard in today’s Washington. In his speech, he talked about this. He said things like:
Why in the world would you want to be in politics if you can’t make a difference.
Or he talked about things like the ridiculous scrutiny and public-sector employee union protections.
In this speech, Thompson isn’t talking incrementalism. He is talking generational challenges. He is talking about embracing globalization and the new economy. He is talking about the challenges of foreign policy, whether they be Islamic extremism or China and Russia. (note that the China position is a sharp contrast to Romney who is very pro-China) He is talking about demographics. On a broader level, he is talking about a transformation of politics. He said:
I am hopeful that after this next election, the good people and the people who are reform minded and change minded in the good way. And the next President of the United States can go to the American people and just say this, in effect. We have a different situation on our hands now. We are living in a new area. We are going to be tested in many ways. Maybe under attack even for a long time. But it is time to be honest with ourselves. We need to do some things better and some things differently. And here’s what we need to do. And here’s why we need to do it. And now that you’ve been called upon and you understand, I know that you will respond for the sake of the nation and the next generation because you always have. And when we get the response that I think that we will get from the American people for that, it will shake the Capitol and we will have our bipartisanship.
Compare this to the other candidates. Rudy Giuliani is a mayor and has to remind everyone that he is a mayor if he talks about his record. He looks small, part of his problem at the debate. Mitt Romney also has a smallness problem. Most of the time, he is (mis?)handling his gaffes and white lies involving hunting or his favorite books or movies or his various positions on abortion, stem-cell research, or whatever. Even Romney’s signature spending proposal of capping spending at inflation minus one percent, is small ball with virtually no impact. Marketing, spin, pandering and small ball policies.
Thompson is explicitly making a point of this:
Do you ever wonder why when so many of our problems are getting larger, so many of our politicians seem to be getting smaller?
Thompson wants to break this mold. And, I think, in many ways, his friend John McCain does too. Liz Mair did point out that McCain’s announcement speech had some big themes in it like entitlement reform and certainly Iraq and terrorism and long-views towards each. I think that McCain is likely to be the comparison against Thompson if Thompson is able to frame the debate, and it will diminish Giuliani somewhat and Romney dramatically.
Now, I don’t know if that can work. But Thompson is laying down a marker for what this debate should look like. Not just about policies, but about principles. Not just about issues, but outlines. We shall see.
I still look at Fred Thompson and see a man who wants to shape the debate but not lead it. A dignified version of a Tom Tancredo, with an actual vision rather than a fear. But perhaps not the persistence to carry it through. But there is plenty of time to prove me wrong.