Thursday, May 31, 2007

All hail the aw-shucks savior

News flash: A dispirited organization, fearful of defeat and disenchanted with its current crop of competitors, eagerly awaits the arrival of its very own aw-shucks savior, its down-home hero who will presumably ride to the rescue and put the team back on top.

But enough about the Yankees and Roger Clemens.

Let’s talk instead about the Republican party and Fred Thompson, because the premise is similar.

Potentially, however, there’s one big difference: Clemens is a cinch Hall of Famer, whereas nobody yet knows whether Thompson has the grit and drive to mow down the opposition. In short, it’s hard to tell whether this guy is for real. It’s truly a sign of GOP desperation that he is being touted so ardently, given the fact that (a) his eight-year Senate career was, by all accounts, undistinguished, in part because he reputedly had an aversion to working hard, (b) he was assailed by conservatives during the ‘90s for failing, in their eyes, to energetically probe Bill Clinton’s campaign donations (c) he has never championed any of the social conservative causes that animate GOP primary voters, and (d) he has zero executive experience.

Regarding (b), here's what Washington Times political writer Donald Lambro wrote two weeks ago: "He led no great crusades (in the Senate), nor did he win any medals for leadership. In fact, when he was called to lead the investigation into illegal campaign contributions from China to President Clinton's 1996 campaign, Mr. Thompson was rolled by the Democrats. Instead of tenaciously digging into the Chinagate scandal, following the money trail wherever it led, Mr. Thompson caved into Democratic demands for a strict time limit on the probe, which ended prematurely, with little to show for it. So much for his leadership abilities."

Nevertheless, some conservative activists and commentators laud Thompson’s savior bona fides. Now that he has formally decided to dip his toe into the ’08 campaign, I offer this sampling of Thompson-mania:

He “looks like a president.” He has “a great voice.” He has “bearing.” He is “folksy.” He’s a “Reaganesque” communicator. He has “off-the-cuff homespun witticisms.” And he “wins the guy-I’d-want-to-get-a-beer-with primary.”

I’d suggest that the beer criterion is not necessarily the best way to pick a president; in 2000, George W. Bush was clearly favored over Al Gore as a drinking buddy, but now, thanks to the party dude, we’re saddled with what is arguably the worst foreign policy disaster in U.S. history. Nevertheless, imagery counts for a lot in this culture. Thompson has been playing folksy, avuncular authority figures for nearly 30 years in films and on TV, and many voters are comfortable with that kind of persona, because it seems so archetypically American. At this point, there’s not much difference between stagecraft from statecraft. And Thompson’s fans clearly believe that folksy and avuncular would play well against Hillary Clinton.

This is assuming he can win the nomination. But I wouldn’t rule that out, given the top contenders’ well-documented flaws (Rudy Giuliani is too liberal on social issues; Mitt Romney and John McCain are pandering flip-floppers). And Thompson has one other advantage: He’s great at playing the role of a just-folks, down-home, plainspoken country boy. Republican voters love that stuff.

Never mind the fact that, in reality, “Ole Fred” (as he calls himself) is a seasoned Washington hand who made a lot of money as a Beltway lobbyist (for General Electric, Westinghouse, the deposed Haitian president Jean-Bertrand Aristide, for the savings and loan industry, for a British company that was facing billions of bucks in asbestos claims). Republican voters wouldn’t hold any of that against him, not when his persona is so appealing. After all, they’ve endorsed phony populists in the past: in 1988, a very rich guy named George H. W. Bush donned blue work shirts, played horseshoes and ate pork rinds; in 2000, another Brahman from the same family stressed his plain-spoken Texas ways.

Maybe we’ll even see a reprise of Thompson’s best trick, the 1994 pickup truck. He was trailing badly that year in a race for an open Senate seat in Tennessee; then he ditched his Washington threads, donned blue jeans, rented a Chevy pickup truck, drove it around – and he soared in the polls, winning the race handily. Even Rupert Murdoch’s Weekly Standard magazine, in a fawning article last month, referred to the pickup truck as “a Hollywood-style gimmick designed to make Thompson look down to earth.”

My favorite story, however, concerns an incident that reportedly took place at a Tennessee town meeting in 1995. An eyewitness described this sequence: When the event ended, Thompson waved goodbye to the crowd and exited in his famed pickup truck, with a staffer at the wheel. But it turned out to be a short truck ride. A silver luxury sedan was parked not far away. The staffer dropped him off. Whereupon he drove off in the silver luxury sedan.

A rigorous vetting process awaits Thompson; only then will Republicans learn whether he measures up to the hype, or whether he is merely a five-inning pitcher who runs out of gas. Also, they'll soon get a glimpse of his tactical decision-making. He has to decide whether he wants to ante up $15,000 to play in the GOP’s first beauty contest, the Iowa straw poll, which is staged in August. That event is all cornpone. Candidates set up hospitality tents, and local Republicans show up to eat their food. That would be a perfect venue for the red pickup truck.

What’s truly significant, however, is that the Thompson boomlet is happening at all. Republican nomination contests are usually quite predictable; the nod goes to the candidate who is generally viewed as the next guy in line (Bob Dole in 1996), the guy with the largest following (Reagan in 1980), or the guy with the most money and connections (Bush in 2000). Fluid races, lacking prohibitive frontrunners, are exceedingly rare. For the moment, in other words, Fred Thompson’s late ascendance says more about the unsettled state of the GOP than about the candidate himself.