Unsubstantial: The Republican Success Story Writ Large
Oh, that Peggy Noonan. With a sly wink and a nod, and a gleam in her girlish eye, she talks up Fred Thompson with a stroke of her pen all the while painting him as insubstantial as a flashing image on the screen. To wit:
…He says he'll get in if enough people ask him to. If they don't, he'll go someplace else and do something else. It's not as if his speech fees would go down.
Why would he run now? Because he thinks there's no one of greater stature on the field. Because he thinks he's got a better, shrewder read of the base than the rest of them. Because he's at an age where you throw the dice or know you never will. Because he thinks the one essential to modern presidential leadership, the one thing you must have now, in the age of terror, is the ability to communicate, and he reads himself as the best communicator. And because he's at a point in his private life where it's possible for him. He's got a wife who's got his back and two kids who've given him a second chance. Even in great careers it's the private life that's hardest to get right. He feels he has.
People speak of Mr. Thompson's movie-star looks. But he's not beautiful, he's heavy and gray. What he has is bearing. He has the manner of someone who thinks a great deal of himself, and thinks it after long personal pondering of his good points, bad points, high points and low. He may or may not be correct in his conclusions, but I suspect they are part of his draw. I suspect people pick them up.
Is he anything beyond a standard Republican conservative? Will he have anything beyond a Mideast policy that consists of win in Iraq, support the surge, and oppose any timetable? Does he stand for any strategic thinking apart from what John McCain unconsciously but aptly characterized as "Bomb-bomb-bomb, bomb-bomb Iran"? On domestic issues, can Mr. Thompson go beyond standard conservative thought? I happen to be standard conservative myself, but sometimes old things need to be made new, the obvious needs to be made fresh.
Here are some things Mr. Thompson has going for him. He had eight years in the U.S. Senate, and then left in 2002 instead of sticking around and getting all the muck on him. He has a conservative record but a moderate persona. He seems nonradical, non-let's-follow-the-banner-over-the-cliff. He's a Southerner but modern. He has a great voice. (Voices matter. Ask Obama, who has one. Ask Hillary, who doesn't.) He comes to a field that may soon start to feel tired. That to some extent already does. His relatively late entry suggests–suggests–his motives are serious, not just ego-related.
But Mr. Thompson's challenges are real, too. He'll have to show he's serious–that he's in it for big reasons and in it to the end. He'll have to knock down the "low energy, gadfly, hops from thing to thing" charge, which has persisted so long that one assumes there's something in it. He'll have to show he's not just a rote, pro forma conservative–a dumb conservative–but someone who knows times change, horizons shift. He has to show he has run something, or can run something. Romney ran a state, Giuliani a city. Mr. Thompson has run what–a career? Big whoop.
Most importantly for him, and for all the Republican candidates for that matter, Mr. Thompson will have to answer this question: What is he running to do? Why should the Republicans get another eight years, or four years, after all the missteps they've made? Isn't conservatism, or Republicanism, or whatever you call it, just tired? Isn't it over? Isn't America just waiting for whatever will take its place?
Why shouldn't liberalism get a shot? Could they mess up more? Why should we trust Republicans with foreign affairs?
If Fred Thompson can answer these questions, he'll be showing he's something new, and not just the newest candidate, or the latest face….
This is a sort of metaphor for the entire Republican Presidential field, really, and it reminds me of the old Vice Presidential debate wherein Ross Perot's running mate — former Admiral Stockdale — stood up and said "Who am I? Why am I here?" to start his opening statement. The whole GOP field exudes that "what in the hell are we thinking?" feeling, doesn't it? After the mess that the Bush Administration and the GOP-controlled Congress have made of the last six years, why should anyone trust a conservative to run anything more than the Dairy Queen on the corner (and even that is suspect, frankly)?
Politics ought to be about more than getting your face on teevee and raising a lot of cash to buy more ads. And the people in politics would do well to remember that those of us who are out here watching them are paying attention to what they do — or do not do. Actions speak louder than words and, at the moment, Fred Thompson seems awfully enamored with image over substance. That Peggy Noonan appears to think so as well, and is willing to say so publicly, is quite the interesting read, I must say.