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So Thompson Isn't Reagan After All?

By Blake D. Dvorak

That didn't take long. Apparently all one needs to do to earn the ire of your political allies is to place second in a few national polls. Indeed, after an initial wave of glowing reviews and softball interviews, Fred Thompson has been getting thumped a bit in the conservative chorus.

George Will, writing in Newsweek the other day, asked: "If he did not look like a basset hound who had just read a sad story - say, 'Old Yeller' - and if he did not talk like central casting's idea of the god Sincerity, would anyone think he ought to be entrusted with the nation's nuclear arsenal?"

A few weeks earlier, Robert Novak, another hard-hitting conservative, criticized Thompson's flat delivery at the Lincoln Club of Orange County - "a let down for the packed audience of conservative Republicans." And just last week, having spent a leisurely half-hour with Sean Hannity the night before, Thompson was absolutely grilled by Larry Kudlow on the host's CNBC show for the former Tennessee senator's opposition to tort reform.

Few conservatives have gone for the criticisms coming from the left - the lobbying career; the closeness to Washington's elite circles; the defense of Scooter Libby - except to note that Thompson doesn't, in fact, drive himself around Tennessee in a red pick-up truck. (The truly vicious have even gone after him for marrying a much younger woman.)

And it seems that anyone who comments on Thompson has to make an obligatory reference to his reputation for laziness on the job. Jay Leno, for instance, wouldn't have mentioned it to Thompson Tuesday night if the notion hadn't already become part of the collective wisdom.

In all these instances, Thompson comes off looking less like Reagan Reborn and more like Wes Clark - the other politician Thompson is most often compared to these days.

And yet one wonders: Wasn't Thompson's video skewering of Michael Moore a sign that here lies unique political potential; doesn't his willingness to debate - in print at least - top thinkers on the Right imply a deep intellectual and philosophical confidence; and, lastly, isn't Thompson at least as, if not more, experienced than two of the three leading Democratic candidates?

If it's time spent in the Senate that's important, Thompson beats both Barack Obama and John Edwards, and matches well even against Hillary Clinton, who, let's remember, is still only in the first year of her second term. Which of course proves absolutely nothing other than it's ridiculous to say that Thompson somehow didn't spend enough time in Congress.

But that really hasn't been the conservative critics' point, has it? Thompson, as must all GOP presidential aspirants, labors under the Reagan shadow, except that no one has compared, analytically or approvingly, Rudy Giuliani to Reagan. Thompson, however, has suffered such an analytical comparison, meaning that at some level Thompson is going to disappoint when he officially gets in.

As Will, Novak, et al. have noted, Thompson has real flaws going forward that have nothing to do with his inability to measure up to Reagan. Few, thankfully, are lethal.

Substantively, Thompson has a couple problems with conservative doctrine. The question is whether Thompson is able to make them appear to be of the policy kind rather than the institutional kind, by which I mean, the kind of disagreements that spring from ideological differences. For instance, Thompson has attempted to deflate his opposition to tort reform by appealing to the conservative tenet of federalism. His support of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform, on the other hand, is trickier, as it goes to issues of free speech and government coercion. On this point, the best Thompson has done is to say the law did not work as intended.

One critique which seemed surprising was Novak's reporting of Thompson's speech to the Lincoln Club of Orange County. It didn't seem right that a professional actor could generate such poor reviews, especially since Thompson's greatest strength was supposed to be in communication. The good news is that there is time for Thompson to work on this, and he acknowledged later that it wasn't his best performance.

Still, something larger looms for Thompson: Why exactly does he want to be president? Thompson's answers so far have been frustratingly vague. He says often that his decision to enter the race is based on whether the times meet the man (or the man the times). Sometimes it sounds a lot better than that, but sometimes it sounds just as clumsy.

In any case, Thompson needs to drop this kind of talk. Americans will let history decide if the times met the man. What conservatives seem to want is justification for their support. Namely, show them you can win as a conservative. That's what Ronald Reagan did and that's the only legitimate comparison between the two - yes, the acting stuff, as well.

Blake D. Dvorak is an assistant editor at RealClearPolitics.

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