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Too Bad Fred Won't Sell His Good Ideas

By Kimberley Strassel

On Fox News this Sunday, Fred Thompson laid out the most creative tax proposal yet in the race for president. It should have been an important moment, the point at which GOP aspirants finally dug into a core issue and went a few rounds over marginal rates and corporate levies.

Instead, nothing. The Thompson plan inspired little fanfare, less press and didn't even merit time during this week's GOP debate. The black hole says everything about the mess that is the Thompson campaign, and just as much about today's intellectually bereft Republican primary campaign.

The standard rap on the former Tennessee senator is that he's lazy. This is meant to explain why--despite movie-star status, Southern conservative credentials, and Beltway experience--his campaign has been as fizzy as day-old cherry Coke. The reality is more complex--and more concerning for Mr. Thompson's presidential prospects.

The Watergate attorney has made himself into this election's Don Quixote, the impractical idealist tilting at "the system." Even as he announced his run on the Jay Leno show in September, Mr. Thompson quipped he "wasn't in the room when they made the rules" that resulted in today's sped up, big-money, 24-hour-news-byte primary. He has refused to play nice--declaring late and declining to join rivals in the media hoopla and nonstop campaign. It has proven a case study in the folly of trying to single-handedly buck modern politics.

It might have helped if Mr. Thompson, who stated his intention to trust in "the people" to give him a hearing, had offered those people something more than personality at the start of his tardy campaign. It has instead only been very recently that he has, admirably, tried to craft himself into the ideas candidate.

He's proposed revitalizing America's armed forces by increasing the core defense budget, building up a million-member ground force, and instituting sweeping missile defense. He went where no other GOP candidate has yet gone with a detailed plan to shore up Social Security, by changing the benefits formula and offering voluntary "add on" accounts for younger workers. He would re-energize school vouchers. His border security blueprint certainly matches Mitt Romney's or Rudy Giuliani's in its, ahem, creativity and thoroughness.

This week's tax proposal was decidedly fresh, going beyond the run-of-the-mill candidate promise to extend the Bush tax cuts, and calling for the end of the death tax and the AMT, a cut in the corporate tax rate and even a voluntary flat tax. According to a campaign source, in upcoming weeks Mr. Thompson will unveil plans to reduce federal spending by limiting nondefense growth to inflation, earmark reform, and a one-year freeze on the hiring of non-essential civilian workers and contractors.

There's plenty here to get conservative voters and bloggers and pundits engaged in some healthy, even lively, debate. That is, if they'd heard any of this. Most haven't, and for that Mr. Thompson has mostly himself to blame.

While it isn't clear who set the "rules" for this manic election, they're set. Voters may only pay attention at the end, but having an infrastructure to make sure those voters hear you in the final months is the work of years. By sitting back, Mr. Thompson allowed his rivals to scoop up the well-connected policy wonks, committed state activists and aggressive fund-raisers that oil a campaign. His own refusal to "do" the media and public-event circus has muzzled his message, as the failure of his tax-plan announcement shows.

Think back to 1999, when Gov. George W. Bush--who knew something about campaigns--unveiled his own tax outline. His people had a dozen brainy conservative economists at the ready to blitz the media. Outside business groups stood by with glowing press releases. Average families were found to serve as real-life examples of how the tax cut would help. The campaign staff fanned out and joined local activists to manage the grass roots. The candidate himself devoted endless time to flogging his idea in public appearances and to every press person and editorial board around.

None of this happened in the wake of Mr. Thompson's Fox announcement. The campaign simply didn't have the stuff to pull it off. Worse, its own leader refused to do what is expected. A look at Mr. Thompson's schedule revealed not a single public appearance for three days after the release, right up to Wednesday's highly uninformative CNN debate.

Speaking of dull debates, that's Mr. Thompson's other problem. To the extent he is now trying to float ideas (and he could use even more), the rest of the field wants nothing of it. The GOP went into this race thinking itself the likely loser, and that fear has defined the primary. The candidates aren't vying to lead a wayward party out of malaise, or energize voters with new ideas. They're instead trying to be the answer to a question: Who can beat her?

That's made the race about biography, in particular on issues like national security and immigration, where Republicans hope a Hillary Clinton will be weak. Mr. Giuliani's campaign is about his past as a New York tough guy who can face down terrorists. Mr. Romney's, his past as an MBA who can manage our border. Mr. McCain's, his past as a Vietnam vet who recognized the problems in Iraq. There's no future in this present, and Mr. Thompson's lackluster delivery of his own agenda has allowed the front-runners to continue avoiding the big debates.

Mr. Thompson's inertia has meant his campaign is no longer in control of its destiny. His best shot now is that Mr. Huckabee and Mr. Romney go nuclear, leaving him with a ticket out of Iowa and some hope. He still ranks second behind Mr. Giuliani in national polls. But putting himself in a position to build off any lucky outcomes will involve trying to play the game he so detests. If he believes his ideas are as important for the country as he says they are, he will.

Ms. Strassel is a member of The Wall Street Journal's editorial board.

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