Sunday, October 21, 2007

The swoon that was: Fred Thompson and the "values" of the Republican Party

By Michael J.W. Stickings

(Note: I am not a Republican. In fact, I generally despise the Republican Party. But that doesn't mean I can't spend some time analyzing the Republican presidential race, does it?)

"Thompson's fall from grace" is the headline of a post by my friend Steve Benen at TPM. While Romney and Huckabee led the way at the religious right's self-glorifying two-day "Values Voter Summit"* in Washington, much to no one's surprise, Thompson placed well back in fourth, a distant fourth, behind Romney and Huckabee, a close 1-2, and Paul, a decent third. Thompson finished ahead of Brownback, who has withdrawn from the race, as well as the two "why are they even running?" candidates, Hunter and Tancredo. Also to no one's surprise, Giuliani and McCain ended up at the bottom of the pile.

In short, the fundies have spoken. And, well, they're split.

I argued some time ago that Romney had a good shot at the nomination, that he could surge even after Thompson, the would-be Reaganite saviour of the GOP, entered the race. To me, these numbers speak volumes. Huckabee is still a long-shot, too much a long-shot, and Romney clearly has the support of a good chunk of the religious rightist vote. But can he overcome the staunch and determined opposition he faces from those on the right, and from within the GOP generally, who refuse to support a Mormon, or who just don't trust him (what with his seemingly dubious religious rightist credentials), or who see him as an insincere, opportunistic flip-flopper on key religious rightist issues like abortion and gay marriage? He has a lot to overcome, to be sure, and there will continue to be doubters and critics no matter how well he does, but he is in the lead, more or less, and the rest of the field is, to put it nicely, uninspiring.

And that includes the saviour himself, Fred Thompson.

Thompson is still doing fairly well in the polls, if well short of those hyper-heightened pre-announcement expectation levels, running behind Giuliani, the current frontrunner, but not too far behind. And he is doing well among churchgoers, a key (if not the key) Republican voting bloc. The problem is, he is not doing well among the activists, those who bothered to take the time to attend the values summit. Furthermore, there are lingering doubts as to his social conservatism, his commitment to religious rightist values. He may talk the talk, but so does Romney, and more aggressively, and so does Huckabee, who can back up the talk with a consistent walk, a more genuine commitment to those values.

Thompson still has time to get his act together, and much of it seems to be an act, a poor act, but, to me, he looks tired, dull, unmotivated, and, well, lifeless. He is no Ronald Reagan, not even a mediocre imitation, not even close. And still one wonders: Why is he running? What does he stand for? What is his vision? Does he have any vision at all? They may be uninspiring candidates, the lot of them, but at least Thompson's rivals all seem to have a driving, meaningful purpose as presidential candidates: Giuliani -- 9/11/terrorism, McCain -- Iraq/national security, Huckabee and religious rightism, Romney and the Romney image, and so on. Thompson, for his part, seems to be without drive, without meaning, and without purpose. And Republicans, I suspect, have figured that out already. It didn't take long.

That's right, it didn't take long for the bubble to burst, for the myth to be shattered, and many of us saw it coming. Thompson's presumptive candidacy was such a joke, after all, way back before he entered the race. There was excitement and enthusiasm -- among desperate Republicans, to be specific -- but not for Thompson the man, the former lawyer and politician, but Thompson the actor, specifically for the Thompson characters on TV and in the movies. An admiral, a DA, a wise and authoritative tough guy, the same character over and over again -- it was that character Republicans wanted to run, not the real-life Fred Thompson with the political past.

But what Republicans have now is the real-life Fred Thompson, and, whatever the poll numbers, he's just not to their liking, not living up to expectations, because the expectations were unreal, because the characters are unreal, because "Fred Thompson," as opposed to Fred Thompson, is a fiction. That fiction has fallen from grace, and the man along with it, the man wrapped up in the fiction, the man mistaken for the fiction. The race is not over, and the competition is light, but it is hard to imagine how this fiction-cum-folly will be able to pull out a victory in the real-life sweepstakes of Republican politics.

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* I would argue that all of us, in some way, are "values" voters -- we all have values and vote accordingly. The "values" of these religious rightist values voters, however, are synonymous with self-righteous bigotry.

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From the Hartford Courant (6/1/07) -- although he's proving to be a pretty bad actor on the campaign trail:

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