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December 31, 2007

Fred Frustrations

It appears they've bubbled up again at Hot Air. Maybe I, Voice of Reason and Calmness, can defuse it.

First of all, Fred never said he lacked the requisite "fire in the belly" to be president, and it's a typically stupid fake media story to claim that he said such a thing. What he said, in context, was that he had enough "fire in the belly" and that anyone who seemed to have more may be too personally ambitious and grasping to be trusted as president. It's hardly news that a candidate would suggest that he's the "Goldilocks candidate" in any particular respect -- not too hard, not too soft, but just right.

One may claim that Fred Thompson does indeed lack the "fire in the belly" to be president, but it's an absurdity to claim he admitted such a fatal flaw through his own lips. No, he's claiming that he seeks the presidency not out of ego or lifelong personal ambition, but rather seeks it more humbly, because he feels, reluctantly, that he's the right man at the right time, and he's joined this contest not for himself but for his grandchildren. This may be bullshit, it may be spin, but in no way is it some confession of lack of drive or interest in the job. It's a pretty standard attempt to spin a job interview question about one's weaknesses into virtue.

That put to rest, the frustrations rise on both the pro-Fred side and the open-to-Fred side.


Thompson's supporters seem annoyed that so many people allow that Thompson is a strong candidate, but are hesitant to get on board with his candidacy and truly support him just because he hasn't yet caught fire with other possible supporters. People like me are waiting, in their eyes, to support him until they see a sufficient number of other people doing so. Which they think is pretty stupid; either a candidate is worth supporting or he's not, and a person shouldn't wait to see what others are doing before making an individual choice.

But there's a reason for this that the Fredheads don't seem to grasp. I will say, as have many others, that Fred is perfectly acceptable candidate; indeed, he seems a rather good one. Particularly in his taped speeches, he makes a strong case for basic conservative principles in plain but well-chosen words with manner that is folksy without being pandering or inauthentic. (In his live appearances he projects much less confidence and command, or at least has so until recently; if he's gotten better lately, I haven't noticed. But this isn't a deal-breaker by any means.)

The divergence between many of us and Fred's supporters is this, then: While almost all Republicans find Thompson a qualified, acceptable, and potentially strong candidate, many Republicans also find other candidates qualified, acceptable, and potentially strong. I'm not a Giuliani partisan any longer, for instance, but should he win, I'd support him. I've never been a Romney man, but I recognize his strengths as a smart and capable administrator, and while he can be knocked for pandering and flip-flopping, one can argue he at least has a clear-eyed idea of what it takes to win an election and isn't above doing all that it takes to do so. And while McCain is the least acceptable to me of all acceptable candidates, I can at least find solace in the fact that he's been a stalwart on the war and would, if he secured the nomination, probably be our strongest candidate. (Alas, that would partly be because we were nominating someone guaranteed to act against our political interests a good number of times.)

For many Thompson supporters, however, there simply is no other acceptable candidate at all. All other candidates are fatally flawed for one reason or another; Thompson is the only candidate they can vote for. A lot of the frustration on both sides seems to arise from this simple fact. Thompson supporters are basically saying, "Thompson's acceptable to us all, let's get behind him. If we don't nominate him, many of us will simply stay home; and Thompson's a good candidate anyway, so why not oblige us?" That's not an entirely unreasonable political pitch, but it fails because this is a badly -- historically, even -- fractured GOP electorate with lots of support for other candidates; everyone seems to be somewhere between 12 and 20%.

Thompson's supporters don't always seem to allow for the fact that while Fred may be many's second-favorite candidate, he is, at the moment, the first choice of a much smaller fraction of the GOP. And while I (and others) do understand that math behind a Thompson candidacy -- go into the general election with the base united behind an orthodox conservative candidate with decent to strong cross-over appeal -- we are a bit frustrated by the fact Thompson's supporters seem unwilling to even consider anyone else.

Which gets to be a particular problem when it appears that Thompson's chances of winning are rather low. Oh, he's not out of it by any means; a better-than-expected showing in Iowa and/or South Carolina could cause a Thompson cascade just as we saw earlier with Huckabee, and suddenly everyone will be praising Thompson's brilliant Internet-based strategy and maverick refusal to play the game by its old rules. (Including me, of course.)

But that outcome, while possible, just isn't the most likely one. At the moment, it appears than any of the other major candidates -- Romney, Giuliani, McCain, and the Huckster -- have a better chance of winning the nomination. That could change as soon as one candidate craters, of course, and supporters flock to Thompson; but it's not clear at the moment if Thompson can survive long enough to take advantage of a failed rival.

And for those who like Thompson but aren't yet committed to him, Thompson's supporters seem unreasonably insistent on their candidate and no other. The "Get with the program and get on the bandwagon" pitch only really works if there is indeed a program and a bandwagon.

People have a tendency to ascribe outcomes to personal virtues or personal failings. We like storylines where people get their just results. But these storylines often have nothing to do with reality. The current easy storyline is that Thompson isn't catching fire because he got into the race too late, campaigned too lackadaisically, etc. It's appealing because it describes the outcome as being the just result of Thompson's actions. But it's probably a storyline that should be resisted -- Thompson has shown an admirable unwillingness to pander, for example, which is at least as compelling a reason for his failure to catch fire as his supposed lack of energy. So I resist the easy knock of, in essence, "blaming" Fred for his so-far inability to put together a winning coalition, ascribing this failure to a moral failure (sloth). It could be that, like Paul Tsongas in 1992, Thompson's running his campaign with a bit too much integrity to appeal to the electorate, who are, let's face it, largely unsophisticated and less impressed by integrity than they are by transparent pandering.

Still, even if that is in fact the reason for Thompson's thus-far failure to launch, it's also still a fact that the Thompson rocket is still sitting on pad. I know Thompson is at least, for me, a very good second-preference candidate (and sometimes a first-preference one), but for Thompson's supporters, maybe it's time to start thinking about a second-preference candidate, too. Thompson may indeed win this thing, but if he doesn't, is there truly no other candidate who's even acceptable?

One knock on Thompson is, after all, his lack of executive experience for anything larger than a small legal or legislative staff. And his first high-profile attempt at acting as an executive -- his campaign, of course -- is so far not a model of success. Campaigning is part of the process of becoming president, after all. It may be a stupid part of that process, awarding pandering and superficial aspects of one's persona, but it is still undeniably the first test of any would-be president. Those of us who like but don't love Thompson tend to think executive experience is pretty important, and so far this aspect of Thompson's candidacy remains, at best, a big question mark. If he can turn that around, terrific, but will need to do some proving on that score.

He Hates Campaigning: I get that. Who wouldn't hate campaigning? Bill Clinton seemed to like it but he was a pathological narcissist who only existed in the refractions of his admirers' eyes.

This is all very dumb stuff, perhaps, but a dude's got to do some stupid frickin' stuff sometimes and at least manage to pretend he likes meeting the public.

Via Hot Air, which has some more.


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posted by Ace at 04:36 PM

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