I like Fred Thompson, and I agree with him on pretty much every issue. So I’ve puzzled over why my reaction to his candidacy was more negative than positive. Now that he has dropped out of the race, it may be time to draw a few conclusions.
First, Republicans are looking for a winner. If Thompson’s candidacy had really taken off, and if there had been any sign that he might be the communicator who could explain conservatism to a new generation, lots of Republicans would have been in his corner very quickly. But that didn’t happen. My own first-hand encounter with Thompson generated no sense that he had any intangible quality that would add value to his generic conservative views.
Second, it was never clear how badly Thompson wanted to be President. For that matter, it wasn’t clear how much he wanted to be a Senator. He bailed on the Senate shortly after September 11 for a career in Hollywood. Nothing wrong with that, but it isn’t necessarily the profile of our number one choice to be President.
I used to think the fact that you have to be more or less crazy to seek or win the Presidency was a problem. Now, having witnessed the level of abuse that the last several Presidents have suffered, I think a candidate had better be extraordinarily driven to seek the office, or he’ll never survive it. I think many voters sensed that Thompson didn’t have that kind of determination, and I don’t think they were wrong to hold it against him.
Third, and much more controversially, I think that Thompson’s failure to gain traction suggests that the “Reagan coalition” may be over-rated. The “Reagan coalition” is really just a reference to the strands of conservatism that were strong, electorally, at a particular moment in time. That alliance is no more frozen in time than the Roosevelt coalition that brought the Democrats to power for a generation. Time marches on. New circumstances and new challenges will breed new variations on conservative themes. As I noted here, Reagan himself emphasized different aspects of his philosophy in different races.
In principle, there is no reason why there shouldn’t be a “Giuliani coalition” or a “Romney coalition,” with the candidate galvanizing a slightly different mix of voters–in Giuliani’s case, a stronger emphasis on national defense, with more appeal to social libertarians; in Romney’s, the center of gravity with mainstream economic conservatives but with a strong assist from family value voters. Giuiliani could draw into his coalition moderate and even liberal-leaning voters who put a premium on national defense, while Romney could appeal to non-conservative but pragmatic voters who are looking for a strong hand at the economic tiller.
A defining feature of the “Reagan coalition” was the Reagan Democrat. Again, there is no reason why, twenty years from now, we shouldn’t be talking about the “Giuliani Democrat” or the “Romney Democrat.” Or, and perhaps most plausibly, even though I left him out of the above analysis, the “McCain Democrat.”
Lots of party insiders thought that Thompson’s methodical checking of the boxes of conservative ideology would make him a powerhouse with Republican primary voters. But it didn’t happen, maybe in part because checking boxes is what it felt like. Maybe the voters are ready for something new; maybe they’re right.
Time will tell. But for now, those are the lessons I draw from the surprising, to many, failure of Fred Thompson’s candidacy.
PAUL adds: I understand the Reagan coalition as a short-hand reference to three strands of conservatisim: economic conservatism (limited government and low taxes); national security conservatism (strong defense and unwillingness to give ground to our enemies) and social conservatism (particularly pro-life positions). Many Republicans decline to check all three boxes and this was true to some extent in Reagan’s time. But I doubt that Republicans collectively are ready to abandon any of these three strands, and I certainly hope they aren’t.
I suspect, by the way, that if Republicans abandon one of the three, they will abandon economic conservatism.
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