The Fred Thompson Disconnect

Fred Thompson has been in the news a lot lately.

I consider Fred Thompson to be the Barack Obama of the GOP because it seems that voters are setting high expectations for him and are flocking to his campaign even though they don't really know much about his positions on the issues. Consider this news item that hasn't gotten much play in the media, courtesy of Taegan Goodard's Political Wire. In short, a significant number of Republican voters in the early states (29% of Republican voters in Nevada and 24% of Republican voters in South Carolina) claim to be familiar with Thompson's healthcare plan. This seems like a valid statistic, but there's a problem. Fred Thompson has not even discussed his healthcare plan yet.

So are voters buying into something they don't know anything about? Are they basing their support on what they perceive the candidate to represent? Although things have changed, that was certainly the case with Barack Obama earlier this year. After his rousing speech at the 2004 Democratic Convention, there was endless buzz about how Obama was the future of his party. When he jumped into the race, voters were almost tripping over each other to support his campaign. Naysayers, especially those on the right, would ridicule these Obama supporters for blindly supporting someone who hadn't yet accomplished anything. They derided Obama as speaking in platitudes, having no substance, and being a blank slate.

I can't help but wonder if the shoe is now on the other foot. Consider this recent story about Thompson as it pertains to the Terri Schiavo case. Basically, Thompson was asked about the case and he claimed that he couldn't pass judgment on it because "that's going back in history." He said he doesn't remember the details of it.

This episode is quite revealing. How could Fred Thompson, the candidate who is supposedly coming to the rescue of disgruntled conservatives, "not remember" the details of the person at the center of one of the most intense culture wars over the past two years? A layperson might not know about the right to life issues involved in the case, but a credible presidential candidate most certainly should be expected to. And for a candidate who will need to win the support of the evangelical community in order to win the nomination, such a lack of political awareness and sensitivity to an issue so critical to his base may be fatal.

Another example of his possible lack of awareness can be found in this story about drilling in the Florida Everglades. When asked if drilling should be an option, he responded:

"Well, gosh. Nobody has told me that there are any major reserves in the Everglades, but maybe that's one of the things I need to learn while I'm down here."
Has Fred Thompson done any of his political homework? First he couldn't comment on Terri Schiavo. Now he can't take a stand on the merits or problems with drilling in Florida. Even worse, he seems to be fundamentally unaware of the most basic elements of these contentious issues. Is he really exhibiting presidential leadership?

(Anyway, Republican Governor Charlie Crist was with Thompson during this media availability and quickly changed the subject after Thompson's remark.)

Then we have the issue of church. Needless to say, Republicans have long been perceived as the party more sympathetic to religion. Evangelical Christians overwhelmingly supported George Bush over John Kerry in the 2004 election. Knowing this, one would expect Republican candidates to proudly proclaim their religious beliefs and take pride in talking about how often they go to church or how God has touched their lives. Not so with Thompson, who recently said he doesn't go to church regularly. Despite this, he says "he's right with God." Interestingly, a lot of non-evangelical Christians probably can relate to this. However, the evangelical wing of the Republican Party is almost certainly not going to take comfort in these remarks. This wing is suspicious of Mitt Romney's Mormonism and they don't view Rudy Giuliani as the paragon of religious virtue either. Now knowing this about Fred Thompson, I can't help but wonder if he's ceding the evangelical vote to Mike Huckabee, a Baptist minister.

All of these stories and events are feeding into a damaging stereotype of Fred Thompson. Is he really a serious candidate? Is he really as conservative as people claim he is? (Here's a good article that questions his conservative credentials.) Yes, Thompson talks a lot about "common sense values," states' rights, and being tough on our nation's enemies, but is there any substance behind his style? After all the hype surrounding Barack Obama's entry to the race, why is the exact same scenario taking place again with the Republicans? I live in South Carolina and I've read many letters to the editor of the local paper praising Thompson as the most qualified candidate who will stand up for conservative values. Mississippi Senator Thad Cochran endorsed him for the very same reason.

Much has been written by the punditry about Thompson and his candidacy, including this particularly scathing critique from George Will. But regular people seem to disagree and I am having difficulty understanding why. Is it name recognition? Is it his Southern drawl? Is it his craggly "don't mess with me" face? Is it his geography? Is it his "aw, shucks" way of speaking? Is it his role on "Law and Order?" Whatever it is, Thompson's strong polling indicates a possible disconnect between the chattering political classes and the average voter, much like the disconnect that existed this spring with Obama. It seems he is not being penalized for his generalities and lack of policy depth in terms of polling right now, but at some point he should expect to be scrutinized much more closely. It would be in his best interest to display a firmer command of the issues in the future because laughing questions off and being noncommittal on the great political issues of the day will only serve to hasten his return to the private sector. Voters might not have an appetite for a 10-point plan on revising the tax code or tackling global warming, but they should reasonably be expected to have their candidates for president comment on the issues important to them.

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