The Case For Fred Thompson
During a meeting yesterday, conversation turned to politics and specifically to the Republican field. In the course of the discussion, I was asked my thoughts on Fred Thompson. Honestly, I replied, I haven’t spent much time thinking about Thompson.
Unlike a lot of people who see Thompson as the Law & Order guy, I always tend to think of him as CIA Director Marshall in the 1987 Kevin Costner flick No Way Out. It was a role that always seemed to suit him, and he reprised essentially that same role – sort of the gruff, no bullshit straight talking politician – in movies like In The Line Of Fire, Thunderheart, The Hunt For Red October, Born Yesterday, Flight of the Intruder, etc., etc. It’s basically the same role he plays on Law & Order, but he mastered it in other places.
Based on the conversation, I decided to go digging last night to see what I might learn about Thompson’s positions. It has been a fascinating exploration. In the short time I have spent looking at his past speeches, floor statements, and releases (a great deal of which are available via the Wayback Machine if you search for “thompson.senate.gov”), I find myself really appreciating Thompson’s view of our nation, the problems we face, and our obligations to the Constitution. Especially telling are his remarks about public corruption as related to the CATO Institute in a speech on the campaign finance scandal of the late 1990s.
[L]eaders, I believe, still have the responsibility of reminding the American people of what is at stake. We now have peace and prosperity, and people prefer not to be bothered by Washington, which has been so disappointing to them in many ways. However, the pendulum swings, and when our nation faces its next crisis, and when we need leadership, and we need direction, and we need inspiration, who in government are the people going to be willing to listen to if their leaders have so abused our most cherished institutions, including the rule of law.
That to me is the most important issue facing us today, and how we resolve it will play a large part in determining our destiny as a nation.
While I have not yet found any public statements by Thompson on the Cunningham case, Mark Foley, William Jefferson, the constitutional questions raised by the raid on Jefferson’s office, and the myriad other scandals of the past few years, I’ll keep digging to be sure his CATO speech is consistent with his position on investigations of both Democrats and Republicans.
On Social Security
Thompson’s position, while not dramatically different from Bush’s, recognizes a specific need for the President to lead. Bush never led this discussion. He said he wanted reform, then largely walked away from the table to leave partisans in Congress to debate the issue on Hardball. Thompson seems to possess a real commitment to reforming Social Security with a bipartisan panel, and real leadership from the White House.
A lot of people, including myself, think we have to have some system whereby the worker can invest some of that money in those FICA taxes for something that will have a much greater return than they are getting today.
We were hoping that before the President left office, there would be some leadership from the President in making some of the hard choices we all know are going to have to be made. Any one of those choices I have just described is not an easy political choice to make. It will never be made unless we get some leadership from the President, at which point I think a lot of people will fall in line.
We have, on a bipartisan basis in the Senate, already been trying to work toward that end. Frankly, I don’t think the political risks are as great as a lot of people think. I think we should tell the people the truth and do something, go ahead and do it. There is not a lot of risk to that. Most people believe otherwise. But we will have to have Presidential leadership under any circumstances.
On National Security
The video of Thompson speaking after the 9/11 attacks has been circulating on YouTube, his remarks on September 12, 2001, however, are perhaps more revealing of his position on military strength. It sounds very Reagan-esque.
Part of a great nation’s responsibility for keeping peace in the world is the threat it must pose to those who would upset that peace. Therefore, we must act as a deterrent to outrageous activity when our interests are involved. And America’s response in this matter should set a lasting example of what happens to those who unleash bloody attacks especially on our own soil.
The time for carefully measured pinprick responses to terrorists activities has passed. But we in this Body, and in the House, do not have the luxury of simply expressing our outrage or demanding retribution. We, along with the President, set policy and we must quickly reconcile ourselves to some of the things that we must do.
The John Fund piece in the Wall Street Journal confirms his belief in America’s strength while conceding the problems we face as a result of failed policy in Iraq.
On Iraq, he admits “we are left with nothing but bad choices.” However, he says the “worst choice” would be to have Osama bin Laden proven right when he predicted America wouldn’t have the stomach for a tough fight.
That is probably the best one-sentence summary of the situation I have heard. Democrats, while understandably upset about the direction the Iraq conflict has taken, have instead run to the opposite side and want to hand America’s enemies a great gift, and a tremendous propaganda victory. Their claims that Iraq is a recruiting ground are largely correct, but would you rather they recruit people to fight our troops based on our strength, or should they recruit covert agents to fly into buildings based on our weakness?
The Fund piece also articulates Thompson’s federalist tendencies.
Mr. Thompson has also been criticized for failing to back some comprehensive tort-reform bills because of his background as a trial lawyer. Here he insists his stance was based on grounds of federalism. “I’m consistent. I address Federalist Society meetings,” he says, noting that more issues should be left to the states. For example, he cast the lonely “nay” in 99-1 votes against a national 0.8% blood alcohol level for drivers, a federal law banning guns in schools, and a measure limiting the tort liability of Good Samaritans. “Washington overreaches, and by doing so ends up not doing well the basics people really care about.”
Thompson made the point more eloquently in speaking for the Federalism Accountability Act in June of 1999.
Federalism raises two fundamental questions that policy makers should answer: What should government be doing? And what level of government should do it? Everything else flows from them. That’s why federalism is at the heart of our Democracy…
We need to face the fact that Congress and the Executive Branch too often have acted as if they have a general police power to engage in any issue, no matter how local. Both Congress and the Executive Branch have neglected to consider prudential and constitutional limits on their powers. We should not forget that even where the Federal Government has the constitutional authority to act, state governments may be better suited to address certain matters. Congress has a habit of preempting State and local law on a large scale, with little thought to the consequences. Congress and the White House are ever eager to pass federal criminal laws to appear responsive to highly publicized events. We are now finding that this often is not only unnecessary and unwise, but it also has harmful implications for crime control.
[U]nless we really understand that federalism is the foundation of our governmental system, these bright achievements will fade. As we cross into the 21st century, federalism must constantly illuminate our path. Our governmental structure is based on an optimistic belief in the power of people and their communities. I share that view.
On Campaign Finance Reform
One of the few organized thoughts I have ever had about Fred Thompson’s policy positions was based on his support for McCain-Feingold. That law was, and continues to be, an unmitigated disaster. Looking at the amount of money reported by candidates for President this week, you cannot, for one moment, believe that the law is working as intended. Thompson, though a supporter of the Bill, clearly recognized the problem we all see with campaign finance. From Thompson’s floor statement in favor of increasing hard money limits and indexing them to inflation:
We have gone from basically a small donor system in this country where the average person believed they had a stake, believed they had a voice, to one of extremely large amounts of money, where you are not a player unless you are in the $100,000 or $200,000 range, many contributions in the $500,000 range, occasionally you get a $1 million contribution. That is not what we had in mind when we created this system. It has grown up around us without Congress really doing anything to promote it or to stop it.
Whether you were in favor of or opposed to McCain-Feingold, most would agree with that assessment. In the rest of his statement, Thompson makes an argument full of recognition that what you want, and what you can get through Congress, are clearly separate and distinct. He pushed for higher individual contribution limits to at least begin to counter the role of big money interests. Ultimately, he was forced to accept less in order to get anything.
He also recognizes the problems BCRA has created. Again, from Fund:
Conceding that McCain-Feingold hasn’t worked as intended, and is being riddled with new loopholes, he throws his hands open in exasperation. “I’m not prepared to go there yet, but I wonder if we shouldn’t just take off the limits and have full disclosure with harsh penalties for not reporting everything on the Internet immediately.”
It’s a proposal that many have made in coffee shop discussions, but few have made on the floor of Congress. Thompson indicates he would, as a candidate, engage in a level of ‘truthiness’ that would make most consultants nervous. Perhaps comments like this are his indication that a Thompson campaign would move more of the these “what-if-we scenarios” from the Barbershop to the White House and Congress.
Thompson for President?
Having spent some time digesting all of this, and knowing that I will spend more time looking at his past, I had to ask myself if this is the guy I could support for President. I have made no secret of the fact that I’m not thrilled with our current field. I am not aligned with any of the current crop not because I am opposed to any of them (except maybe Romney, who comes across to me as a pandering fool), but simply because I have been given so little reason to support them.
Thompson, if nothing else, connects with a sense of Federalism that runs deep in me. I still fundamentally believe that the political discourse in our nation must ultimately come down to the size and scope of the Fed. I do not believe the Fed has the power, or the instincts to address many of our most urgent issues. On that front, the more I read of Thompson’s past positions, the more I like.
Should he run, would he be the candidate I support in the race? I’m not sure yet. If he does jump into the race, however, I am willing to say he may well be the only real Republican in the top tier. Given our field, that may be enough for me.