Monday, September 10, 2007

What's Fred Up To?

I went to Fred Thompson's rally in front of City Hall in Nashua, NH Sunday afternoon. Maybe rally is the wrong word. I'm not sure what I saw. He stood on a platform and talked to maybe 100-150 people, but he didn't make any attempt to "rally" us. I'm not sure what he was doing.

Early on, he told us he wasn't going to give us a lot of applause lines, that he had come to talk to us "seriously about serious things." And for about an hour we were a serious, somber crowd. (There might have been more of us if it hadn't just rained.) And maybe we were skeptical. It was hard to tell. Look at the expressions in this picture:
Does that look like a rally to you? People are listening, but they don't look very rallied, do they? Even the woman up front holding the Thompson sign looks bored.

If that were a Democratic candidate's crowd, I'd think "He just outlined his eight-point tax plan again." But that's not what's going on either. Fred makes Obama look like a wonk. His slogan is: "Security. Unity. Prosperity." And that's what you get -- big themes, not plans and programs. He doesn't like bureaucracies and regulations. He wants to keep taxes low. He is committed to doing "whatever it takes" to win the war on terror. He wants to fix the entitlement programs now, before the problems get worse. He wants to stop all the partisan bickering in Washington and have America show a united face to the world.

If you want any more detail than that, raise your hand and hope he calls on you. He does answer questions, and although you still won't get an eight-point tax plan, he seems to be an intelligent man who has a basic grasp of the issues (unlike certain presidents I could name).

He's not claiming to be "somebody who has all the answers." Instead, he's making the same kind of pitch Ronald Reagan made: He has solid conservative values, so you can trust him to do the right thing. (That a candidate can run this way is a tribute to the long-term marketing of the conservative brand. If a candidate ran as somebody with solid liberal values, nobody would know what the heck he was about.)

I wonder how this is going to play out over the next few months. I'm guessing the "seriously about serious things" theme is going to be part of a larger plan to differentiate Thompson from the other Republican candidates. Maybe that's how he proves he's not a "politician" like these other guys. But he'd better get that script out to the media soon, because otherwise they're going to be talking about his unenthusiastic crowds.

Full disclosure: This is the first Republican event I've attended since McCain's original Straight Talk Express back in 2000. I'm solidly a Democrat and I've already decided to vote for Edwards, so I had to come up with a set of ethics for being at Republican rallies. I decided that I'm not going to try to pass for a supporter, but I'm not going to heckle or otherwise embarrass the candidate. I'll only ask a question if there's something I really want to know. Nothing popped to mind while listening to Fred, so I wandered around taking pictures rather than raising my hand and trying to get his attention.

For months I've been planning to start seeing Republican candidates and not getting around to it, but this was just too easy. City Hall is walking distance from my apartment and the Patriots already had a big lead, so I turned off the TV, grabbed my camera and went.

Fred's bus was about 45 minutes late, which isn't that unusual. It had rained on us in the meantime, but people kept arriving and I didn't see anybody give up. Some people accepted the Thompson stickers that were being offered, but many didn't. As often happens at New Hampshire presidential events, a lot of people were there to publicize their causes. There were about a half dozen anti-war protesters, and maybe an equal number of people from Health Care Voters, plus a few other groups. The sound system played some classic rock to keep us amused. (Suggestion: If you're trying to divert attention from your candidate's lobbying career, leave "Taking Care of Business" off the soundtrack next time. The idea that Fred might be "taking care of business, every day; taking care of business, every way" is exactly what worries a lot of us.)

In New Hampshire, a Republican rally crowd looks a lot like a Democratic rally crowd. Except maybe for the guy standing next to me, who wore a full collection of Harley stuff. And I saw a guy in an NRA jacket. No blacks or Hispanics, but I haven't seen a lot of them at Democratic events either.

Fred arrived around 4:30. (I could have watched the end of the Patriots' game after all.) His stump speech is mostly biographical, which is fairly typical at the beginning of a campaign. I haven't checked whether any of the details are true. He presents himself as coming from parents who had to sacrifice to give him a chance to succeed. He went to law school and became a prosecutor. He downplays any hint of personal ambition beyond that. His acting career just sort of happened: He got involved in an interesting case and was asked to play himself in the movie. ("I figured they couldn't tell me I was doing it wrong," he said. "But sometimes they did.") The opportunity to run for the Senate opened up, and he saw this as a chance to stand up for those values he'd been talking about: low taxes, less regulation, free enterprise. He got out of the Senate because he believes in term limits, and went back to the "real world" (i.e. Hollywood and lobbying), plus occasionally doing jobs for the administration, like shepherding John Roberts' nomination through the Senate.

He was asked the same kinds of questions that the Democratic candidates get:
  • universal health care. "If it means the government taking over the health care system, I'm against it." He made the usual conservative comments about waiting for service in countries with a national health service, and poked fun at Michael Moore and Cuba. He made no specific proposals, but talked about using the tax system to help individuals buy their own insurance. He sees the health care problem as one of cost control, and doesn't believe either the insurance bureaucracy or a government bureaucracy can control costs as well as individuals would. (Bureaucracy is a bogeyman in Thompson's rhetoric. He doesn't say it with the venom that some people do, but whenever the word bureaucracy shows up in a Thompson answer, you can be sure that's where he's going to put the blame.) He talks vaguely about changing the rules to encourage more free market competition, which he believes will make health care cheaper. (Maybe it's just me, but this approach doesn't sound nearly as persuasive as it did before two terms of Bush-Cheney.)
  • jobs going overseas. "We're not going to tell companies what they can and can't do." Because he's about "freedom," including freedom for giant corporations. He frames this as a problem of competitiveness. Jobs are "going to other countries for a reason." If we could cut down on our taxes and regulations, then we'd be competitive and jobs wouldn't leave. (This also doesn't sound as persuasive as it used to.)
  • social security. He didn't use the word privatize. He did say that we have to make changes now, because if we wait it will be much more painful. He criticized "the other side" for wanting to solve the problem with higher taxes. And he did open the possibility of people being allowed to invest some of their social security money themselves, a.k.a. privatization.
  • paying for Iraq. The questioner claimed to have been against the invasion, but seemed resigned to the idea that our troops would be there through the next administration. The question was how to pay for it, not how to stop it. Thompson acknowledged that it's not honest to pay for the war off-budget with supplemental appropriations. He didn't say what he would do differently other than presumably budgeting it more honestly. His assessment of Iraq was that already in 2003 we had a choice between two bad options. He painted a dire picture of the alternate timeline where we left Saddam in power. He refused to say definitively that this option would have been worse, but just that it wasn't a good option either. Again, he made no specific proposal about what to do now, but he seemed to think it was important not to lose the war. He kept saying that the rest of the world was watching to see what the United States would do. I think he meant that showing weakness would have dire consequences.
Interestingly, no questions about the issues that Republicans think favor them: Nothing about immigration. Nothing about keeping us safe from terrorists. Nobody worried about "the death tax."

Here's my assessment: Fred Thompson is a smart guy who is intentionally suppressing any hint of intellectuality. Sometimes when he answers questions, the polish rubs off and a wonkish word slips out of his mouth -- he doesn't want terrorist suspects to have the right of "discovery" at their trials, for example -- but he'll get that fixed soon. He's running on the not-a-politician platform -- just a regular guy who sees that his country needs somebody to stand up for common sense and the things that we all know are right. It's totally an act, but maybe no more so than what the other candidates are doing, and Dwight Eisenhower was a lot more sophisticated than the Ike character he played on TV, so I'm not going to judge Fred too harshly for that. (If Fred doesn't make it, the credit might go to whichever liberal blogger dubbed him "Fredrick of Hollywood.")

I'm undecided about how well this "seriousness" thing is going to work for him. I think he's trying for an image as a guy who really lays it on the line rather than going for cheap applause and phony solutions. It needs work. I almost didn't get it. When you go to a campaign event, you expect to be whipped up and come home enthusiastic. You expect to feel hopeful or angry or revved in some other way. When you don't, and the people around you don't either, your first thought is that the candidate didn't do his job.

But maybe he's got something up his sleeve, some way to make that image stick. I wouldn't underestimate Fred Thompson. I think that's what he wants.


Anonymous hafidha sofia said...

Thanks for the summary. What's a "wonk?"

8:49 AM  
Blogger Doug Muder said...

A wonk is to politics what a geek is to science.

The history of the word is fun. Centuries ago, British sailors said somebody was "wonky" if they didn't have sea legs and so couldn't walk straight on a ship. Cadets from the naval academy came to be called "wonks" because they were wonky: They had studied all the facts and history about the navy and naval tactics, but they didn't have experience on a ship. Later on the word was extended to cover anybody whose expertise is mainly academic.

1:56 PM  

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