I started this as part of a longer post on my choice between Giuliani and McCain that I’m still working on, but it got long enough to stand on its own.
As regular readers will recall, I have been publicly supporting Rudy Giuliani for president since February 2007, before Fred Thompson was even being seriously discussed as a potential candidate. My first serious flirtation with switching away from Rudy, back around May or June, was Fred Thompson. For the reasons I’ll discuss at greater length in the longer piece, I was already worried about the problems Rudy’s social-issue stances present for the general election by that point, and Fred looked like the one guy who might, if he played his cards right, unite the national security and social conservative wings of the party behind a charismatic candidate who also had a solid record on fiscal issues.
Fred had one significant, though not insurmountable, weakness as a candidate: no executive experience and little leadership experience of any variety aside from a largely ineffective tour as a Senate subcommittee chairman. Heck, even in Fred’s years in acting he’d rarely had a starring role. Executive/leadership experience isn’t everything – and no presidential candidate has all the qualifications we’d like to see – but it’s one of the most important credentials for a potential president (John F. Kennedy’s only such experience was commanding a PT boat; of the 13 other successful candidates since 1900 – not counting the three who were first elected as incumbents after succeeding from the vice presidency – we’ve had 8 governors, two VPs, a military leader (Ike), a colonial administrator (Taft), and a Cabinet Secretary/businessman/wartime reconstruction administrator (Hoover). And the last two were disasters at the job.). So before I was willing to throw my support behind Fred, I wanted to see him in action actually running something – see if he could manage a media-savvy campaign that would command the narrative and hit the ground running with Hollywood flair. After all, if there’s one thing a trial lawer or an actor (and Fred has been both) should know, it’s stagecraft – the kind of stagecraft that so excited everyone on the web when Fred rolled out that rapid response to Michael Moore.
I waited to see Fred come roaring out of the gate – and waited, and waited. He never did. He dithered, and he entered the race with a whimper rather than a bang, and he reshuffled his staff, and he seemed to go out of his way at times to fly under the radar in a crowded field. Rather than media-savvy, Fred has been media-shy. In a business in which communications is the lifeblood of presidential influence, that’s bad, bad news.
Some will object that the mainstream media is misleading us by downplaying Fred because he’s conservative, because he’s Southern, because he refuses to bow to a lot of their silly rituals. But like it or not, the MSM is as much a reality for a president as the strike zone is for a baseball pitcher. If you can’t hit the umpire’s zone consistently, it really doesn’t matter how good your pitches are. Maybe it’s just me, but I have yet to encounter anyone who (1) takes Fred’s campaign seriously and (2) doesn’t get the majority of their news from the internet.
To continue the baseball analogy, Fred reminds me most of all of Pedro Martinez. Not the Pedro of his Boston glory days, but the Pedro who has pitched for the Mets since 2005. Pedro is a true master of his craft, full of guile and skill, and on those days when he arrives at the ballpark healthy and in possession of what passes these days for his good fastball, Good Pedro is still a beauty to watch, dissecting opponents, messing with their timing and generally looking like a man pitching to boys. But many days, Pedro doesn’t have even that fastball to work with, or he’s pitching hurt, or he isn’t healthy enough to take the hill at all.
That’s Fred – Good Fred is a master at work, at turns folksy, frank and commanding. On policy, he’s right on nearly everything, he’s been mostly consistent through the years (with the exception of campaign finance issues), and after a maddeningly vague rollout to his candidacy he has produced issue proposals worthy of the title “Policy Fred.” About the only issue where Fred worries me is immigration, where he may be too much of a hard-liner for the sake of the GOP’s long-term relationship with Latino voters sensitive to overdoses of nativism.
But, like Good Pedro, Good Fred just doesn’t show up often enough to carry the team for the whole season; sometimes he’s off his game, and sometimes he’s just not to be found at all. And as we have seen with George W. Bush, a guy who doesn’t come out swinging every single day will sooner or later get eaten alive by his inability to control the terms of debate. A Fred Thompson presidency would, I am sure, be characterized by integrity, good judgment, a stable, steady hand, wise policy, and rarest of all, perspective about the things that really matter. But a Fred presidency, and a Fred general election candidacy, would also be afflicted by periods of drift and apathy, resulting in the steady bleeding of support in the face of the typically ferocious onslaught that faces any president and in particular a conservative Republican. Fred might well propose good things, but proposing things and making them happen are two different animals.
In the 1930s and 1940s, baseball teams played a lot of Sunday doubleheaders, and accordingly could make use of a pitcher who would pitch once a week rather than every four days. Teams would often fill this role with a talented but sore-armed veteran who was no longer up to the task of going every four days – a “Sunday Pitcher.” Some of these were very successful, most famously Hall of Famer Ted Lyons, who worked in the role for nearly a decade, starting 20 games a year instead of 35 or 40 and leaving hitters baffled, while resting his arm during the week. That, to me, is Fred: the Sunday Pitcher of politics, the guy who is at his best as he has been in the movies and on TV, showing up at a few key points to provide wise counsel and sly one-liners. A man like that can make a tremendous addition to a national ticket – for any of the others, really – as the Vice Presidential candidate, to pop up here and there when he has something to say, and otherwise act (as Dick Cheney has) behind the scenes as an advocate for conservative ideas and principles. He can be trusted to provide a steady hand at the till if he’s needed to step into the big job. I wouldn’t be heartbroken by any means to see Fred pull out the nomination, and obviously a stirring comeback in the primaries would require Fred to show more of what we have too rarely seen from him. But we have a tough race ahead of us, and Fred just hasn’t shown in an extended audition that he’s the guy to carry the team on his back accross the finish line.