Fred the Fooler

I’ll tip my hat to the new constitution
Take a bow for the new revolution
Smile and grin at the change all around
Pick up my guitar and play
Just like yesterday
Then I’ll get on my knees and pray
We don’t get fooled again

(The Who, 1971)

• • • • •

Will Republican supporters be fooled again? History suggests this is likely, although we should probably separate the GOP base and the evangelical Christian flock from the rest of the crowd. Party faithful are often those trying to do the fooling, and the evangelical bloc generally aren’t fooled.

The GOP finds itself in a difficult position. Although Republicans do not face a “perfect storm” (the phrase is overused of late), many stumbling blocks present themselves, and perhaps the most frustrating aspect is that they have only themselves to blame.

During my childhood in the 1980s, Republicans complained that Democrats were too liberal, a charge that continues through the Clinton era and into the Bush; anybody remember Jeff Gannon’s “divorce” question? The Clinton era, however, also raised accusations that Democrats had sold out their principles in order to win votes. True, Clinton charismatically stole valuable portions of the GOP platform, capped with a budget surplus. The era of talk radio, which exploded during the Clinton years, has sharpened political rhetoric across the spectrum; voters realize more and more that there are few, if any liberals left among Democrats, and this makes the liberal slur something of a political caricature. The GOP is left with the character charge, that Democrats have sold out their principles. We see this in the Republican sentiment–and one echoed by Osama bin Laden–that the Democrats sold out when they voted earlier this year to continue funding the Iraqi Bush War. After all, as GOP critics and America’s enemy-in-chief alike point out, the people elected a Democratic majority in order to stop a disastrous war.

The problem with this argument is that it overlooks the basic Constitutional dynamics of Congress. No critic of the war vote I have encountered has been willing to explain how congressional Democrats would override a Bush veto. Don’t look at me; I can’t figure it out, either. Certainly, we might accept that Osama bin Laden does not understand this point. We might also wonder if he knows and prefers to overlook the point; the latest videotape demonstrates a marked improvement in style and method, and suggests bin Laden is becoming more adept in the American way of marketing ideas.

What, however, is the GOP’s excuse? How well does it reflect on the argument if the rhetoric is ignorant of the realities it addresses? What if both bin Laden and the GOP are depending on ignorance?

After at least fifteen years of complaining about the Democratic Party’s lack of principles, and after pushing that argument so far that the GOP now shares common ground with Osama bin Laden, Republicans face a principle crisis of their own.

The front-runners for the GOP presidential nomination have not been attractive to Republican voters. Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani brings to the race a difficult family history, support for abortion and gay rights, and a stance favoring gun control; add that he shares with Democratic candidate Senator Hillary Clinton a political flexibility that causes party faithful to gnash their teeth and mutter in frustration (beware the phrase “political savvy”), and it becomes very easy to see why many conservatives would be nervous about sending this powerhouse to the show. Former Massacusetts Governor Mitt Romney might still face resistance over religious issues. If Republican voters are not upset about the Huckabee campaign’s slurs against Catholics, they might also choose to turn a deaf ear to concerns about Romney’s Latter-Day faith. But Romney faces certain challenges: he is vulnerable about his investments much in the same way critics charge of Democratic candidate and former North Carolina Senator John Edwards. And Romney is starting to appear as the new waffle king. In February, Washington Post reporter Ruth Marcus covered Romney’s political makeover: abortion, gay rights, and gun control. Marcus even points out Romney’s evolving position on why he voted for Paul Tsongas in the 1992 primary, and concludes her article noting, “Those considering Romney in 2008 have reason to wonder what a politician who admits so freely to that kind of manipulation is willing to do to win their votes.”

Hold on. What’s this? A third leading candidate, or, as it has been for a while, non-candidate? Former lobbyist, Tennessee Senator, and, of late, Hollywood-elitist Fred Thompson, after riding in from the desert and galloping alongside the contest, has finally hopped off his horse and onto the train. One of three Republicans to poll consistently above the “undecided” vote, Thompson is regarded as a potential savior in a GOP field that has proven uninspiring.

As Toby Harnden writes for the Telegraph:

Many Republicans believe that their front runner Rudy Giuliani is too liberal to win the party nomination while Mitt Romney, leading in the key first-voting state of Iowa, is struggling to persuade voters that his recently acquired conservative positions are genuine.

They yearn for a new Ronald Reagan, another B-list actor who was dismissed as a lightweight but who went on to help end the Cold War and become a conservative icon.

The problem with Thompson as a Republican savior is that he, too, brings the kind of baggage that seems problematic compared to the GOP’s history of targeting Democrats’ lack of principles: he worked for eighteen years as a lobbyist whose clients included Jean-Bertrand Aristide (notorious human rights abuser) and National Family Planning and Reproductive Health Association (pro-choice); in 1994 he said that he considered lobbying an honorable profession, which is a remark akin to what drew much criticism for Hillary Clinton. Add to that family concerns: a trophy wife younger than his children from the first marriage. The evangelical bloc has already noticed. Earlier this year, Dr. James Dobson challenged Thompson’s Christianity, though later he tempered his comments by saying that he was glad to hear the candidate profess to be a believer.

The latest challenge to Thompson’s principles is his attempt to portray himself as the conservative outsider. Washington Post columnist Colbert I. King, however, notes in his latest column that “no other White House hopeful, Republican or Democrat, can come close to matching Thompson’s insider credentials.”

From 2003 to 2005, Thompson presided over the Federal City Council, very much a Washington insider group; Thompson succeeded former Senator Bob Dole, who in turn succeeded former House Speaker Tom Foley. The Council is presently headed by Frank Keating, another insider whose career includes high-ranking jobs with the Justice Department and HUD under two presidents, a nomination to the federal judiciary that was never confirmed, two terms as Governor of Oklahoma, consideration as Attorney General under the current President Bush, questions about gifts worth a quarter-million dollars, and, of late, President and CEO of the American Council of Life Insurers; he was even considered by some as a potential GOP candidate for the current cycle.

Thompson, himself, has been involved in Capitol Hill politics since the Watergate era. From his arrival as a Judiciary Committee lawyer, through eighteen years as a lobbyist, time in the U.S. Senate, work to build the disastrous Department of Homeland Security, and presidency of one of Washington’s strongest insider assemblies, Fred Thompson has been close to the American center of power.

Such issues damage Thompson’s credibility; it is hard to imagine him as an outsider. As King writes:

As the ranking Republican on the Government Operations Committee and a chief sponsor of homeland security legislation, Thompson helped bridge the differences between the White House and Senate Democrats. I recall sitting in a meeting with The Post’s editorial board as Thompson stumped for support of the compromise. The bill passed and was signed by Bush with fanfare in the waning days of the 107th Congress. But don’t look for signs of that landmark achievement in Thompson’s résumé.

His Fred 08 Web site contains a captivating biography of his life as “a small town kid of modest means and modest goals.” It touts his achievements in Tennessee and Washington, but there’s nary a word about his role in the creation of DHS. He also didn’t mention it in his announcement speech Thursday.

Perhaps the omission is because the Department of Homeland Security is a Rube Goldberg contraption designed to perform straightforward tasks in the most convoluted ways ….

…. Now listen to Thompson the Outsider this week: “When we look to Washington, we see a bureaucratized government that is increasingly unable or unwilling to carry out basic government functions, including the fundamental responsibility of securing our borders against illegal immigration and enforcing our laws.”

Republican voters may wish for another Ronald Reagan, but if they think to find that candidate in Fred Thompson, it seems they’ll be getting fooled again.

There’s an old saying in Tennessee—I know it’s in Texas, probably in Tennessee—that says, fool me once, shame on—shame on you. Fool me—you can’t get fooled again. (President George W. Bush, September, 2002)