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The Conservative Credibility Test

What's Fred Thompson got that Rudy and "Straight Talk" John don't? For those excited about his likely decision to campaign for the...

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What’s Fred Thompson got that Rudy and "Straight Talk" John don’t? For those excited about his likely decision to campaign for the Republican presidential nomination, Thompson exudes credibility as a conservative—a social conservative, a hawk, a fiscal conservative, and a media/entertainment conservative. Thompson, as a no-exception conservative, would not only be able to unify the splintered conservative base, but would also project the type of confidence and principled leadership the country so badly needs, according to Thompson proponents.

Widely recognized for his television (Law and Order) and silver screen (Hunt for Red October) portrayals of corporate and official power, Thompson immediately rose to the top rankings of Republican contenders after recently saying that he was considering announcing his candidacy. A 1994 New York Times profile of Thompson, reflecting on his appeal to voters, observed: "The glowering, hulking Mr. Thompson has played a White House chief of staff, a director of the Central Intelligence Agency, a highly placed FBI agent, a rear admiral, and even a senator. When Hollywood directors need someone who can personify government power, they often turn to him."

But the initial enthusiasm for Thompson among those who question the conservative credentials and voter appeal of Rudy Giuliani and Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) may wane after Thompson is subject to more public scrutiny. His conservative credentials may be regarded with some skepticism by the grassroots right as they contemplate his Washington insider status, his chummy relations with neoconservatives, his cheerleading for the Iraq War, and his record as a shill for Corporate America.

In 1994 Thompson, a Tennessee attorney turned actor turned politician, won the Senate seat vacated by Al Gore, leveraging his fame as a movie and television star to great advantage. Easily reelected in 1996, Thompson left the Senate in 2003 and currently works as a radio commentator (substituting for Paul Harvey) and is a visiting scholar at the neoconservative think tank American Enterprise Institute (AEI), specializing in national security and intelligence (with a special emphasis on Russia, China, and North Korea).

Social conservatives have not thrown their support behind any candidate, but if Thompson does enter the electoral fray, his solid social conservative voting record would, initially at least, hold him in good stead, particularly compared with Giuliani and McCain. He stands solidly against gays, abortion, and gun control. He has voted against prohibiting job discrimination by sexual orientation, against adding sexual orientation to the definition of hate crimes, and against same-sex marriage.

The former senator and current media pundit is a hardliner on street crime, supporting the death penalty, advocating longer sentences, and backing an escalated drug war. But his tough-on-crime reputation does not extend to white-collar crime, having opposed class action lawsuits and supported limitations on product liability damages.

A voting record as a social conservative, however, won’t necessarily guarantee Thompson the support of the Religious Right. Thompson hasn’t brought faith into his politics, and there’s some doubt that that he is even a "Christian." In an interview with U.S. News & World Report, James Dobson, who directs the evangelical Focus on the Family, said that Thompson couldn’t count on the social conservatives. "I don’t think he’s a Christian; at least, that’s my impression," said Dobson. Although baptized in a Protestant church, he is not the type of "born again" evangelical Christian who in Dobson’s view are the only real Christians.

Social conservatives are also likely to question Thompson’s "liberal" voting record on immigration. Although Thompson has recently written and spoken out about the need for strong border control, while in the Senate he voted to increase visas for skilled foreign workers and to increase permits for unskilled foreign farm workers. Overall, Americans for Better Immigration, an anti-immigration lobbying group, gives Thompson a career grade of C for his mixed voting record. Thompson will likely come under withering criticism from anti-immigrant candidate Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-CO), who mixes his social conservatism with a heavy dose of nationalism and anti-corporate populism.

His immigration voting record signals Thompson’s view that immigration serves U.S. business interests. Perhaps more than any other Republican contender, Thompson will be subject to questions about his ties to the business lobby and his consistent support of free trade. Disenchantment with the Bush administration within the Republican ranks is not limited to concerns about his military and immigration policies but also relate to disillusionment with corporate-government corruption and the administration’s insistence on promoting a patently counterproductive foreign economic policy.

In his blunt, folksy radio commentaries, Thompson (who has been rumored to be Paul Harvey’s designated successor) projects the persona of an American fed up with big government. But Thompson, who has lobbied for major transnational firms since the mid-1970s (including General Electric and Westinghouse), also played a prominent role lobbying for deregulating the savings and loans industry, which led to the disastrous collapse of the industry in the late 1980s and the ensuing federal bailout. Critics called the financial crisis a nationwide "bank robbery" by savings and loan insiders.

Thompson may also have trouble defending his record in support of free trade. During his eight years in the Senate, Thompson won his free trade credentials with his votes to extend the president’s fast-track trade promotion authority and to approve permanent trading relations with China. One right-wing critic in a widely circulated internet column called Thompson a "neocon globalist" for his immigration, free trade, and foreign policy positions.

Thompson is not a neoconservative, rising in political circles outside the neocon cliques of polemicists and political strategists. But his outspoken defense of the Iraq War, his skepticism about the United Nations, and his star power have attracted the attention of the neocons. When John Bolton resigned as UN ambassador, a Weekly Standard writer, Michael Goldfarb, recommended Thompson as an able replacement.

Although Thompson may accurately say he is not a neoconservative—he’s always been a hard-rock conservative—he has made the neoconservative AEI his intellectual and political base. He has lambasted critics of Dick Cheney and I. Lewis Libby and joined the chorus of neoconservatives calling for the president to pardon Cheney’s former top aide.

While conservatives have been among the most reliable supporters of an interventionist, imperial U.S. military policy, many have become fierce critics of the misdirected "global war on terrorism." Thompson, however, will carry the baggage of war support into his political future.

In early 2003, Thompson was the public face of a pro-war group called Citizens United, which aired policy ads supporting the plans to invade Iraq. Appearing before an American flag in one television ad, Thompson warned: "Americans might ask, what should we do with the inevitable prospect of nuclear weapons in the hands of a murderous and aggressive enemy? Can we afford to appease Saddam, kick the can down the road? Thank goodness we have a president with the courage to protect our country."

Thompson’s recent diatribes against the Democrats for their war critiques and investigation into the unfolding scandals at the Justice Department also raise questions about his essential grasp of the changing political reality in the country. In a recent radio broadcast and column in National Review Online, Thompson asks: "Considering the times we live in, do we really want to continue to try to chip away at the traditional powers of the president?"

Thompson seems to miss that the times are changing. Considering the follies, crimes, and arrogance of the Bush presidency, it’s unlikely that voters—whether conservative, independent, or Democrat—will throw their support to another tough-talking, reality-averse "law and order" presidential candidate.

Tom Barry is the policy director of the International Relations Center (www.irc-online.org) and a contributor to Right Web (rightweb.irc-online.org).

 

 

Citations

Tom Barry, "The Conservative Credibility Test," Right Web Analysis (Somerville, MA: International Relations Center, April 3, 2007).

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