September 9, 2007
"Conventionally wise" pundits think Fred Thompson waited too long before officially declaring his candidacy, but I for one wish he had waited even longer. If he is going to establish himself as a credible force to be reckoned with, and therefore worthy of primary voters' favor, he will have to defy the herd mentality exhibited by the other candidates of both parties. I've said it before, and I'll say it again: Beginning a campaign this far in advance of the actual caucus and primary election dates is preposterous!
What makes Thompson attractive to me is that he alone among the (major) announced candidates appeals to the GOP conservative "base," and yet he has a distinguished aura -- presidential "timber," or gravitas. Enjoying the trust of the base, he has no need to pander to the right wing, and is therefore very unlikely to say anything dumb on the campaign trail. That combination of traits does not necessarily qualify him to serve as president, but it does make him an almost ideal candidate from a Republican partisan standpoint.
In Friday's Washington Post, E. J. Dionne Jr. challenged the idea that Thompson is a magical cure-all for what ails the beleaguered Republican Party, and his candidacy may even be a symptom of the problem itself.
And the problem is that conservatism as a philosophy no longer produces ready-made answers to the quandaries that face the country or the voters. Republicans do not need to debate who is conservative enough. They need to argue about what conservatism is.
I think conservatism remains a very effective means to addressing the tough issues this country faces, but Dionne is sadly correct that the Republicans need to hash out what that philosophy really means. The Hanger-Sayre state senate primary race showed that very clearly.
In any event, I've updated my rankings of GOP presidential candidates, adding lesser-known candidates Tom Tancredo and Ron Paul to the list. Fred is still #1 with me, but I will be scrutinizing everything he does and says very closely from now on to make sure that my confidence is not misplaced. At this point, I have lowered expectations as to what a Republican president could accomplish in the 2009-2013 term. Having spent so much energy on Iraq and on President Bush's ill-considered domestic policy agenda, the Republicans are not in a position to launch any bold new initiatives, such as -- dare I dream? -- abolishing the corporate income tax. Just say no to double taxation!
When I heard that Senator John Warner was going to make his announcement about his plans for 2008 at the University of Virginia, I knew that he had decided that five terms is enough. What else could the symbolism of making a speech on the hallowed UVa lawn possibly have meant? Warner leaves an enormous void in the U.S. Senate, where true statesmen are becoming scarcer every year, it seems. Warner's Web site contains a transcript of his August 26 appearance on Meet the Press, when he hinted that he was not up to the immense physical demands of the job.
It is very sad that Senator Warner doesn't get as much credit from within his own party as he should. As a leader who puts the national interest first, he has occasionally voted against President Bush, and has become increasingly critical of Bush's Iraq policy over the past year. (I tend to agree with Warner about the need to keep U.S. overseas commitments in line with our resources and goals, but I think his recent call to reduce U.S. troop levels was unduly hasty.) Some on the right call him a "RINO," a label which resonates most strongly among the simple-minded, but Warner has a long, unblemished record as a mainstream, fiscally responsible conservative. Others criticized him very harshly for taking the lead in the May 2006 Senate compromise that avoided the "nuclear option" (which I was inclined to favor as a last resort), but in the year that followed, as I noted in June 2006, "two solid conservatives, John Roberts and Samuel Alito, have joined the Supreme Court, which is a pretty good outcome from a conservative point of view." Would anyone doubt me on that?
I probably mentioned this memorable moment before, but it's worth repeating. I first met Senator Warner at the Charlottesville airport while he was campaigning in the fall of 1996. It was little more than a year after I began to identify myself as a Republican, and I told him that it was conscientious, public-minded leaders like him that persuaded me to join the party. He told me the Republicans needed all the help they could get. On Election Day I was working the polls, and some friends were surprised to see me on the Republican side. I had been volunteering with the Concord Coalition, which is focused on balancing the Federal budget, and because of the reforms pushed through by then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich, I decided that the Republicans were the party of honest reform with a candid approach to tough policy dilemmas. Ah, those were the days...