When Fred Thompson campaigned for John McCain during the 2000 election, he argued that McCain's five years as a prisoner of war and nearly two decades in the Senate had prepared him for the presidency. George Bush's term and a half as governor couldn't match it. Now Thompson is running with even less executive experience than George Bush and, not surprisingly, he's less specific on what makes a man qualified to be president.
Riding in his campaign bus last Friday, I asked Thompson about specific life experiences he thought had prepared him to face an unforeseen presidential crisis. Where might voters look in his résumé to see that he'd been tested? "We've all reacted to crisis in our lives in one way or another," he said of the GOP candidates, "but I think that a candidate who gets out and says that he's done x, y, and z, and it's prepared him for [a WMD attack] is probably making a mistake. You can't do that."
Since each of Thompson's closest GOP rivals is making that exact case about his own preparation—and dismissing Thompson's—he could be talking about any of them. Rudy Giuliani made this charge most explicitly in last week's debate, saying that if Thompson were elected, he would be getting on-the-job training in executive decision making.
"The mayor has to make the best case that he can," says Thompson's campaign manager, Bill Lacey, downplaying the question of experience. "He has been a big city mayor and nobody can pooh-pooh that, but he hasn't exactly been in a national executive position that's even comparable to president of the United States. … I'm not sure that's all that relevant an issue."
In the Democratic primary race, Barack Obama answers questions about his lack of experience by arguing that his years as a community organizer and state legislator offer a better kind of experience than Hillary Clinton's. Thompson makes a similar case, relying on the common man "heartland values" of his Tennessee upbringing ("I'm just like you," he tells audiences). This comes with a heavy dose of assertion. When "the strong winds blow," voters will know that he'll do the right thing not so much because he's been tested, but because he says so. He'll follow the principles of limited government, a strong national defense, and individual freedom that he's believed in all his life.
Voters looking for a little proof that Thompson has stuck by these principles are shown a biographical video before each campaign event. It's on the underwhelming side, though. Thompson's campaign video says he voted for certain conservative pieces of legislation in the Senate. Usually the minimum bid for bragging rights is a bill that a senator either authored or at least co-sponsored. (Even Obama can claim that.) The campaign also makes much of not much in stressing the role Thompson played in shepherding Chief Justice John Roberts through his Senate confirmation battle. Introducing the conservative jurist to former colleagues required finesse and collegiality, but it was hardly a trial by fire. Thompson "was not picked for that job because of his conservative credentials," says one official who was involved in the nomination process. "He was picked because he was inoffensive to Democrat senators and looked good sitting behind Roberts."
The difference between Thompson and Obama, of course, is age. Thompson is almost 20 years older, which nicely fits the roughly two decades as an actor and lawyer/lobbyist that go unmentioned in his biographical video. Obama can't talk about experiences he hasn't yet had. Thompson doesn't talk about the experiences he has had. But none of this may matter to voters. The campaign is banking that Republicans are thirsting mostly for a warm, articulate spokesman for conservative principles. And that's just what the voters saw, according to those I talked to after Thompson's Iowa events. "I like the way he put it," said Bob Richards in Des Moines. "He is like Reagan. Finally, we have a candidate who says what he believes."
Getting specific about what he believes might get Thompson into trouble, so he's remaining vague. "Part of my efforts is not to get down in the weeds in a particular province in Iraq," he said. When I asked him about his plans for Social Security, he was even blurrier. Though he repeatedly blamed Washington politicians for not acknowledging the dire fiscal condition of entitlements, he said he wouldn't be talking about any of the hard trade-offs required to restructure Social Security or Medicare. "It's not necessary at this stage of the game to say exactly what you would insist upon or not insist upon; it would be counterproductive," he said. "You don't have to get down and say precisely the particular trade-offs. Everybody knows the potential array of things that are on the table. It is like most of the big problems in Washington. It's not a matter of lack of knowledge or picking the right mix. It's a matter of will."
Is it smart to stay so vague? Republican voters don't seem to mind yet, and his opponents are certainly behaving as if they think the strategy is going to work. They wouldn't be attacking Thompson so quickly if they thought voters would ultimately realize that the world is too dangerous for a man with so little experience. The GOP candidates all took a chance to rough him up in their last debate. After he officially entered the race, Gov. Mike Huckabee immediately challenged him to a one-on-one debate. When it was reported that Thompson said that Osama Bin Laden "is more symbolism than anything else," GOP rivals McCain and Mitt Romney pounced, issuing statements saying, respectively, that "My presidency will be al Qaeda's worst nightmare" and "Osama Bin Laden is the face of evil." Thompson was forced to release a statement later that night calling for Bin Laden "to be caught and killed." Thirty percent of Republican voters say they know nothing about Thompson, compared with the less than 10 percent who say the same about McCain or Giuliani. Thompson's opponents are going to move quickly to define him before he can define himself.