A man walking along the edge of a cliff slips and plummets toward jagged rocks and crashing surf, barely saving himself by clinging to the cliff's face. But the cliff is too steep to climb, so he shouts, "Is anyone up there?" A voice fills the sky -- God's voice -- saying: "Have faith and pray. If you have sufficient faith and pray well, you can let go and land gently, unhurt, amid the rocks and surf." The man ponders this promise, then shouts: "Is there anyone else up there?"
This is the "Anyone else up there?" phase of the campaign for the Republican presidential nomination, which explains the political flavor du jour, Fred Thompson, the former senator from Tennessee. Conservatives are dissatisfied with the array of candidates. Of course, people usually want what they do not see, a candidate who is a combination of John Kennedy, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln -- handsome, energetic and wise.
Handsome? Thompson, whose eight-year career in electoral politics, all in the Senate, ended more than four years ago, perhaps looks presidential, meaning grave. Energetic? He is said to be less than a martyr to the work ethic, but is this a criticism ? Granted, Alexander Hamilton famously said that "energy in the executive" is a prerequisite for good government. But what kind of energy?
One litmus test of conservatism is: Who would you have supported for president in 1912? The candidates were a former president, Theodore "I don't think that any harm comes from the concentration of powers in one man's hands" Roosevelt; the incumbent president, William Howard Taft, and the next president, Woodrow Wilson. Conservatism warns against overreaching, hence rejects the energetic Wilson, would-be fixer-upper of the whole wide world. And conservatism teaches distrust of hyperkinetic government, the engine of which is the modern presidency, of which TR was the pioneer. So: Steady, prudent Taft.
Thompson has never had to show consuming energy as a candidate, never having been in a closely contested race. He won his two elections with 60 percent of the Tennessee vote in 1994 (for the remaining two years of Al Gore's Senate term) and 61 percent in 1996. He did not seek re-election in 2002 -- not a painful sacrifice for a man who disliked the Senate: ``I'm not 30 years old. I don't want to spend the rest of my life up here. I don't like spending 14- and 16-hour days voting on 'sense of the Senate' resolutions on irrelevant matters."
Does Thompson have enough energy to raise the money he will need to be competitive -- say, $50 million by the end of November? He would need to raise $1.5 million a week, starting immediately.
Is he wise? As a senator he insistently advocated increasing the government's regulation of politics. One of the only four senators who supported John McCain's candidacy in 2000, Thompson argued for the McCain-Feingold legislation that regulates the content, timing and amount of political speech.
In 1996, Thompson worked successfully, unfortunately, to preserve the (currently collapsing) system of public financing of presidential campaigns. His arguments were replete with all the rhetoric standard among advocates of government regulation of political speech: Government regulation of politics is necessary to dispel "cynicism" about government (has that worked?), and to create a "level playing field," and to prevent politics from being "awash with money" (Congressional Record, May 20, 1996).
In a press release that day he warned of money from "special interests" and asserted that the checkoff system "flat out worked" because in 1994, 24 million taxpayers checked the "yes" box on their 1040 form, thereby directing that $3 of their income tax bill go to the Presidential Election Campaign Fund. He asserted that "on average, 20 percent of Americans participate in the checkoff." Well.
In 1994, according to the IRS, the checkoff was used on 16.3 million, or 14 percent, of the 114.8 million individual tax returns, so a landslide of 86 percent of forms were filed by taxpayers who rejected participation. Today, use of the checkoff has sunk to just 9.6 percent. Its unpopularity is unsurprising, given that it has allowed a small minority to divert, in a bookkeeping dodge, $1.3 billion of federal revenues to fund the dissemination of political views that many taxpayers disapprove of as much as they disapprove of public funding of politics.
Back then, Thompson believed, implausibly, that voters are "deeply concerned" about campaign finance reform. Today, many likely voters in Republican primaries are deeply concerned about what Thompson and others have done to free speech in the name of "reform," as John McCain is unhappily learning.