Am I the only conservative around that wonders why some conservatives have a love fest going on for Fred Thompson? I read and hear conservative after conservative pine for Senator Thompson to jump into the presidential race. I think that the most likely reason for this is that they (like me) scan the field of 10 currently vying for the GOP nomination and don’t see anyone that they can strongly support.
Thompson has formed an exploratory committee, which allows him to raise funds and pretend that he’s still undecided about whether he will run for president or not. He has said that he is angling for, but is not committed to an announcement around July 4.
The former Senator from Tennessee certainly has some strong qualifications. But like all candidates, there are things to like and things to dislike about him. Despite what some conservatives seem to think, I can’t bring myself to see Thompson as the next great savior of the Republican Party.
On the asset side, Thompson has actually been an elected U.S. Senator (1994-2003: 2 years of Vice President Al Gore’s unexpired term plus a full term). Perhaps his greatest asset is his acting career. This gives him broad recognition far beyond Tennessee and Washington political circles. Thompson has had experience from several different angles in Washington. His early fame came when he served as co-council for the Senate Watergate Committee. He spent two decades lobbying for various interests before and after serving in the Senate.
Perhaps what draws conservatives to Thompson is his work in radio. For the past year or so he has frequently stood in for Paul Harvey. He also does a folksy sounding daily brief radio commentary that resounds with conservatives. It makes everything sound straightforward and simple — like it’s all just common sense. Being a deep Washington insider, Thompson himself knows how complex the issues he discusses really are.
Although Thompson has been a U.S. Senator, and has movie, TV and radio appeal, he has some undesirable baggage as well. Many conservatives will not be happy at all to learn that he voted in favor of McCain-Feingold and that he still staunchly supports that legislation. Like Mitt Romney, Thompson has flip-flopped on the abortion issue. Once Thompson announces his candidacy, a number of other unfavorable tidbits from his voting record and his political past will surprise a number of his erstwhile supporters.
Running for president is not like running for senator. Image matters a lot. And frankly, the image of Thompson’s current marriage will turn off a lot of voters, especially conservatives whose support Thompson will need if he hopes to win the GOP nomination. You might argue that this shouldn’t be the case, but let’s focus on reality.
Thompson and his high school sweetheart divorced after 25 years of marriage. 18 years later, Thompson married Jeri Kehn, another Washington attorney. But here’s the ringer. She’s 24 years his junior. She was still in high school when the Senator’s first 25-year marriage ended. A lot of people simply won’t be able to stomach the idea of having a first lady that is young enough to be the president’s daughter.
While attitudes regarding marriage have changed in the past generation, most Americans still carry in their hearts an ideal of what marriage should be like. We can see from recent elections that Americans still want their chief executive and first spouse to have a marriage that at least bears some resemblance to that ideal. It doesn’t have to be perfect. It just has to seem normal. Even the Clintons’ marriage seems normal enough for most Americans.
I could be wrong, but I’m guessing that a significant number of Americans — particularly conservatives — will find the Thompsons’ marriage outside of the realm of acceptable normalcy. Maybe the Thompsons will be able to change opinions enough to break new ground. The Reagans did this when Ronald Reagan became the first divorcee to become president. But they were so loving and devoted to each other that their marriage seemed to be a story book relationship. The Thompsons will have to pull off something like that to get Americans to support them as first couple. They will have to show Americans (especially conservatives) that they are not the epitome of Washington and Hollywood life mixed together.
Like it or not, when you run for president, it’s not just about you. It’s about your spouse and the relationship the two of you share. Americans still want a leader that has a somewhat normal family life. And I’m not sure that’s all bad.