This is a perfectly good question, though one to which I have only conventional wisdom to offer. Basically it’s this: Thompson is a guy whose political record in the Senate was a big zero; whose only real claim to fame is being a character actor on TV and in films; who has done nothing to distinguish himself this year except deliver a few vaguely Reaganesque pastiches in a nice baritone; who is apparently not Christian enough for James Dobson’s taste; who has no known issues that he really cares deeply about; and whose most famous quality is his laziness. ~Kevin Drum
What Brooks sees as a the base’s inability to accept change is often, in reality, a burning desire for change. He mocks the clamor for Fred Thompson to run as an “Authentic Conservative” but he fails to see, or at least credit, the degree to which the call for “Authentic Conservatism” is a rebuke of Bush. ~Jonah Goldberg
In light of continued Thompson fever (sounds a bit like swamp fever, doesn’t it?), it may be time to revisit the much-discussed David Brooks piece and the flurry of chatter it has generated. One interesting response came from Daniel Finkelstein, who recounted an episode from the bad old days of the Major Government:
Early in 1995 my friend Jim Pinkerton, formerly the research point man for Republican strategist Lee Atwater, visited London at my invitation. I took him round to meet some of my friends in the Cabinet and in senior Downing Street roles. And when the meetings were done with we sat down to discuss Conservative prospects.
What would you do if you lost, he asked me. I rattled off a list of big changes that would need to be made. And will you lose, Jim inquired. Oh yes, I answered, no doubt about it. Then what are you waiting for, he replied.
Indeed–what are we waiting for? Apparently, many people are waiting for Fred Thompson to lead them to the promised land.
It is possible that people saying they support Thompson are yearning for an “authentic conservative” and think that they have found him in Fred Thompson. The question still has to be: why Fred Thompson? After digging into his record even a little, it is clear that there is enough of the taint of McCain about him (plus his vote to acquit Clinton) that whatever makes McCain unpalatable to core voters ought to apply to Thompson as well. If there were a real longing in the movement and party to return to the imaginary days of Reaganite purity, someone like Tom Tancredo, Ron Paul or Duncan Hunter would be a potential contender among the Republican presidential candidates in at least one of the primary states by now. Sad to say, they are not.
By just about anyone’s standards, it is fair to say that the deviants and heterodox rule the roost in the primary contest so far. The activist base claims dissatisfaction with the field of candidates, but somebody is behind all these poll results that have been showing Giuliani, McCain and Romney as the “viable” candidates, while the relatively more “pure” no-hopers languish in obscurity (Brownback, the only self-identified “compassionate conservative,” also lags, but may still prove competitive in early contests). The major conservative opinion journals and websites often seem obsessed with defining the field to the Terrible Trio, which reinforces the certainty that these are the only candidates that will gain any momentum with the audiences of these journals and websites. It is true that, before his unfortunate “Jews and finance” gaffe, Tommy Thompson (a reformist, “compassionate conservative” before it was a nationwide bad idea) was gaining traction in Iowa. In any case, if conservatives were yearning for change away from the last several years of “compassionate conservative” nonsense, they would not rushing into the ever-loving embrace of a social liberal, a frequent opponent of tax reduction and the governor that signed universal health care into law in his state. The boomlet for Fred Thompson once again rewards someone who is no more and no less conservative than McCain and whose deviations are basically the same as McCain’s. While McCain’s deviancy has been greatly exaggerated–by McCain as well as by his enemies–he has a poor reputation with core conservatives for good reasons, and those reasons ought to apply with equal force to Thompson. If contrarianism from a Senator in a reliably Republican state really is unforgivable, Thompson stands convicted of the same error as McCain.
If Brooks’ column was a roundabout defense of the legacy of “compassionate conservatism,” as Goldberg at least implies, he couldn’t be terribly unhappy with the current state of play. Moving away from domestic policy for a moment, Brooks can hardly be disappointed when the two would-be “saviours” are Thompson and Gingrich, who are equally strident about an aggressive, interventionist foreign policy. These five candidates seem to be more generally on the Brooksian side of things than they are on the side of supposed “George Allen” orthodoxy. If the search for the “authentic conservative” has yielded Thompson as the answer, the seekers cannot be all that picky.
The activist leadership may be saying all sorts of disgruntled things about the need to adhere to the old orthodoxy, such as it is, but it would appear that no one is listening to them at this stage. It seems to me that the invocation of a “return to Reagan” is a kind of pose or maybe the sounding of a distress signal. When a movement has exhausted itself and hit hard times, there is usually a call to go ad fontes where all can drink deeply from the restorative wells of living water, but in most cases the movement members never make it back to the sources and settle for wildly gesticulating in the direction of where they think those wells are supposed to be. It is important that the Reagan Era be mystified and mythologised as much as possible, so that it is made into an Eden from which conservatives were expelled. It is imperative that the flaws and compromises of that era be whitewashed as much as possible, so that there is some model on which conservatives can now model themselves. However, if returning to the glories of the Reagan Era was the precondition of restoration for conservatism and the GOP every conservative should theoretically rally behind the pro-amnesty Giuliani or McCain, since they offer a way to relive the wonders of 1986.
I think an important part of Brooks’ argument is that it would be very different if conservatives were responding to the dire political situation by opting for a return to old principles because they had seriously thought about how a revamped, purified conservatism stripped of Bushist deviationism would best defend the things they want to conserve. It seems to me that Brooks’ criticism is aimed at an instinctive lurching back towards whatever existed before regardless of its usefulness, applicability or timeliness. This lurching is done not so much because the conservatives grasping for it have any strong faith in it or even an understanding of why it will remedy the ills they face, but because they are looking for something comfortable and familiar after the disillusionment and defeat of the last few years.
What is the principled conservative response to mass immigration? Many of the declared candidates are more or less restrictionist because they assume that much of the activist base is restrictionist, but two of the leading three are openly pro-amnesty in one form or another, and this has apparently not caused any great weakening of those two. The point here is that many activists may believe and be right in believing that the right conservative position is a restrictionist one, but this is one of those issues on which embrace of amnesty does not seem to be the political poison the polls suggest that it should be. The yearning for an “orthodoxy” may simply not be present in many of the voters.
Perhaps this is because there is no widespread interest in the old “orthodoxy” or the recent Bushist deviation from it. Perhaps the reason for the enduring enthusiasm for such preposterous candidates as Giuliani and Thompson is a desire for something different from both of these, which Giuliani and Thompson in all their vagueness seem to offer. Perhaps since most responding to these polls probably don’t know much of anything about either man, people are investing these blank slates with their desire for something else, a third option between an instinctive return to a mythologised past and a continuation of the disastrous present.
Part of the problem with the movement today, at least as far as policy debates are concerned, is that there seems to be a good deal of agreement that enforcement and border security are important, but the basic continued flow of cheap labour in some form is not going to be interrupted. This might seem to be a compromise between restrictionist and business conservatives, but it strikes me rather as an inability to set priorities (or, more accurately, a refusal of restrictionists to challenge and question the priorities of business conservatives). As a result, immigration policy, which should be an obvious winning issue for the right, is allowed to drift rudderless year after year while prominent GOP leaders (and not a few conservative pundits) actively work against the interests of large segments of the coalition. If restrictionism is the right answer on mass immigration, does it take a higher priority than cheap labour, free trade and globalisation? I think it does, and I think if cast in the right way and put forward by a competent candidate it could change the nature of the political game in this country for a generation.
It is these sorts of policies, together with other populist themes related to outsourcing and economic anxiety and insecurity, that make up the ground where domestic political battles are going to be waged in coming years. A conservative who can articulate the appropriate balance of economic nationalism, defense of the interests of American labour, defense of borders, cultural conservatism and a rhetoric of social solidarity that focuses on local community organisations and municipalities rather than advancing another confounded centralist plan can advance a view that is at once populist and also reasonably decentralist and rightist. It would be something like an American Christian Democracy, but where Christianity actually informs and elevates policy rather than simply serves as a rallying cry and where the Democracy would be a lot more like the Democracy of Jefferson and Jackson and a lot less like that of Konrad Adenauer. Its federalism would involve concrete devolution of powers and would not simply be a convenient way out of embarrassing social issue controversies, which is mostly what it has become these days. This populism would pay tribute to the “retroculture,” yes (and draw essential elements from the agenda outlined in the TAC essay about it), and would argue for a consistent culture of life and human dignity that does not wink at torture or nod at bombing civilians or smile knowingly at the killing of the unborn, and it would also seek to work on behalf of both workers and professionals ill-served by the regime of multinational corporations and globalist politicians.
If I understand him correctly, Brooks objects to a reflexive return to old models that seems to show no awareness that it is not 1984 or 1988. It is not necessarily the return to principles that is the problem, nor is it necessarily the principles to which people say they wish to return that are lacking, but it is the lack of imagination in addressing those principles to the present political moment that grates. There are possibilities for a conservatism that is true to its fundamentals and flexible in its policy approaches, but it requires conservatives to snap out of their sleepwalking and face up to what it is that the public is demanding, what it needs and how conservatives can propose to provide remedies.