Thursday, September 6, 2007

Crunch time for Fred Thompson

So, the carefully orchestrated entrance of Fred Thompson into the race is over. Some thought that he successfully overshadowed the New Hampshire debate in which he didn't participate.

In the debate itself, things got even more interesting as a result of the consensus amongst the pundits that McCain may have breathed a little life into his campaign (that'll teach the rest of the candidates to take his demise for granted,) and that Mike Huckabee continued on his roll to the first tier with yet another stellar performance, while the Iowa and NH leader -- Mitt Romney -- turned in his most lackluster performance in the debate series to date.

Now, it is time for Thompson to show what he's got, and it will have to be better than anything we've seen thus far. His appearance on Leno was played to a friendly crowd and with a friendly host, his web-video declaring his candidacy was able to be made under highly controlled circumstances, and the candidates on stage in NH tried to smack him with one-liners that weren't particularly humorous or successful, by which they in essence told the world that they are all very worried about Thompson racing to the head of the pack.

The buzz is back after some late summer blahs -- Thompson has to prove he can live up to it, and he won't be able to dodge the frontal onslaught anymore.

There is still something reassuring about his style that is appealing, and his basic credentials are solid. The "none of the above" GOP base wants desperately to like him, so now it's time for him to show he can perform on the stump and in debates -- to show he has a command of the issues and that he knows what he thinks. We know what his style and general approach is, but sooner or later that won't be enough and we'll have to see whether he is able to take command of the race.

One opening that Thompson has is in the area of the war on Iraq. This might seem an odd thing to say, given that all of the candidates (save Ron Paul) seem to hold indistinguishable positions.

The void was pointed up by one of the hot points of last night's debate, when the two favorite Montana Headlines candidates in that debate mixed it up over the war -- Ron Paul repeating his strong opposition to it (he voted against it based on principle, so unlike John Edwards and Hillary Clinton, who voted for it out of expediency with a run for president in mind, he's clean on that score) -- and with Mike Huckabee chastising Paul for his call to withdraw troops.

Huckabee's approach was more subtle, though -- he emphasized not that the war was a good idea, but that what matters now is not why we got in, but what it will mean for the region if we take our troops out of Iraq without stabilizing it first.

But Thompson seems to be positioning himself to frame the issue in much broader terms -- in terms that transcend the immediate squabbles over the details of the war. Of all the candidates so far, he seems to be the one most adept at conveying an understanding that expansionist Islam is a threat to the West and that we need to take a long view of that looming struggle.

Given that the Iraq war is the result of both Democrats and Republicans alike failing to grasp that long view, this would be no small accomplishment on the part of whichever GOP candidate is able to grasp it and articulate a stance vis a vis Islam that will lead to greater long-term security for the U.S.

It will require a little of John McCain's personal courage and sense of old-fashioned military honor, a strong dose of Huckabee's conviction that we now have a responsibility for Iraq whether we like it or not -- and most of all, a massive infusion of Ron Paul's determination to bring the GOP back to its noninterventionist roots, understanding that foolish interventions breed jihad like nothing else (since all Muslims agree that jihad is acceptable and even required as a defensive war.) One can only hope that these will coalesce in a single candidate like Thompson or Huckabee.

In the feel of his approach, this is an area where Thompson actually does remind one a bit of Reagan. He doesn't hold the kind of "why can't we all get along" silliness that most of the Democratic candidates seem to think will be enough to deal with the rise of Islam. He doesn't seem like someone who will be afraid of drawing hard military lines and beefing up a strong deterrent force able to deal with the kinds of threats we will be facing -- again, like Reagan.

But also like Reagan, one doesn't get the impression that Thompson is spoiling for a fight or that he shares the neoconservative gusto for getting into wars -- the more wars the better. Under Reagan we had a strong and consistent foreign policy into which a strong military was integrated. But Reagan used that strength to avoid getting into any major conflicts and to maneuver his way into winning the Cold War without firing a shot at the Soviet Union, which put him right in line with classic Republican thought -- Republican thought that neither Bush ever seemed to grasp.

Hoping that Thompson (or any of the candidates) can put this all back together for the GOP may be too much to ask. Expecting them to do it while cleaning up the messes of the Bushes is perhaps even more to ask. But it shouldn't stop us Republicans from asking.

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