Fred Thompson’s Idea of ‘Re­form’

The Washington Post Sunday - - Letters - Ge­orge F. Will

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 eightyear 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: Whom 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 re­elec­tion 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 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?), to cre­ate a “ level play­ing field” and to pre­vent pol­i­tics from be­ing “ awash with money” ( Con­gres­sional Record, May 20, 1996).

In a news 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 Form 1040, 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 rev­enue 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 deeply con­cerned about what Thompson and oth­ers have done to free speech in the name of “ re­form,” as John McCain is un­hap­pily learn­ing.

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