What Kind of Loser Is Fred Thompson?


Memes grow up so fast these days. Over the course of a few hours last night, the liberal blogs (inspired by Ana Marie Cox) agreed that Fred Thompson is this year's Wesley Clark. From Matt Yglesias' omnibus post:

I agree that Thompson's luster is likely to fade. But what happened with Clark is that it seemed like he'd be a strong candidate -- military background, southerner, etc. -- but then it turned out he was really bad at campaigning. Thompson's actually campaigned before and it seems he was pretty good at it. If he stumbles, it'll be for some other, not-especially-Clark-like reasons.

This is mostly right, but the Thompson movement isn't much like the Clark movement. Republicans like Thompson because they hate their other candidates. Democrats liked Clark because they wanted to compete with the GOP on national security issues without actually working out stances on the Iraq War and the "war on terror." They approached the problem by… fetishizing candidates with military experience. This was confirmed in an American Prospect cover package called "Real Soldiers," which boosted John Kerry and Wesley Clark as the guys who could give Democrats instant wartime credibility. (This hinted at how little liberals understood about Vietnam vets' anger at Kerry, but whatever.) Mike Tomasky plugged Clark this way in a story called - of course! - "Mr. Credibility":

Whether Clark runs or not…. his mere presence on the national stage, his coming out of the closet, as it were, as a functional Democrat who opposes the administration's war aims and who just happens to have been a NATO commander, could instantly make the Democratic Party more plausible on foreign affairs than it's been at any time since a general named George Catlett Marshall was containing communism and rebuilding Europe with a president named Harry Truman. "I think it's safe to say," says former Clinton Chief of Staff John Podesta, "that the supreme allied commander of NATO has a certain credibility on military affairs that is not usually associated with members of the Democratic Party."

As poorly as Clark did, Democrats never gave up on the rationale behind his candidacy. In 2006 they recruited a bunch of ex-military candidates - the "band of brothers" - to contest Republican seats. Most of them lost, but Rep. Patrick Murphy (D-Penn.) and Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.) got in, and Democrats pushed them to the front of the press box to argue their position on the Iraq War. The result: "credible"-sounding Democrats who still haven't confronted the post-9/11 national security orthodoxy with a vision of their own. And who just approved more funding for the Iraq War.

So Thompson isn't really like Clark. He has the right positions for the GOP base, he doesn't irritate whole chunks of the party, and he's better at expressing the party's message than their frontrunning candidates. In other words, he's Barack Obama.