Sen. Fred Thompson's endless campaign rollout has lacked substance and policy positions, and it's starting to wound him—reports on a nine-minute speech he gave were devastating, a favorable crowd grumbling that "there's nothing there." Thompson's response: less banality, more big ideas. And this week's big idea is federalism. On Friday he posted an essay on the topic at his campaign blog that included rare references to his brief Senate career. (Thompson has, for want of a better word, "campaigned" as a Washington outsider and only talked about the Senate in the context of his landslide election wins and the 2005 confirmation of John Roberts to the Supreme Court.)
I held hearings on the over-federalization of criminal law when I was in the Senate. You hear that the states are not doing a good job at prosecuting certain crimes, that their sentencing laws are not tough enough, that it's too easy to make bail in state court. If these are true, why allow those responsible in the states to shirk that responsibility by having the federal government make up for the shortcomings in state law? Accountability gets displaced.
On Saturday Thompson spoke to the American Legislative Exchange Council conference in Philadelphia and ditched his usual conservative sloganeering for a speech on federalism. Depending on who you ask it either was politely, gamely received or it was a snoozer that was easily upstaged by former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. "We had to nudge a woman at our table to wake her up," one attendee told me. Larry Eichel's report in the Philadelphia Inquirer found people who liked the speech but in a very meta sense: "it takes courage to do something more thoughtful and philosophical in this sound-bite culture." In other words: "it was boring but it's what he needs to do."
It's also an odd issue for Thompson. Rudy Giuliani's been beating the federalism drum for a while but Giuliani has a problem Thompson doesn't: He's pro-choice and pro-gun control and he needs to mollify the base on those issues. Thompson simply needs to prove that there's a brain somewhere above that larynx. Hilariously, his fans are still more interested in that larynx.