Another Look at Fred


Michael Tanner makes the libertarian case for Fred Thompson:

During his eight years in the Senate, Thompson had a solid record as a fiscal conservative. The National Taxpayers Union gives him the third highest marks of any candidate (trailing only Reps. Ron Paul and Rep. Tom Tancredo).

There are only three more GOP candidates who have served in Congress—Duncan Hunter, Sam Brownback and John McCain—but it's fair to say Thompson has the highest NTU rating of the first tier. There's no good metric for comparing him to Romney and Giuliani.

He generally shared McCain's opposition to pork barrel spending and earmarks, and voted against the 2002 farm bill.

"Generally" is a tricky word. The Club for Growth has summed up Thompson's record on earmarking:

Thompson was fiercely protective when it came to his own earmarks. His congressional website boasts of the federal dollars he was able to "snag" for his Tennessee constituents, including $25 billion in highway funds; $70 million for the Tennessee Valley Authority; $2 million for the Tennessee River; and $23 million for the Spallation Neutron Source project. Thompson felt so strongly about preserving funding for the Tennessee Valley Authority, he fought to exempt funds for the TVA from the balanced budget constitutional amendment in 1995, carving out a new category of "constitutional pork." And though Thompson supported and voted for the presidential line-item veto, he fought vehemently to undo President Clinton's veto of two Tennessee projects.

But back to Tanner…

He voted for the Bush tax cuts and has generally been solid in support of tax reduction. He has consistently supported entitlement reform, voting to means-test Medicare and supporting personal accounts for Social Security.

He's good on taxes, although of the candidates with a congressional record that only distinguishes him from McCain. And I'm still confused as to why he supported Social Security accounts in the Senate but blandly talks about the crisis and the need for solutions now. No mention of accounts.

On federalism, there may be no better candidate. His Senate record is replete with examples of his being the lone opponent of legislation that he thought undercut federalist principles. He took this position even on legislation that was otherwise supported by conservatives. He opposes federal action to prohibit gay marriage on federalist grounds, although he supports state bans.

This assertion makes me question Tanner's other assertions. Thompson clearly supports a Constitutional Amendment to bar states from recognizing gay unions affirmed in other states, and he's convinced Gary Bauer that he wants to go further. And as James Kirchick has pointed out, Thompson has been blase and fibbed about the popularity of gay marriage in state legislatures, claiming that none of them have voted for marriage rights when California has multiple times.

One blight on this record is his vote in favor of No Child Left Behind, but he now says he opposes increased federal involvement in education.

See, that's a problem with Fred: He had some good instincts in the Senate and some bad ones but he never really answers for the bad ones. How soon did he turn against NCLB? On CFR, was he misled by friends like John McCain? Because his version of why he supported McCain-Feingold (supported in a crucial role, it might not have passed without him) doesn't hold up to scrutiny.

Tanner makes the case that Thompson was a fine, flawed senator with some of the right instincts on taxes and federalism. I didn't disagree. But the small role his Senate record plays in his campaign and his pose as a grim, serious Washington outsider reminds me of John Edwards. Neither man showed much leadership on the issues they're running on when they were in the Senate, and now they argue that they're uniquely ready to lead.