Fred Thompson This Year’s Wesley Clark?
Publius draws some parallels between the Fred Thompson’s current campaign and Wesley Clark’s ill-fated 2004 effort.
The Clark and Thompson campaigns have eerily similar pre-histories. Because the party elites and rank-and-file weren’t very happy with the slate of candidates, Clark and Thompson’s names got floated for months. Party members didn’t know much about them, so they projected their desires on to the idea of them — and expectations ran high. Rather than seizing this opportunity early on, both candidates played footsie for months and months but hesitated to jump in. And then, finally, they did.
And both almost immediately started making embarrassing gaffes.
[R]aising money is not the only reason why campaigns start so early. It’s also important to get your sea legs and work out the bugs well before people start paying attention. People like Kerry and Edwards and Romney and McCain started visiting funnel cake stands in Iowa many months before Clark and Thompson did. It’s not fun, but the experiences gave the candidates a chance to respond to a dizzying range of questions — and tighten their message accordingly.
Clark wasn’t out there doing that. He didn’t get stumped by an Iowa farmer’s question in March of 2003 and go home to rework his responses. Instead, he jumped out when the spotlight was maximally bright (both because of the date and the drama surrounding his entry) and was completely unprepared for what was coming. And it showed — he made a fatal gaffe that completely undercut his campaign on the second day.
Thompson seems determined to repeat Clark’s mistakes — and for similar reasons. Running for President is hard. You get asked a lot of diverse questions. It takes time to hear them all and master good, persuasive, politically-safe responses to them. Thompson, however, clearly hasn’t been thinking about these questions (or let’s hope not anyway). Several months on the stump sharpens your message, improves your bullshit powers. Thompson sounds like I would sound if I jumped into a high-stress presidential campaign 4 months before the primary — like an unprepared idiot.
The gap from any job to the presidency is wider than any other career progression I can think of. Clark, by all accounts, was incredibly talented and accomplished. Supreme Allied Commander isn’t exactly the minor leagues, after all, and it comes with a considerable amount of political and diplomatic responsibility. But there’s no job where you’re expected to have off-the-cuff answers to every conceivable question about policies foreign and domestic, national and local. Even the wonkiest, like Bill Clinton, don’t have those answers as candidates; most don’t have them after eight years as president. The successful ones, though, at least learn how to give vague, intelligent sounding answers or artfully redirect the question.
The new NFL season kicks off in earnest today, so football analogies are especially apt. Perhaps the second hardest career progression is that of a quarterback moving from college to the NFL. The offensive schemes are ridiculously more complicated and so are the defenses. The players are bigger, faster, stronger, and smarter. Even the eventual greats — John Elway, Troy Aikman, Joe Montana, Peyton Manning — are awful as rookies. One of the perennial questions in the game is how to handle the development of rookie quarterbacks: Throw them right in and let them take their lumps or have them sit and watch? Some of the all-time greats have been produced by both methods but there’s a fear of shattering a guy’s confidence by having him do it all at once.
Thompson (and Clark before him), though, are like the rookie who missed training camp because of injury or a contract holdout. I can’t think of a single case where one of those guys did well his first season.