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.

FILED UNDER: *FEATURED, Blogosphere, Campaign 2004, Campaign 2008, The Presidency, , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Patrick T McGuire says:

    I won’t argue the similarity between “Weasley” Clark’s and Fred Thompson’s campaigns, mostly because I think it’s irrelevant. Clark is a man of no substance whatsoever while Thompson is just the opposite.

    I greatly admire Thompson’s attitude about these campaigns. While the other candidates are out there trying to outdo each other on the campaign trail, Thompson is running his own show in his own way. While some may scoff at this attitude, it’s very hard to argue with his results in the polls, something that “Weasley” never could achieve.

  2. Patrick,

    Look, I was no fan of Clark’s run for the presidency, but I don’t see how his resume equals a “man of no substance whatsoever.” That would appear to be empirically untrue.

    Further, when it comes to Thompson I continued to be vexed by assertions such as yours about his great substance. I simply don’t see it and he really hasn’t demonstrated much of anything to this point. To further James’ football analogy, Thompson is like the draft pick who may or may not pan out. To stick to Thompson’s home state, is he Heath Shuler or Peyton Manning?

    The polls prove nothing, as at the moment he represents far more “none of the above” than he represents a specific set of views.

    I am not saying that he can’t win, but it is far from clear that he will do so.

  3. Triumph says:

    Clark is a man of no substance whatsoever while Thompson is just the opposite.

    I guess with eight years of Bush and clowns like Romney and Giuliani in the republican race, a lightweight lobbyist like Thompson can come across as a “man of substance.”

    His ideas on Social Security:

    Fred Thompson says a top challenge for the next president is fixing Social Security. Asked how his ideas for overhauling the system differ from those of George W. Bush, the actor and former Tennessee senator says: “I don’t even remember the details of his plan.”

    His insightful analysis of Al-Quaeda:

    “Bin Laden is more symbolism than anything else,” he said. “I think it demonstrates to people once again that we’re in a global war.”

    Or, does he mean this:

    You don’t know what the president knows in terms of intelligence as to how they can pinpoint where Osama bin Laden is right now.

    I think the point is clearly he’s there, clearly he’s somewhere along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border and clearly he’s still giving orders….And we better figure out a way to contain [Al Quaeda]

  4. Beldar says:

    I agree that there’s a huge “gap from any job to the presidency,” but we’re actually talking here about the gap from something else to credible presidential candidate.

    Thompson’s coming at that gap from the position of a twice-elected senator. He may not have a history at funnel-cake stands, but he does have a history that includes small-town barbecue joints scattered across Tennessee. That was a while ago, though, and his previously demonstrated skills in those contexts may indeed be rusty, and the menu of key issues now are different.

    Clark had been in the very top tier in his career, but having never run for any elected office, he had nothing remotely comparable to being a presidential candidate in his background.

    So if you want to extend your sports metaphor, Thompson’s in the position of a high-draft pick quarterback from, say, the University of Tennessee being expected to start at quarterback in the NFL. Clark was in the position of a third baseman from the New York Yankees being expected to start at quarterback in the NFL. Clark never had a snowball’s chance in hell. Thompson has at least as good a chance as Peyton Manning had as a rookie at Indianapolis:

    Peyton Manning was the first draft pick of the 1998 NFL Draft, selected by Indianapolis, and started immediately for the team. Manning passed for 3,739 yards with 26 touchdowns and 28 interceptions. He set five different NFL rookie records, including most touchdown passes in a season and was named to the NFL All-Rookie First Team. [But the] Colts finished 3-13.

    How much does being a veteran presidential candidate help? Perhaps not very much: Among the Democrats, the only candidate who has, in his or her own right, been on a national ticket is John Edwards, and his campaign has gone nowhere and has little prospect of going anywhere. On the GOP side, the only repeat candidate is John McCain, who’s widely perceived to be doing substantially less well in this campaign than he did in 2000.

    However, while she has run in exactly as many senatorial elections as Thompson (two), Hillary Clinton’s campaign reflects her and her staff’s experience with Bill Clinton’s two presidential campaigns, and it ought not be a surprise to anyone, then, that her campaign has been ruthless, disciplined, and nearly error-free. To extend the sports analysis further, she’s been to the Super Bowl, but not as the starting QB. And it remains to be seen whether her experience will continue to allow he to cruise to a Clinton family three-peat.

    Finally: The NFL regular season started today, but the political regular season hasn’t. All you have to do is look at the bloated roster to see that the cuts haven’t been made, and while there might be season-ending injuries in these preliminary skirmishes, there hasn’t been a delegate awarded yet, much less a presidential elector. Fred has a little bit of time to sharpen up, but he has to use it productively.

  5. Anjin-san says:

    Montana was “awful” as a rookie? What the hell are you talking about?

    In 1980, he split quarterbacking duties with Steve DeBerg, but Montana clearly outshone the veteran, throwing for 1,795 yards and fifteen touchdowns and completing sixty-five percent of his passes—the best in the NFL.

    I saw almost every game Montana played in as a pro. He was NEVER awful… do your homework please.

    As for Clark being a “lightweight”, I have met him and head him speak, and he is a very impressive guy. Maybe bluster and arrogance are all that is considered substantial in the Bush GOP.

  6. James Joyner says:

    In 1980, he split quarterbacking duties with Steve DeBerg, but Montana clearly outshone the veteran, throwing for 1,795 yards and fifteen touchdowns and completing sixty-five percent of his passes—the best in the NFL.

    That was his sophomore season. He became the 49ers’ starter his third season. In 1979, his rookie season, he actually only threw 23 passes.

    You’re right, though, that he was never awful. He was just one of the guys brought along relatively slowly.

    Indeed, I recall that he passed Danny White atop the all-time QB Ratings list the moment he threw his 1500th pass (or whatever the eligibility threshold was). Much of that is a systems thing — the so-called West Coast Offense with its dinks and dunks produces inflated ratings. But he was a very good QB once he became the full-time starter.

    Stats Bio/Profile

  7. EllenG says:

    Who wants veteran presidential candidates? I want candidates who are proven leaders.

    Only those who failed history and/or haven’t studied since could assert that General Clark is not a proven leader. I offer the following:

    As to ‘Publius’ assertion, it appears that adopting the foolishness of others is acceptable; if you can’t be original, get another job, please.

  8. Beldar says:

    EllenG, with due respect, you don’t score points for Gen. Clark by belittling those who are less impressed with him than you are. I took a minor in history at UT-Austin and made nothing but A’s in it, and I’ve continue to read history books (including but not limited to presidential biographies and military history books) voraciously. I’m certainly not a professional historian, but neither am I ignorant of it — and I can find plenty of folks with history credentials vastly superior to mine who’d disagree with you.

    I read your linked opinion piece, and it’s enormously to his credit that Gen. Clark can generate admiration and loyalty from staff and subordinates from his military days. No one can rise to the heights that he did within the Army without having something on the ball. Now, I have read opinions from others who have military career experience that I lack, and who also have personal experience with Gen. Clark, who nevertheless have less flattering views of him than you do; but let’s put them aside for a moment and assume that he was a great, extraordinary general.

    Nothing in your comment here, nor in the piece that you linked, shows that he’s a “leader” other than in a military context. And even from a military context, he’s no Washington, Grant, or Eisenhower.

    There’s a good reason so few of our presidents have been chosen based only on their attributes as military leaders. Clark had essentially no other credentials or experience. He was never a serious political candidate in the eyes of anyone who wasn’t already besotted with him, and his lack of experience in the political arena is why his campaign exploded so dramatically, making him (sadly, I’d agree) a political punch-line now.

  9. Beldar says:

    So if we extend the football metaphor still further: Does that make Hillary into Steve Young, to Bill Clinton’s Joe Montana, since she’s been to the Super Bowl but not (yet) as the starting QB?


  10. Rosemary says:

    I have been including you in my linkfests, but I do not appear anywhere. Is there a reason for this?

    I like your football analogy. The other stuff didn’t really sink in until you used the QB. lol. Great job.

  11. Derrick says:


    The problem is the original contrast that was sighted. You can argue about Clark’s leadership if you want, but comparing them so unfavorably to Thompson’s seem a big stretch. Forgot the opinion of Democrats, Republicans like Rick Brookhiser and many others have serious questions of Thompson’s depth and tenure in the Senate. Thompson didn’t get a lot of bills in his name, and didn’t cement a reputation for being much of a leader either, and being a lobbyist and an actor don’t really demonstrate much in the way of leadership. To compare his resume to a former General who led a successful war in Bosnia seems like nothing more than a partisan conclusion.

  12. fritz says:

    Didn’t that guy in Pittsburgh go 15-1 his rookie year (waiting, alas, for the AFC Championship to begin playing like a rookie)?

  13. James Joyner says:

    Didn’t that guy in Pittsburgh go 15-1 his rookie year (waiting, alas, for the AFC Championship to begin playing like a rookie)?

    Yep, although it was a run-oriented system that generally didn’t call on him to win guys with his arm. Still, he did well, as did Dan Marino, who got his start about halfway through his rookie year. Both had the luxury of playing for very good teams with established coaching systems. Usually, the greats start off on awful teams.

  14. James says:

    I’m sorry but saying you have a minor in history and that you read books doesn’t count for jack squat. Just say what you think and don’t give out mediocre qualifications.
    Clark can run circles around any of the people posting on this board, including me, let’s show the man some deserved respect.