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Pay no attention to the people behind the curtain

Monday, June 04, 2007

"I'm not a folksy tough guy, but I play one on TV"

by folkbum

I'm not following the Democratic primary all that closely, because, frankly, I think I will be happy to support any of the top three or five candidates as they stand right now. There are things I like more or less about each candidate, but on balance, they are people I can get behind and who, I think, are eminently electable. (And adding: My February 19th vote here in Wisconsin is essentially worthless.)

The Republican primary, on the other hand--now that's where the show is. It's fascinating not for who will necessarily come out on top, but rather because it offers a good window into the messy apartment that is the Republican base.

This whole Fred Thompson phenomenon is a good example of it. While it's true that some Democrats keep holding out for Clark to get in the race (there is, for example, a near-daily "My Wesley will come for me!" diary at dKos), and many pollsters are still including Al Gore in their polls, I think the Dem field is set. And we like our candidates.

But for Republicans, something was missing. As much as their top-tier candidates have tried to out-Jack-Bauer each other, all of them had some fatal flaw: Giuliani wasn't pro-life enough, McCain wasn't anti-immigration enough, Romney wasn't Christian enough. So enter Fred Thompson who, in fact, seems to have all three of those flaws (abortion, immigration, religion). But, you know, he was the one everyone demanded.

And I can't, for the life of me, understand why. (Well, I can, but I need a minute to get there.) Aside from one term in the US Senate, Thompson has had three careers: attorney, lobbyist, and Hollywood actor. These are not occupations that necessarily win praise from conservatives. Thompson is reputed to be "folksy," but it's just the accent, I think, since he certainly hasn't shown himself to be anything like you or me--whether it's renting a pick-up truck as a prop while driving a luxury sedan or sleeping through the starlets in search of a trophy wife. "Folksy" is a character he plays on TV, not who he is.

Ben Brothers imagines what would happen if Thompson were a Democrat, and concludes that a Dem-equivalent Draft Thompson movement would show us in utter disarray. But that kind of hypocrisy is par for the course. The "pick-up truck" link above takes you to a Jamison Foser essay at Media Matters where he notes that John Edwards gets reamed for being Edwards:
The rich trial lawyer/lobbyist who rents a red pickup, not to drive, but to use as a prop? The media tell us he's folksy and authentic. And the rich former trial lawyer who doesn't hide his good fortune? He's a phony.
More important, though is what Glenn Greenwald points out:
This folksy, down-home, regular guy has spent his entire adult life as a lawyer and lobbyist in Washington, except when he was an actor in Hollywood.

And -- like the vast, vast majority of Republican "tough guys" who play-act the role so arousingly for our media stars, from Rudy Giuliani to Newt Gingrich -- Thompson has no military service despite having been of prime fighting age during the Vietnam War (Thompson turned 20 in 1962, Gingrich in 1963, Giuliani in 1964). He was active in Republican politics as early as the mid-1960s, which means he almost certainly supported the war in which he did not fight. [. . .]

The only thing that makes Thompson a "tough guy" is that he pretends to be one; he play-acts as one. There is nothing real about it. But in the same way that George Bush's ranch and fighter pilot costumes (along with his war advocacy) sent media stars swooning over his masculinity and "toughness," [. . .] the Bush followers in need of a new authoritarian Leader[] are so intensely hungry for this faux masculine power that the illusion, the absurd play-acting, is infinitely more valuable to them than any reality, than any genuine attributes of "toughness."
In other words, the Republicans see Thompson as the only one who can provide real strength, real leadership. And it's entirely because he does that on TV.

I said before, the other candidates were trying to out-Jack-Bauer each other (Romney, for example, wants to double the size of Guantanamo Bay). But Thompson's already played that kind of role. Heck, he's already been president. On TV. The Republicans want to elect a fictional man to be our President.
I have another theory about what's going on with the Republican primary, and I think it fits in with the Thompson angle. I've been wondering if Bush isn't actively trying to upset the base right now. Digby caught an MSNBC chyron that read, "Just how liberal is President Bush?" The right answer, of course, is "not at all." But on immigration, and, last week, global warming, Bush seems to be offering positions further away from the far right and closer to--though not really near--the center.

I can't help but think that Bush is trying to give the current candidates the opening they need to run against him and his 28% support--by running to Bush's right. To those of us who actually are liberals, this is both amusing and a disturbing continuation of the tendency of the right to define the center as the left, and views held by majorities as fringe.

There is, of course, one issue for which Bush is not leaving openings to his right: Iraq. And ten of the now-eleven candidates have done nothing but pledge to keep up what Bush has begun there, including Fred Thompson. Some, like our own Tommy!, talk around the issue in different language, but Ron Paul seems to be the only one who assesses Iraq with any kind of rational basis in reality. In fact, one question I've had about Fred Thompson is which side of what I would call the Ron Paul Line he falls. We know Thompson's answer about what he would do differently in Iraq (which is nothing). But does Thompson have anything like a more realistic picture of the world and why we are in the situation we're in than do his counterparts? I don't know.

Regardless, the White House seems to be playing a strategy that allows all the candidates, including Thompson, a chance to run against Bush. Indeed, Thompson is even now wowing audiences and xenophobic bloggers with his tough-guy, anti-Bush immigration talk.

However, if 2006 is any guide, this is a losing strategy. Conservatives like to think that they lost in 2006 because they abandoned core conservative values, but they did not (kudos to Michael King on this excellent essay yesterday). The hard-right base voted for Republicans as they usually do; moderates [corrected spelling] did not. I think there's a reason that, despite his flaws, Rudy Giuliani is still winning the Republican primary polls. It's not because, as some pundits point out, Rudy looked tough on 9/11. It's because Rudy's not a hard-right conservative.

Rudy's moderateness will not help him win the primary in the end, as any primary favors candidates who play to the base. But as pollsters ask Republicans in general whom they could vote for, Giuliani is the one who appeals to them the most. I imagine that if Rudy were to cross to the Ron Paul side of the Ron Paul Line, he could walk away with the general election. But because the Republican base is looking for someone to Bush's right, but who still conveys the same image of a though-guy commander in chief, a candidate like Fred Thompson--or, rather, the candidate he plays on TV--will win the primary.

photo by Greg at The Talent Show

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