JUNE 25, 2007
Editor's Note: This is the fourth installment in a four-part debate between TNR senior editors Jason Zengerle and Jonathan Chait about whether Fred Thompson has what it takes to be elected president in the 2008. If and when Thomspon enters the race, will he steamroll the competition or fail to live up to the hype? Read Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.
When I wrote about Fred Thompson's appeal to the Republican elite, I didn't mean the elite of the Iowa Republican Party. I meant the elite of the national Republican Party. I think the Ed Gillespies and Karl Roves will have more say about who the Republican nominee will be than whoever is running the state parties. You, as a home-grown Washingtonian, should know as well as anybody that the Beltway elites aren't going to let a bunch of locals from Iowa run the show. (I write this as a native of Michigan.)
I find your faith in Mitt Romney's chances misplaced. Romney would be a very likely contender if he had stayed in Utah. Unfortunately, he moved to Massachusetts and had to take a series of liberal positions, many of which are captured on video. Thus he has been forced not just to reposition himself but to carry out a full ideological makeover, and he has been fundamentally defined as a flip-flopper just as John Kerry was in 2004.
This has cut right to the heart of his appeal. His smooth looks and public delivery, which should be a strength, now make him look slick and untrustworthy. Plus he has been forced to run so far to the right that he has lost his general election viability, which makes him useless to the party elite. And that's not even mentioning the Mormon thing. I give him almost no chance of getting the nomination.
Finally, you seem a bit too sure about the power of in-person campaigning. It used to be a crucial factor because there was no other way to reach voters--the only alternatives, television and radio ads, were too expensive to sustain for more than a few months. But the levels of money have exploded enough to allow candidates to go on the air from now until primary time. And the Internet offers a new and far more efficient way to reach activists. Thompson is taking full advantage. Just because shoe leather was decisive in the past doesn't mean it will always be so. I think Thompson reaches far more voters and activists with his Web ads and blogging than he ever would by walking door to door. And, like I said, even if I'm wrong, I think his weakness pales before those of the other contenders.