By Perry Bacon Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 6, 2007
Fred Thompson fervently backed the Iraq war, railed against an expanding federal government, took stands that occasionally annoyed his party and rarely spoke about his views on social issues during his tenure as a senator from Tennessee or in his writings and speeches since leaving office.
In short, the man some in the GOP are touting as a dream candidate has often sounded like the presidential hopeful many of them seem ready to dismiss: Sen. John McCain (Ariz.).
With some in the party clamoring for an alternative to their current field of presidential contenders and Thompson's allies hinting strongly that he will run, 400 conservatives flocked to Newport Beach, Calif., on Friday night to hear the actor-turned-politician-turned-actor address the annual dinner of the Lincoln Club of Orange County, a group that credits itself with pushing Ronald Reagan to run for governor of California in the 1960s. Thompson delivered a vision of cutting taxes, reducing the size of government, overhauling Social Security and staying in Iraq until "there is some semblance of stability."
He also called for "reform-minded, change-minded leaders," a profile that McCain -- whom Thompson described as "a man of the highest integrity and courage" in 1999 when he co-chaired the Arizonan's presidential run -- has worked hard to lay claim to over the past decade. Thompson was one of only four GOP senators to back McCain's bid in 2000, and a former aide to the Tennessean said McCain "was far and away his best friend in the Senate."
Within the party, some argue that McCain is too unpredictable or too closely tied to President Bush's Iraq policy, others that former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and ex-Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney are unreliable on core party issues or could not win a general election -- and such complaints have helped fuel the push for Thompson, who left the Senate in 2003 and returned to acting. He now plays District Attorney Arthur Branch on the NBC series "Law & Order."
With encouragement from top Republicans such as former Senate majority leaders Howard Baker and Bill Frist (both Tennesseans), Thompson is taking all the steps to ready for a presidential run, meeting with members of Congress, talking to former aides about how to organize a campaign and posting to conservative blogs.
Sources familiar with Thompson's plans said he will probably decide whether to run by next month, although he might delay an official announcement until as late as Labor Day. "I think a lot of people feel there's not a real Reagan-type conservative and see him as the guy who can fulfill that role," said former House majority leader Richard K. Armey (Tex.), who now runs a conservative activist group called FreedomWorks.
Both before and after his first presidential run, McCain battled with GOP leaders over his proposals to overhaul campaign finance laws. Thompson was perhaps McCain's strongest Republican supporter, even advocating an early version of McCain's bill that would have banned contributions from political action committees. (In recent interviews, he has complained that the enacted law has not had the effect that was intended.)
Like McCain, Thompson compiled a fairly conservative record in the Senate, earning a lifetime rating of 86 out of 100 from the American Conservative Union, putting him slightly ahead of McCain (82), but behind Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), another 2008 hopeful, who scored a 94.
Thompson not only voted for the Iraq war in 2002 but also has strongly defended Bush's decision-making, even though he, like McCain, has said the administration should have sent more troops in originally. In a 2004 speech to the American Enterprise Institute, Thompson said that "every politician that describes Iraq as another Vietnam gives our enemies hope for success."
"If someone says, 'This is Vietnam,' they're predicting defeat," Thompson said. "They're predicting an early pullout. I think that is irresponsible."
He called for "regime change" in Iran in a recent interview with the Weekly Standard, although he did not detail how that would happen.
Like the Arizona senator, Thompson is passionate about national security issues. In 2000, he infuriated business groups, a rock-solid GOP constituency, by insisting that a trade bill with China include provisions that would allow sanctions on Chinese companies that sent weapons to rogue nations. He was unsuccessful.
In 2005, a year before Al Gore took to the big screen, Thompson played a fictional president in a little-seen movie called "Last Best Chance," which depicts a group of terrorists getting access to nuclear weapons. (He will play another president, Ulysses S. Grant, in the upcoming television version of Dee Brown's native American history "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.")
Although in the Senate Thompson voted for bills to ban late-term abortions and garnered high ratings from abortion opponents, he was not a leader on social issues. Operatives aligned with some of Thompson's would-be opponents are circulating a clip from a Senate debate in which Thompson said he did not support banning abortions.
"Should the government come in and criminalize, let's say, a young girl and her parents and her doctors as aiders and abettors? . . . I think not," Thompson said.
And in 1996, he said the GOP should not make limiting abortion a major issue at the party's nominating convention, arguing that Republicans should focus on less divisive issues.
Thompson, while he was in Congress, earned a reputation as a maverick. "He's not predictable," said Tom Ingram, who was a top adviser in Thompson's 1994 campaign and now serves as chief of staff for Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.). Conservatives may be drawn to Thompson's lonely effort in the Senate to reduce the role of the federal government. He opposed bills providing funding for local police departments to buy bulletproof vests and was the only vote in the Senate against a 1997 bill that would have shielded volunteers from liability suits; he argued that both were instances of the federal government reaching into areas that should be restricted to states.
In a recent column on the National Review's Web site, he bragged about occasionally losing 99 to 1 on votes because of his federalist views.
Thompson's small-government stances sometimes went even further. In his first Senate race in 1994, when he ran for the last two years of Gore's term after the Democrat was elected vice president in 1992, Thompson rode around Tennessee in a leased red Chevy pickup truck and campaigned on a "cut their pay and send them home" platform: advocating term limits in the House and the Senate and lower congressional pay, and even suggesting that Congress meet only half the year.
Democrats slammed Thompson for hypocrisy, noting he had worked for almost two decades as a lobbyist, spending much of his time in Washington. His clients included, according to published reports, General Electric, the pension fund for the Teamsters and Westinghouse. He lobbied for laws that critics say helped lead to the savings-and-loan crises of the 1980s.
In 1997, GOP leaders fumed after they put Thompson in a plum spot as the head of the Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs, which was investigating fundraising practices of the 1996 Clinton campaign, and he expanded the probe to cover allegations against both parties. Thompson voted against one of the two impeachment articles against President Bill Clinton in 1999, arguing that the perjury charge was not grounds for impeachment.
But Thompson was generally a reliable vote for his party, and unlike McCain, did not seem to revel in challenging his party's leaders. "McCain was more gruff, and the perception was he was doing these things for his presidential ambitions," said Alex Vogel, formerly a top aide to Frist. "Fred wasn't running for anything."
Since leaving the Senate, Thompson has remained a GOP activist, advising then-Supreme Court nominee John G. Roberts Jr. when he met with senators during the confirmation process and serving on an advisory panel of the legal defense fund for I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, the former top aide to Vice President Cheney who was convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice. Thompson said if he were president he would pardon Libby immediately, telling FOX News that the conviction was a "miscarriage of justice."
To be sure, Thompson and McCain have some significant differences on policy. McCain, for example, opposed Bush's income-tax cut proposals in 2001, infuriating the party's base. Thompson backed them. The Tennessee senator did not join some of McCain's bills with Democrats, such as his effort to create a "patients bill of rights."
And if McCain is acknowledged to be an energetic legislator, Thompson had few signature accomplishments. At times, he seemed not to enjoy politics and sometimes griped about the long hours in the Senate. When he decided against running for reelection in 2002, he told the Tennessean newspaper, "All kinds of opportunities are out there . . . without having someone else determine your schedule every day, and not have to sit around at 10 o'clock at night over some Senate resolution that shouldn't be on the floor anyway."
Those kinds of complaints have led some to quietly question whether Thompson has the drive to run for president. Rep. Mark Souder (R-Ind.) said, "Not getting in early raises questions about his passion."
His supporters brush aside such concerns, noting Thompson's victories in two Senate campaigns and his years as chairman of the Governmental Affairs Committee. "Fred Thompson is a slow-talking, slow-moving Southern guy," said Burson Snyder, who served as Thompson's spokeswoman. But "there were a lot of nights where he was burning the midnight oil."
Now, Thompson appears to be moving gradually toward answering the question he posed when he was mentioned as a potential 2000 White House contender.
"Why would one want to run for president? That's the real question," he said. "Not, why does one not run for president?"
Political researcher Zachary A. Goldfarb, staff writer Michael D. Shear and washingtonpost.com researcher Derek Willis contributed to this report.