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Fred Thompson's Gamble

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By David S. Broder
Thursday, August 16, 2007

When Fred Thompson makes his long-delayed entrance into the Republican presidential race, he will not tiptoe quietly. Instead, he will try to shake up the establishment candidates of both parties by depicting a nation in peril from fiscal and security threats -- and prescribing tough cures that he says others shrink from offering.

In a two-hour conversation over coffee at a restaurant near his Virginia headquarters, the former senator from Tennessee said that when he joins the battle next month, he "will take some risks that others are not willing to take, in terms of forcing a dialogue on our entitlement situation, our military situation and what it's going to cost" to ensure the nation's future.

After spending most of the past few years on TV's "Law and Order," and starting a new family, with two children under 4, the 65-year-old lawyer says he finds himself motivated for the first time to seek the White House.

"There's no reason for me to run just to be president," he said. "I don't desire the emoluments of the office. I don't want to live a lie and clever my way to the nomination or election. But if you can put your ideas out there -- different, more far-reaching ideas -- that is worth doing."

Thompson, like many of the others running, has caught a strong whiff of the public disillusionment with both parties in Washington -- and the partisanship that has infected Congress, helping to speed his own departure from the Senate.

But he says he thinks the public is looking for a different kind of leadership. "I think a president could go to the American people and say, 'Here's what we need to be doing. And I'm willing to go halfway. Now you have to make them [the opposition] go halfway.' "

The approach Thompson says he's contemplating is one that will step on many sensitive political toes. When he says "we're getting a free ride" fighting a necessary war in Iraq with an undersized military establishment, "wearing out our people and equipment," it sounds like a criticism of the president and the Pentagon.

When he says he would have opposed adding the prescription drug benefit to Medicare, "a $17 trillion add-on to a program that's going bankrupt," he is fighting the bipartisan judgment of the last Congress.

When he says the FBI is perhaps incapable of morphing itself into the smart domestic security agency the country needs, he is attacking another sacred cow.

Thompson repeatedly cites two texts as fueling his concern about the country's future. One is "Government at the Brink," a two-volume report he issued as chairman of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee at the start of the Bush administration in 2001 and handed to the new president's budget director as a checklist of urgent management problems.

The difficulties outlined in federal procurement, personnel, finances and information technology remain, Thompson said, and increasingly "threaten national security."

His second sourcebook contains the scary reports from Comptroller General David Walker, the head of the Government Accountability Office, on the long-term fiscal crisis spawned by the aging of the American population and the runaway costs of health care. Walker labels the current patterns of federal spending "unsustainable" and warns that unless action is taken soon to improve both sides of the government's fiscal ledger -- spending and revenue -- the next generation will suffer.

"Nobody in Congress or on either side in the presidential race wants to deal with it," Thompson said. "So we just rock along and try to maintain the status quo. Republicans say keep the tax cuts; Democrats say keep the entitlements. And we become a less unified country in the process, with a tax code that has become an unholy mess, and all we do is tinker around the edges."

Thompson readily concedes that he does not know "where all those chips are going to fall" when he starts challenging members of various interest groups to look beyond their individual agendas and weigh the sacrifices that could ensure a better future for their children.

But these issues -- national security and the fiscal crisis of an aging society with runaway heath-care costs -- "are worth a portion of a man's life. If I can't get elected talking that way, I probably don't deserve to be elected."

Thompson says he feels "free to do it" his own way, and that freedom may just be enough to shake up the presidential race.

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