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Still Waiting for Thompson

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By Ruth Marcus
Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Go to a Fred Thompson rally and for $5 you can buy an "I'm a Fred-Head" button. But you might not be able, at any price, to learn what exactly is in Fred's head.

After six months of Waiting for Thompson, the former Tennessee senator has arrived on stage. Unfortunately, Thompson's dialogue so far consists of folksy platitudes and broad pronouncements, unobjectionable yet unenlightening.

"We do whatever's necessary, hitch up our britches and come out the other end," Thompson said during a campaign rally in Iowa. He was talking national security, but, hey, a little britch-hitching can't hurt, whatever the issue.

Asked by Fox News's Sean Hannity why he was running, Thompson offered, "I'm determined that we become a stronger, not a weaker nation, and a more united, not a more divided nation, and a more prosperous nation, not less prosperous. And those bad things are distinct possibilities if we take the wrong path." That certainly differentiates him from the pack.

Campaign announcements aren't the venue for densely footnoted position papers. A candidate's stump speech needn't contain policy details precise enough to be translated into legislative language -- and most voters would tune out if it did. Still, given the lengthy "preseason," as Thompson put it, it's reasonable to expect more than he's delivered. A candidate who dismisses debates as "not designed really to illuminate" might provide some, well, illumination.

In Thompson's defense, it is clear he has an overarching, and long-standing, conservative philosophy: for smaller government, limited federal power, less regulation and lower taxes. If Republican voters are understandably edgy about the conservative bona fides of Mitt Romney or Rudy Giuliani, Thompson may offer a comforting alternative.

But it would be nice if that comfort came with a side of substance. On the subject of Iraq and terrorism, Thompson notes that "the specter of weapons of mass destruction in the hands of our worst enemies continues to grow, and still we have yet to really come to terms with the nature and extent of the threat we are facing from radical Islamic terrorism. . . . Now is the time to show that America united can overcome any danger, and America united can complete any mission."

Fine. A successful candidate, not to mention a successful president, has to be able to summon soaring rhetoric, not simply recite dry details. But what would a President Thompson do in Iraq? What is his definition of success and his vision of the proper mission for U.S. troops? What should be done about terrorist training camps in Pakistan? Is, or was, President Bush's push to promote democracy in the Middle East an exercise in muddleheaded idealism or an important goal? What would Thompson do about Guantanamo or the treatment of detainees?

On the domestic front, Thompson warns about the imminent explosion of entitlement spending while "the politicians kick the can down the road." But he suggests no fixes and, indeed, has made the backward argument that rising entitlement costs require the Bush tax cuts to be made permanent: "We simply cannot afford higher taxes if we want an economy able to bear up under the strain of those obligations."

So is Thompson willing to raise the retirement age, adjust the payroll tax or reduce benefits for the wealthier? Does he support private accounts; if so, how would he guard against the risk to seniors who rely on Social Security?

How would Thompson tackle the real entitlement problem, which is Medicare? Thompson criticizes"a massive [health care] bureaucracy . . . that controls costs by dictating what services we are allowed to get and when," and he says consumers should decide "what costs are worth the money." Sounds attractive, but how is Thompson going to help consumers figure out what costs are worth paying? How will that address the most expensive part of the health-care system, dealing with catastrophic illness?

On education, Thompson says the federal government should give "grants with fewer strings and less bureaucracy." Would he end efforts to hold schools accountable for performance? How does that square with his Senate vote for No Child Left Behind?

Thompson argues that a combination of tightened border security and tougher workplace enforcement will prod illegal immigrants to "go back, many of them, of their own volition." Maybe, but how would he handle the remaining illegal population?

"You are getting a little more specific and detailed than I want to get," Thompson told Salon.com's Michael Scherer. That's a fair answer to a question about how to handle the alternative minimum tax -- but Thompson was asked what he wishes President Bush had done differently. If Thompson isn't ready, or willing, to field that one, it's hard to see how he was worth the wait.

Subscribe to the podcast of this column athttp://www.washingtonpost.com/podcast. The writer's e-mail address ismarcusr@washpost.com.


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