Thompson and Reagan

Andrew E. Busch

September 1, 2007

As soon as former Tennessee Senator Fred Thompson announced that he was mulling over a run for the presidency, pundits and voters alike began to announce comparisons between Thompson and Ronald Reagan. Now that Thompson is in the race with both feet, it is worthwhile to examine more carefully ways in which he is or is not somehow parallel to Reagan.

It is important to note at the outset that Republicans have to come to grips with the facts that there was only one Reagan and that he was not perfect (though he was very, very good). Constant seeking after the “next Reagan,” followed by regular disappointment, is an indication that many Republicans and conservatives have simultaneously a) concluded that Reagan is easy to replicate and b) so idealized him that no candidate can actually meet the expectations that result. This makes them look silly.

Nevertheless, Reagan was the most successful Republican politician in the second half of the twentieth century. Just as great caution should greet any proclamations of the “next Reagan,” it would be foolish for Republicans not to think about how his successes might be repeated, and whether particular candidates offer a reasonable prospect of contributing to that repetition.

There are some obvious ways in which Thompson does not parallel Reagan as a candidate. The first is that he does not have executive experience, unlike Reagan’s two terms as governor of California. The Tennessean will have to overcome the nation’s recent reluctance to turn to the Senate for presidents, and will have to convince Americans he can be an effective chief executive. Thompson has also not spent two decades or more advancing his political ideas as Reagan did in the years before 1980.

Critics of both men claim to find a parallel in their allegedly soft work habits. This claim should neither help nor harm Thompson among voters, who want an effective chief executive but who remember that Reagan’s so-called “laziness” was neither well-proven nor, if it was true, a real handicap to presidential success.

Thompson, like Reagan, has been an actor. Some persist in believing that Reagan’s success was due to his acting ability, but this by itself is a poor explanation. Thompson’s acting ability—or more precisely his poise and stage presence—may help him at the margins, as it helped Reagan, but it will hardly be enough. As other commentators have noted, his authoritative roles may help him a bit more than did Reagan’s less weighty roles. All in all, however, a focus on Reagan’s and Thompson’s acting does not illuminate Thompson’s prospects or his desirability as a candidate.

Reagan’s folksy charm has often been cited by pundits as a contributing factor to his success, and here too Thompson has been cited as Reaganesque. To the extent that Thompson presents the picture of a regular guy from a modest background displaying no outsized ambition, he can indeed tap into the same currents that fed popular admiration of Reagan. However, at the end of the George W. Bush era, the premium on folksiness may not be what it once was.

It is in two other areas, less noted by the media, that Thompson has a real opportunity to excite voters as Reagan did. First, a key to Reagan’s success was that he was able to keep together—or perhaps it is more accurate to say put together—economic conservatives and social conservatives. It is unlikely that any Republican candidate can succeed without maintaining that alliance. A crucial reason that no other top-tier candidate has cemented a dominating position in the polls is that none have been able to make a compelling case for why they are capable of accomplishing that task. Thompson has the potential to be that candidate.

Second, it was not Reagan’s acting career that made him a “Great Communicator,” it was his willingness to communicate big ideas. He stood out among political figures for his capacity to discuss big principles and then connect them in a persuasive way to issues of the moment. George W. Bush has almost entirely eschewed such argumentation (except when discussing democratization in foreign policy), and so have the leaders in the Republican primary field. Thompson, on the other hand, regularly builds his argument around “first principles” of individual liberty, limited government, and federalism. This sort of discourse is arguably vital to rallying and unifying Republicans, reaching out to conservative independents, establishing distance from the Bush administration, and building an appealing contrast with a Democratic nominee who will undoubtedly focus on a bottomless promise of new and expanded programs. It is not self-evident that Thompson can pull it off, but he is the only candidate in the top tier of the Republican field who seems interested in trying. In the end, if Fred Thompson can successfully reintroduce a discourse of principles to the political arena, he will parallel Reagan in the one way that counts the most.

Andrew E. Busch is a Professor of Government at Claremont McKenna College and an Adjunct Fellow of the Ashbrook Center.