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Sunday, September 09, 2007

Of Thompson and Clark and sports metaphors used in politics

At Outside the Beltway, James Joyner's post today is the latest of many I've seen comparing Fred Thompson's entry into the GOP presidential race this year with Wesley Clark's entry into the Democratic presidential race in 2000, but Dr. Joyner's, quoting one from blogger Publius at Obsidian Wings, is considerably more thoughtful than most of the previous comparisons I've read. Dr. Joyner notes that the "gap from any job to the presidency is wider than any other career progression I can think of," but apropos of today being the beginning of the NFL's regular season, he employs a sports metaphor, with this conclusion:

Thompson (and Clark before him), though, are like the rookie who missed training camp because of injury or a contract holdout. I can’t think of a single case where one of those guys did well his first season.

My response (in a comment there, reprinted here with slight modifications):


I agree that there's a huge "gap from any job to the presidency," but we're actually talking here about the gap from something else to credible presidential candidate.

Thompson's coming at that gap from the position of a twice-elected senator. He may not have a history at funnel-cake stands in Iowa, but he does have a history that includes small-town barbecue joints scattered across Tennessee. That was a while ago, though, and his previously demonstrated skills in those contexts may indeed be rusty, and the menu of key issues now are different.

Clark had been in the very top tier in his career, but having never run for any elected office, he had nothing remotely comparable to being a presidential candidate, or any kind of candidate, in his background.

So if you want to extend your sports metaphor, Thompson's in the position of a high-draft pick quarterback from, say, the University of Tennessee being expected to start at quarterback in the NFL. Clark was in the position of a third baseman from the New York Yankees being expected to start at quarterback in the NFL.

Clark was an absolute political novice. He may have been a good general (although I have my doubts about that), but not even his biggest fan can suggest that he came to the presidential campaign as an Eisenhower- or Grant- or Washington-like conquering warrior and savior of the nation. He never had a snowball's chance in hell to compete in the toughest political race imaginable. He's a political punch-line now, but anyone who ever took him as anything other than a political punchline was, with due respect, being naïve even before his campaign imploded on contact with, well, actual politics.

Thompson, by contrast, has at least as good a chance as Peyton Manning had as a rookie at Indianapolis:

Peyton Manning was the first draft pick of the 1998 NFL Draft, selected by Indianapolis, and started immediately for the team. Manning passed for 3,739 yards with 26 touchdowns and 28 interceptions. He set five different NFL rookie records, including most touchdown passes in a season and was named to the NFL All-Rookie First Team. [But the] Colts finished 3-13.

How much does being a veteran presidential candidate help? Perhaps not very much: Among the Democrats, the only candidate who has, in his or her own right, been on a national ticket is John Edwards, and his campaign has gone nowhere and has little prospect of going anywhere. On the GOP side, the only repeat candidate is John McCain, who's widely perceived to be doing substantially less well in this campaign than he did in 2000.

However, while she has run in exactly as many senatorial elections as Thompson (two), Hillary Clinton's campaign reflects her and her staff's experience with Bill Clinton's two presidential campaigns. It ought not be a surprise to anyone, then, that her campaign has been ruthless, disciplined, and nearly error-free. To extend the sports analysis further, she's been on a team that twice won the Super Bowl, but just not as the starting QB. It remains to be seen whether her experience will continue to allow her to cruise to a Clinton family three-peat. But objectively, she is, and she is performing like, the most experienced major presidential candidate from either party right now.

Finally: The NFL regular season started today, but the political regular season hasn't. All you have to do is look at the bloated roster to see that the cuts haven't been made, and while there might be season-ending injuries in these preliminary skirmishes, there hasn't been a delegate awarded yet, much less a presidential elector. Fred has a little bit of time to sharpen up, but he has to use it productively.

Posted by Beldar at 03:49 PM in 2008 Election, Politics (2007), Sports | Permalink


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(1) James Joyner made the following comment | Sep 9, 2007 4:55:43 PM | Permalink

Good stuff, Bill.

I'm not sure if Thompson's experience as a junior senator is equivalent to being a starter on a national title contender, let alone a #1 overall draft pick. Indeed, the Senate generally isn't considered very good proving grounds for a would-be president, although a lot of nominees come from that route.

Thompson has never run anything larger than his mouth that I know of.

(2) lnewcomer made the following comment | Sep 9, 2007 7:29:33 PM | Permalink

I had the same general thought when I read the piece on OTB, but you've expressed it much more succinctly and even extended the analogy to make it fit.

I'm leaning towards supporting Thompson, so my comments have to be read in that light, but

(3) lnewcomer made the following comment | Sep 9, 2007 7:33:24 PM | Permalink

comments like Dr. Joyner's and Peter Robinson's on the Corner the other day give short shrift to his experience. I view his broad and varied background as an asset when considering him as a candidate.

(4) Carlos made the following comment | Sep 9, 2007 7:45:42 PM | Permalink

Thompson may be a former Senator, but he really is just an actor. How could an actor be elected President of the United States?

(5) James Joyner made the following comment | Sep 9, 2007 7:57:07 PM | Permalink

Ronald Reagan spent two years running the largest state in the Union. I'm not sure being a lobbyist and character actor is comparable.

(6) Beldar made the following comment | Sep 9, 2007 8:39:00 PM | Permalink

Dr. Joyner meant, I'm sure, to say "two terms," for Reagan was elected to the California governorship in 1966 and 1970. Thompson spent the same number of years in the Senate — eight (a partial term and a complete one) — that Reagan spent in the Sacramento governor's mansion. And I think anyone who enters a primary race that's been going on for several months, and immediately leaps to second place in it — which is what Thompson has done, in most polls (for what they're worth, which is next to nothing) — can claim to be as popular, roughly, as a first-round NFL draft choice. I do agree, though, that it remains to be seen whether Fred turns out to be a Peyton Manning or a Ryan Leaf (picked No. 2 overall by San Diego behind Manning in 1998, presently coaching quarterbacks and golf at West Texas A&M in Canyon, Texas).

Senators and Congressmen can claim, with some validity, that their careers give them important insights into the federal government that state governors lack. Governors can claim, again with some validity, that their state executive branch experience better suits them to manage the federal executive branch. It's a familiar trade-off; governors have done better in selling their take to the public lately, but that hasn't always been true, and it's discouraged very few senators from throwing their hats into the ring.

I'm not trying to over-sell Thompson's experience. There is no one on the national scene who can claim to have had the kind of dominant presence or success in the Senate that LBJ had, for example. But the Senate is still famously the place from which 100 faces look in every mirror and see "Possibly The Next President of the United States." Thompson's accomplishments there aren't dramatically better or worse than Hillary Clinton's; both of them have Senate records, respect, and histories of influence that can be compared favorably to, say, John Edwards' or Barack Obama's accomplishments; but neither can claim the kind of sustained Senate career that Bob Dole had (for all the good it did him at the presidential election polls). Dodd and Biden both have massive amounts of senatorial longevity, for that matter, but that's gotten them nowhere in the presidential race.

Saying that Thompson or any other senator hasn't run "anything larger than his mouth" is a great quip; it ignores the fact, though, that every U.S. senator runs a home-state and Washington staff and has presumably run a campaign to get to that point. Most have also run something else — in Thompson's case, for instance, a private law practice, a docket of cases he prosecuted as an Assistant U.S. Attorney, and a couple of congressional investigations. Plus, yeah, a career as a character actor that has been modestly successful when viewed by actors' standards, and incredibly successful when viewed by lawyer-politician-turned-actors' standards — which is to say, it's been a remarkable hobby, an avocation rather than a second or third vocation. And that's how Thompson describes it.

Thompson and McCain should both readily agree that Romney and Giuliani have more "executive experience" than they do, and focus instead on their compensating experience in Washington — at least enough to end the "credentials" comparisons and get on to current and future policy issues.

I agree with Dr. Joyner's main point originally, which is that the jump between running the White House and Executive Branch and being POTUS is a bigger career jump than damn near anything else. But in historical terms, all of the current major candidates for either party are at least over the threshold of being "minimally qualified," in the same way — to return to the sports metaphor — that any quarterback who's played four years of Division I college football, with at least one year as a starter, is probably potentially "qualified," based purely on minimum credentials, to become an NFL rookie.

And all of the current major candidates have some degree of political experience. Wesley Clark had none. That's the reason the comparison between him and Thompson (or him and any other serious presidential candidate in the last couple of dozen years) breaks down. It's a poor comparison not because Thompson's experience in government and governing is so great, but because Clark's was non-existent. Publius wrote, in his post that Dr. Joyner quoted, that "in many respects, Clark was probably the strongest candidate" in 2000, but I don't think a rational case can be made to support that proposition. The single respect in which Clark had any qualifications to be president had to do with his military knowledge, to the extent that would be useful to a commander in chief. But that's why we have career military officers at the senior levels — so we don't have to have former generals to run our country.

(7) Dan S made the following comment | Sep 10, 2007 8:05:59 AM | Permalink

"Saying that Thompson or any other senator hasn't run "anything larger than his mouth" is a great quip..."

Dr Joyner should also keep in mind that many senators have VERY large mouths, so running them is no small achievement!

(8) Carol Herman made the following comment | Sep 11, 2007 7:17:54 PM | Permalink

Wesley Clark's defect: BOSNIA

He's also in the party that hasn't a clue about military matters. Oh, and, he came back out on stage, again, for the Kos Kids. When Stolz insulted a real American soldier. Too blessed sensitive for words.

Clark went down like a bowling pin, that was supposed to hit Howie Dean.

As if the Bonkeys have anything to be proud of, in their 2004 "showing."

Today, up at Drudge, you have Fred Thompson reminding Hillary of Charlie Trie.

And, the other thing I've venture a guess upon; which smells similar to how Wesley Clark's ten days did in fact destroy Howie Dean's 2004 run ...

There's a group of elites who hate Hillary. They control the media. And, they'll go after her; if they can defeat her. But only if they can do this without leaving fingerprints.

I wouldn't put it past those clowns.

By the way, back in 2004, Kevin Drum had his own site. It had been Pro-Dean. Because he also did "Friday cat blogging." And, I went there to look around. It was never as bad as going to Huff-Po.

And, while others do well with their blogs; the anger at Kevin Drum was so tremendous, that he also fell. Not just Wesley Clark. Theresa Heinz then paid the money to fast-track her hubby. Da' Gigolo. But when he lost? She asked the DNC for a refund.

Who sez I got a limited attention span? Testing the public will produce results like mine ... just like you said ... WHere at least 50% of us 'remember.' And, there's no love at all for the Ma & Pa Kettle Show. Pelosi & Harry Reid look like losers, to me.

(9) Carol Herman made the following comment | Sep 11, 2007 7:20:48 PM | Permalink

Please don't forget Lincoln. He came to DC as an outsider. His government experience was rather weak.

Seems to have set, now, the quality and high standards we expect from outsiders.

While Reagan? He sets the standards for republicans who achieve the White House, even though he was divorced. Even though he was "old" by the standards used to measure people when you want to knock them down.

Seems lots of Americans are paying attention.

And, it seems the Internet, with comments coming from ordinary people, just blows the lids off the legacy media.

How nice.

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