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Thursday, January 31, 2008

Regarding the Thompson '08 campaign (sic transit gloria mundi)

I've been pondering what I ought to write about Fred Thompson's withdrawl from the 2008 presidential race  after the South Carolina GOP primary.

Usually I'm not much of a pure "linker" as a blogger, because I figure most of you who find your way here already have your own regular reads, and you really don't look to me for recommendations so much as for something original or unique. (Or so I flatter myself.) But of all the postmortems I've read about the Thompson '08 campaign so far, this one, by Andrew Ferguson in the Weekly Standard, is probably the closest to what I would have liked to have written myself. I commend it to your reading, and commend him for writing it, and I associate myself with his remarks (as they still sometimes say on the floor of the U.S. Senate). But reading it has helped finally crystallize my own post-postmortem for the campaign, which I spew here in what feels like the lancing of a moderately nasty boil.


Among Mr. Ferguson's observations is that Fred's reticence to engage in retail campaigning (a dispiriting picture of which Ferguson paints very skillfully) marks him as a man out of sync with his own time. Mr. Ferguson points out, accurately, that the amount of hustling and bustling now considered mandatory for presidential candidates would have been considered very unseemly in past eras. But my own contemporaneous feelings, though, as the Thompson '08 campaign floundered and failed — although not necessarily inconsistent with Mr. Ferguson's — were that Fred's campaign was in fact ahead of its time, not behind the times. What was old, shall soon be new again (just ... digital).

Presidential primaries are anachronisms, designed to dilute some power from, and otherwise to organize on a pre-convention basis, local and regional king-makers left over from the era of unabashed party-machine politics. Entire states now have vested, obvious interests in the nomination process that conflict with the modern parties' interests, but more importantly, with the interests of the American nation as a whole. I mean no offense to the people of Iowa or New Hampshire, nor those of Michigan or South Carolina or Florida or Nevada, who've been behaving like squabbling kindergartners fighting for their respective places in line. But as a nation, we can't afford the luxury of indulging your regional pride/selfishness any longer.

The current primary system has never been so obviously ridiculous, so obviously antiquated, as it has been this year. And its demands were, in my view, terminally incompatible with the candidacy of the best potential American president to declare this year. More specifically, his personally and the requirements of that system could not be made to mesh because the current primary system is still fundamentally geared to require state-by-state retail politicking. Huckabee has a natural talent and thirst for it, which is why he was still on the GOP debate stage last night. Romney has the discipline and energy and money for it, if not the same natural retail skills, so he was still on-stage too. McCain has coasted in based on name recognition from 2000, adoration from the mainstream media, and a reasonable amount of retail campaign hustle too. And the nation is left looking at these three guys (plus a clown), and we're asking ourselves, with a fair measure of disbelief: "How come are they the last three candidates up there?"

I presume that Fred and Jeri watched the debate, like I did, from home, with more than a little melancholy for what might and ought to have been. He probably also feels some measure of relief, which I can't begrudge him. And he probably had a good cigar, over which he felt no guilt, and of which I'm moderately jealous. 


I don't know if the system can be changed by 2012 or not. My current hope is that the fallout from the Democratic Party's stated intent to disregard the results from the Michigan and Florida primaries in their entirety may become the seed from which comprehensive, bipartisan primary reform grows. Someone other than the candidates themselves will have to become its champion, even if a partisan fight (here, between Hillary and Obama) starts the ball rolling.

But eventually the system will change. Television, even as augmented by cable news channels, wasn't sufficient alone to wrench the remaining power from the hands of the local and regional would-be king-makers, nor to impose rationality upon a system that developed for an age whose respective natural boundaries ought to have been marked by the advent of telegraphs and the demise of rotary telephone dials. But television plus the internet eventually will do the trick, because together they demonstrate just how great the gap is between what we need as a nation and what the current system is selecting for.

When it does, we'll have a better chance of getting candidates who would make the best presidents — not the best campaigners. The time for a thoughtful campaign like the Thompson '08 campaign will finally (once again) have come.

But this wasn't that year, and barring a GOP convention deadlock (which is still the longest of longshots), Fred Thompson won't be the first successful pioneer of a true 21st Century information-age candidacy. Alas and alack for that. But now, as I allow my digital video recorder to begin unspooling the first of the Democratic primary debates limited to two candidates, I'll raise a fond toast to the tall Tennessean, his bride, and their young family. I thank you for trying, and I don't fault you for failing to transform yourself into something you could not bear to be.

Posted by Beldar at 07:01 PM in 2008 Election, Politics (2008) | Permalink


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(1) Gregory Koster made the following comment | Feb 1, 2008 10:22:58 AM | Permalink

Dear Mr. Dyer: The old adage, "You can't beat something with nothing," applies here. Also a variant on Churchill's crack that democracy is the worst form of government ever devised except for every other form that's been tried. Like you, I'm ready to boot New Hampshire and Iowa over to Iraq on a ship built at the Portsmouth Navy yard, powered by corn ethanol. But what's to replace the present system? National primary? There's much merit in that but:

a) having a national primary gives federalism a good kick in the teeth
b) it would force campaigns to be run nationally. This would squeeze out the unexpected candidate whom the ninnies in the press have discounted as "can't possibly win." This year that candidate is Mike Huckabee. He makes me reach for the absinthe jug every time I hear or see him, but there are a great many people, only some of whom are nuts, who think he is the real deal. Why should their notions be sacrificed to the bored, overpaid cynicism of such lice as Chris Matthews or Dana Milbank?

A stronger case, I think is the abolition of caucuses. The absinthe jug gets another workout every time I hear a) Democrats bawlingsthat asking for ID at the time of voting is a dastardly plot by The Man to suppress votes of color but b) watch these same idealists harangue the cattle at their caucus that you by God better tell the world who you are voting for and if your candidate doesn't make 15% of the vote, he's out and you gotta vote for someone else, get over here NOW. The ward bosses of Tammany would understand caucuses perfectly, even while wondering why bother, just gimme the ballots and I'll mark 'em for you, much more efficient.

Do you have any notions for reform? Remember, the 2000 Florida imbroglio brought forth roars for reform, which got us touch-screen voting, something that brought dough to Diebold, but ruined even their reputation. At the moment, I sigh, reach for the absinthe, and choose to stick with the present system of evils.

Sincerely yours,
Gregory Koster

(2) David made the following comment | Feb 1, 2008 11:11:50 AM | Permalink

As to thoughts on reforming the primary system... as an interim step, I've thought perhaps we should have, not a national primary, but... well, what do you think of this?

The 50 states would be divided into 10-state groups, randomly, every 4 years; each of those 5 blocs would be assigned one of the first 5 months. Each state would hold all its normal primaries/ballots on its assigned day for the next 4 years, and the cycle would be right at the beginning of the Presidential election year to minimize 'who can spend 3 years living in Iowa and New Hampshire' effects.

I think this would go far towards eliminating the wildly skewing nature of the earliest states getting so much devotion, while not totally eliminating the need to address the interests of the individual states.

I think 1 month would be enough time to let the results of each round 'settle' and any major gameplan changes be made, although I can see an argument for groups of 5 states every 2 weeks instead.

Either that, or deliberately order all primaries/cacauses to be in least-to-greatest number of delegates order, so that the smallest states vote earliest and if someone feels daring they can concentrate on the later states while risking 'momentum' eliminating them.

(3) Beverly Nuckols made the following comment | Feb 7, 2008 3:11:48 AM | Permalink

Now that Huckabee is telling us that Dobson's not a conservative, and that McCain is (and that no one turns down the vice Presidency, hint, hint) maybe people will see what they missed.

Give me a reluctant servant leader who believes in free will (let's see, Who invented that system?) and State's rights over a "fire in the belly" narcissist that knows what's good for you and is willing to force you with taxes or at gun point to do good. And give the megalomaniac with obscenities for anyone who disagrees with his eructations a Zofran pump and a change of diet, not praise and the Presidency.

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