LOS ANGELES – This is a golden moment for Fred Thompson.
The former senator and fictional prosecutor is in the process of deciding whether to enter the Republican race for president. He is surrounded by people telling him that the party needs him and the country needs him; he has the press hanging on his every word to determine whether he'll make the plunge; and he doesn't even have to compete to get his two cents in with the 10 candidates who take the stage at the Reagan Library on Thursday night.
Instead, he'll be the speaker the next night at a gathering of prominent conservatives in Orange County, where he runs a zero risk of making a mistake or coming in for criticism.
I don't know whether the country or the Republican party is holding its breath in the hopes that Thompson will get into the race, but I can promise you this: His political advisers, would-be campaign potentates and any consultant he talks to will be pushing him to get in. It's just human nature. If he gets in, so do they. If he agrees to play, then they're in the game.
Which would you rather be, if you're a political animal: a former aide to a former senator who is now spending his time learning lines for "Law and Order," or a key aide to one of the "frontrunners" in a race for the White House? Is that a hard question? If you're a consultant who hasn't been hired by the other 10 candidates in the race, are you going to tell the man who is your last, best hope for a paycheck and a place at the table that really it's too late for him, or he isn't the right guy, or that there are already enough good candidates in the race? I don't think so.
His calls to other politicians, at least those who have not already committed themselves to another candidate, are likely to elicit similar responses.
Politically speaking, what possible reason is there to tell someone what he doesn't want to hear: that he lacks the skills or character or capacity to get elected president; that his Senate career was so negligible in terms of accomplishments that he may have a difficult time convincing people that he is a leader, not an actor. You know it's not what he wants to hear. He won't thank you. He won't like you better. Even if you're right, he'll never admit it, at least until after-the-fact, when having given good advice to an actor carries no political payoff.
And if you're wrong, or he gets lucky, you're not likely to find yourself in the Cabinet. No one likes to be the messenger carrying bad news, least of all politicians who are in the business of currying favor. Much easier to tell the would-be president that he has much to contribute to the race; that he is uniquely suited to be president; that the country and the party need him. There's no downside to being a cheerleader. Let someone else be the skunk at the garden party. But who?
Certainly not the press. The press is famous for goading people into the race and then turning on them once they get in. It's not a conscious strategy; it's just that the press always has an interest in a new face in the race, especially a colorful one; but once he's in, "fairness" requires the press to be equally savage to him as it is to the other shrunken heroes in the contest.
Politics is a business with no honest brokers but your immediate family, and what do they know about politics?
I remember going to work in the summer of 1979 for Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, who was then deciding whether to challenge President Jimmy Carter for the Democratic nomination for the presidency. Every day from August to November, I would watch the steady stream of politicians, ex-aides, consultants and would-be contributors lining up outside the office to urge Ted to get into the race. If anyone disagreed, I never heard about it. But were they all there with him when he got in the race? Not even close.
A candidate never looks as good as he does the day before he gets in the race. If Rudy Giuliani weren't running, everyone would be saying, "we need Rudy." If John McCain had decided to sit this one out, the conventional wisdom would be that he was the guy who might be best able to pull this off. If Mitt Romney had decided to stay out, the press would be painting him to be a prince instead of a poor waffler.
In Democratic circles, all the talk about Al Gore as the potential savior ignores the fact that eight years ago, Democrats couldn't shut up about what a terrible candidate he was.
My old friend Jack Corrigan used to say that no one runs for alderman without thinking about being president, and that every senator sees a president when he shaves in the morning. Once you start down the path to a presidential campaign, it becomes hard to resist, particularly because everybody around you has a stake in your going forward.
Maybe Fred Thompson will prove to be the exception to the rule, but I sort of doubt it, given how far he has gone down the path. So enjoy it now, Senator Thompson, because the honeymoon will be over on the day you announce.
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Susan Estrich is the Robert Kingsley Professor of Law and Political Science at the University of Southern California. She was Professor of Law at Harvard Law School and the first woman President of the Harvard Law Review. She is a columnist for Creators Syndicate and has written for USA Today and the Los Angeles Times.
Estrich's books include the just published “Soulless,” “The Case for Hillary Clinton,” “How to Get Into Law School,” “Sex & Power,” “Real Rape,” “Getting Away with Murder: How Politics Is Destroying the Criminal Justice System” and "Making the Case for Yourself: A Diet Book for Smart Women.”
She served as campaign manager for Michael Dukakis' presidential bid, becoming the first woman to head a U.S. presidential campaign. Estrich appears regularly on the FOX News Channel, in addition to writing the “Blue Streak” column for FOXNews.com.