Is Newt next?
Of course he is. Fred Thompson found the lure irresistible.
And if he couldn’t resist, why should Newt?
Or Mike Bloomberg, for that matter.
The lesson of the Thompson candidacy is not that the "Law & Order" star is the answer to the GOP’s problems, but that those problems are big enough, and the temptation of power is strong enough, that saying no is a whole lot harder than saying yes.
The conventional wisdom has been that this is the year where you have to announce early, or you’ll be out of the game. That’s been true on the Democratic side.
While they denied it at the time, there seems little question that Team Hillary had to rush her announcement because Obama was on a roll, signing up donors and supporters and potentially stealing her thunder.
John Edwards is leading in the Iowa polls in part because he’s been campaigning there for years, while Hillary has been forced to play catch-up. The Democratic race took shape early; Tom Vilsack (remember him) hit the wall before most people were even paying attention to the contest.
But the Republican contest is different, because of the obvious weaknesses of the first tier candidates. While Democrats debate which of their candidates they like the most, Republicans are hard pressed to find one that they like at all.
John McCain, who started out as the clear leader, has run a confused and disappointing campaign, in which he has lagged on fundraising and veered between the old, independent maverick and the new right panda bear. It’s not a good sign when your wife has to deny that you have a bad temper. And he looks old.
Rudy Giuliani, America’s Mayor, has enough problems to keep his consultants busy 24/7: three marriages, kids who won’t campaign for him, stances on issues like abortion and gay rights that are anathema to his new constituency, not to mention growing criticism of his strongest suit, his handling of the terror attacks. And then there are his friends like Bernie Kerik, the convicted former police chief, and his clients, which reads like a list of undesirables. New Yorkers prefer their current mayor, who doesn’t need to raise money from anybody, and has lawyers everywhere ready to get him on the ballot.
Mitt Romney, the only leading Republican still married to his first wife (all the Democrats are), has the unfortunate problem of being a Massachusetts Republican, which is like being a Democrat in any other state. In order to get elected in my old home state, he ran only slightly to the right of Ted Kennedy, which has forced him to change his mind about everything. I remember an ad we did in the 1988 primaries against Dick Gephardt, showing a gymnast flipping in every direction while the narrator detailed the candidate’s change of mind. It was devastating. And Gephardt was a model of consistency compared to Romney.
If you’re an ambitious Republican looking at that field, you can’t help but think: I’m as good as they are. Sure, you may have a wild dating life (Thompson), or an extra-marital affair (Newt), but both Rudy and McCain are admitted philanderers, so why would that stop you?
Whatever positions you’ve taken in the past that could come back to haunt you, at least you didn’t support abortion funding and live with a couple of gay guys, which Rudy did, or team up with Ted Kennedy and Russ Feingold in your major legislative accomplishments, which McCain did, or try to convince the most liberal state in the country that you weren’t so far from Ted Kennedy (which Romney did).
Fred Thompson may not have a single major accomplishment as a Senator, but at least he’s not hated for campaign finance reform, immigration reform, and cutting a deal with Democrats to avoid endless filibusters of judges, which McCain did. In this race, nothing is better than something.
Then there’s the matter of advisers. There is no one who sits with a presidential candidate (other than, maybe, the future first lady) who doesn’t have a professional and financial interest in his running. Even if he loses, they get to be important, and make a lot of money, in the process.
If he doesn’t run, on the other hand, the other teams are already filled, and the phone stops ringing. Try as they might to be objective and unbiased, the would-be campaign manager, media maven, press secretary, pollster and strategist look at a world in which their being in the game depends on the candidate saying yes.
And don’t forget the press. The press loves a horserace, and the more interesting horses, the better. The press loves you unconditionally until the day you enter the race, when their job description switches from writing you up to tearing you down. Thompson will never get better press than he’s getting right now.
Of course, the problem is, Thompson really isn’t the answer to the Republicans’ dreams, as will become clear in the days after he announces. A serial dater and relatively unaccomplished legislator with mixed conservative credentials is not, ultimately, going to convince anyone that the field is closed and the winner assured. The vacuum that exists now will still exist once he joins the fray. He will go from being a giant to being the eleventh man.
And all the same forces that pushed him into the race will be there around Newt, and Mike Bloomberg. In Newt’s case, a national campaign can be a cleansing experience, reestablishing him as a politician instead of a pundit, letting the dirty laundry air out until it’s clean enough at least for the vice presidency.
And for Bloomberg, the guy who can finance a campaign from his own checkbook, and is surrounded by people who stand to make a pile of money if he does, neither Thompson nor Gingrich are strong enough to undercut his sense that it’s still wide open, especially for the man who many consider the smartest of them all.
So welcome, Sen. Thompson. Enjoy your honeymoon. Believe me, it won’t last. Which will only make the lure stronger for those who have not yet thrown in their hats.
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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.