Why National Review's Endorsement of Romney over Thompson is a Mistake
By MikeKS Posted in 2008 — Comments (113) / Email this page » / Leave a comment »
I wrote this on Blogs for Fred Thompson on Thursday:
I am a frequent reader of National Review Online, particularly the Corner. I'm probably what many consider to be a junkie on both politics and policy. The National Review has many talented writers, intellectuals, and people with a good sense of politics as well. Though certainly not all alike in their views, I admire their consistent convervatism and willingness to stand up on principle when standing up on principle was called for.
It is for that reason that I think their endorsement was a profound mistake that damages the credibility of the magazine. I'm dissapointed in it, simply because I think we could have expected better reasoning from them. It is almost as if they felt like the "had to endorse" and then, through a combination of faulty reasoning and outright contradictions to their own standards, arrived at what seemed to be a purely political calculation.
I say this, of course, as a FredHead but one that is also just surprised at the gaping holes in their own reasoning.
First of all, they say their first standard has always been to endorse the most conservative viable candidate.
Let's examine viability, to start. There are FIVE viable candidates, by any reasonable standard -- viable meaning double digits in either national or early state polls: Romney, Huckabee, Thompson, McCain, and Guiliani.
Let's examine conservativism, secondly. The National Review claims they want someone who is someone who can appear conservative on both fiscal and social issues, as well as foreign policy. By this standard, the field is trimmed down to Romney, Thompson, and McCain -- and I believe that is justifiable. While no candidate can claim to be 100% perfect, Romney, Thompson and McCain all at least offer, to some degree (the degree of which we will discuss later), a conservative message on all fronts.
Huckabee, though socially conservative, is an economic liberal by all accounts, is quite soft on illegal immigration, has a dismal record on crime with his obsession with pardons, and is a Jimmy Carter on foreign policy. Though certainly offering, by some measures, the gift of gab, and the temptation of someone who could run verbal circles around Hillary and compete word-for-word with Obama, that temptation is not enough to warrant compromising on so many principles. Also, the preachyness and contrived one liners can wear thin. In short, Huckabee, outside of social issues, is a cross between Clinton and Carter. We can do better.
Guiliani, though certainly offering the management policies and foreign policy expertise, as well as a record tough on crime, is simply weak on social issues and immigration. HE is simply not a conservative on a host of issues, and while it's good to have someone like him in the fold, he's better as a Senator or Governor from New York than he is as president, which holds the bully pulpit and thus an important voice on causes like life and immigration. We can do better.
So, I think the National Review was quite right in eliminating them from consideration.
Next you have McCain. McCain has a conservative voting record but too often in his recent histroy has been outright hostile to conservative policy, both on taxes and on immigration. And while he would certainly be solid on spending and on the war, the fact is that McCain really is not part of the conservative movement as a whole, and I think if you spoke to him directly, he wouldn't claim to be. We, again, can do better.
That leaves Romney and Thompson.
Let's first examine their argument on Thompson. They spend one weak paragraph on this, claiming the following:
"Fred Thompson is as conservative as Romney, and has distinguished himself with serious proposals on Social Security, immigration, and defense. But Thompson has never run any large enterprise — and he has not run his campaign well, either. Conservatives were excited this spring to hear that he might enter the race, but have been disappointed by the reality. He has been fading in crucial early states. He has not yet passed the threshold test of establishing for voters that he truly wants to be president."
There are a few fundamental problems with this statement, which isn't explained nor backed up with any sound facts:
1. To say "Fred Thompson is as conservative as Romney" is the understatement of the year. What we all know, of course, and I suspect the National Review knows, is that Fred Thompson is the most conservative candidate in the race. In fact, "the Editors" admit as much in describing his concrete policy proposals on economic, social, and foreign policy -- thus meeting, by any measure, their own standard. The correct statement would have been: "Fred Thompson is certainly more conservative than Romney and has demonstrated that he understands conservative principles, exemplified by his long standing dedication to the cause -- on economic, social, and foreign policy issues. He also has the record to prove that his conservatism wasn't found on the road to Des Moines, but rather is in his heart and in his soul."
So, it is clear that the National Review, on the "most conservative" standard, blew it. While Romney, I believe, is indeed conservative, many of his positions came very recently, so recently that I think it is unclear whether they are political positions or principled positions -- and there is a difference. In fact, in reading the NR endorsement, it appears they are basically saying "okay, okay, he's not really that conservative in his record, but we think he is now, and well, he's got executive experience and LOOKS pretty!" If Fred wasn't in the race, this could be plausible, but since Fred is, they quickly whizzed by the "conservative" standard -- that they themselves set for endorsements -- in order to make what is, ironically a "lazy" and also superficial argument in judging Thompson's leadership and energy.
2. They say he has been fading in early states. Well, he never was doing anything in New Hampshire but is about where he has been in South Carolina and Iowa (slight fade, maybe). So, while he has dropped back some, the important thing to point out that his slide has been due to the rise of Mike Huckabee, not Mitt Romney. In fact, by pure numbers, it is Romney who has been fading -- and whose fade has been the most tremendous in Iowa. In South Carolina, Romney does no better than Fred, again giving way to Huckabee. And while Romney does have a foothold in New Hampshire, he has lost some ground to McCain -- but Romney's spent a billion bucks and basically lived in both IA and NH. So whose campaign is fading, exactly, particularly when you consider money and time spent? Heck, one gentle 8 or 9% shift to Fred's favor in IA and SC would put Romney in third in both states, Fred in second in IA and first in SC -- and perhaps the momentum he needs to win. And as we've seen in past presidential campaigns, especially the Democrats in 2004 -- that can -- and does - happen in a big hurry. And not only that, Rudy is a distant 3rd or 4th in all three early states, so he is he not demonstrating that he meets the threshold either? Again, he's been in it since January. Again, this is a particularly weak argument by the editors.
3. As to the leadership question, I didn't see "running a large enterprise" as a qualification in the National Review's original standard -- the most conservative viable candidate. If that's going to a new part of the standard, then they better put out a statement disqualifying any Senator who has not previously ran a city, state, or large business that they won't be eligible for the NR endorsement. The President sets the tone and leads, yes, but the executive branch operation is largely ran by managers the President hires. It also ignores the possibility that perhaps the definition of leadership doesn't have to include running a large operation. I think there are plenty of examples in Fred Thompson's history to demonstrate he has leadership qualities. And while they may not have involved running "a large enterprise", they are tests of leadership nonetheless.
The NR claim also ignores the possibility that leadership means LEADING, not following, and that sometimes that means not getting in behind the media -- even the conservative media -- line. Fred Thompson, surely, could have gotten out much earlier. He could have had nationwide bus tours. He could have hired an image consultant to try to appear more cute like Huckabee or polished like Romney. And, certainly there may be items of campaign strategy you could point to and change, but a disagreement over campaign strategy doesn't mean that the man lacks leadership or has run a poor campaign. In fact, I think that his refusal to "play by their rules" and to stay true to who he is -- shows leadership. Could it be possible that perhaps Fred, if successful, could lead to a more common sense approach to presidential campaigns that actually doesn't involve running since high school? Could it be that Fred, if successful, could lead to a new standard where we put aside silly 15-second-clip debates in exchange for Charlie Rose-like interviews or at least, true "forums" where 2 or 3 of the candidates sit down and actually discuss the country? Could it be that what is Fred is doing is the real leadership, but perhaps the NR is so blind by drive-by-media standards they can't see it?
Also, could it be that perhaps Fred's doing it the right way, and perhaps that way just doesn't fit into what the 2008 drive-by-media thinks? Could it be that Fred is different (in both personality, style, and strategy, much like Reagan) in a way that annoys the media, and in fact, the National Review? I've followed Fred since April and it seems to me that he's been fine on the stump, decent in debates, and I haven't found any difficulty in finding numerous video clips of his appearances. I've found his tone refreshing and his policies inspirational. I like the fact he got in late and isn't driven by ambition and power. But rather than discuss those intangible qualities rarely seen today, the NR falls into the Carl Cameron-line that Fred isn't energetic or "wants it". Do you seriously think he'd give up all that time with his wife and kids and his cushy acting job, if he didn't really "want it"? That claim seems to be something Chris Matthews would use, not the otherwise intelligent people at National REview.
But, no. In the National Review's mind, leadership would have meant following the media to a T. Perhaps leadership, to them, means what pair of shoes you choose to wear or whether you comb your hair right. Perhaps leadership to them is image and not substance. Of course, had he done all that, they would have said he wasnt' being himself and was pandering, which itself would be a lack of leadership.
In the end, the National Review ignored its own standards in endorsing Romney. There is little question that Thompson is more conservative than Romney, so they failed that test. So then it goes to viaibility and in that standard, one could argue that Romney is actually fading faster than Thompson, given where he was in the polls vs. where Thompson was. So, if they were going to apply the "fading standard" test to Thompson, they needed to apply it to Romney too, but didn't. The fact is both have faded in the wake of the "Huckaboom."
Given that state of the race, in reality, what you are dealing with is -- who can they endorse to provide a boost to beat back Huckabee and perhaps eventually Rudy? Do you give a boost to Fred, who you know is the true autenthic conservative, who clearly would have appeal in the red states that make up the Bush majority, or do you give a boost to the new-found-conservative in Romney, who comes from the bluest of the blue states, whose only conservative foothold is Utah, where any Republican would win anyway?
We saw just yesterday how just a little boost to a campaign (Fred's "no hand shows" comment) and give it a little energy for some momentum. The National Review could have provided an additional boost to Fred. In fact, it is ironic that the same day Romney is endorsed by the National Review, Thompson has the performance of the campaign and possibly the most memorable moment -- and the talk today is not about the NR endorsement, or even that Mitt did well yesterday -- but about Fred's lines in the debate.
In the end, after all, if you go by their standard, it goes back to who is the most conservative viable candidate. That candidate is clearly Fred Thompson, and the NR, if they truly wanted a candidate at that standard, could have endorsed Fred and given him a boost to help him get the nomination. Instead, they ended up using faulty superficial reasoning -- which they didn't then use against Romney -- and damaged their own crediblity in the process.
I sensed today in reading between the lines on the Corner that perhaps this wasn't the most popular endorsement in the history of the NR, internally, and perhaps there is a little bit of "should we have really done that?" in the wake of Fred's performance. They won't admit it, nor should they, but perhaps there is a little bit of "whoops" going on in their minds.
Make no mistake, Mitt Romney is not a terrible choice and would make a good nominee. And in a race with no "viable conservative", he would be a worthy choice. But that isn't this race. In this race, we have a viable conservative who has the ideas and the mindset to make real conservative change in this country to the likes we haven't seen in, well, ever. And that candidate is Fred Thompson.
It's too bad the National Review, the standard-bearer of substance it usually is, put their perceived sense of style before substance -- and in the process, made their own standard for endorsement null and void.