2008: Dewey Beats Hillary?

[Cross-posted at ProgressiveHistorians, Daily Kos, and My Left Wing.]

Five months ago, I wrote a diary in which I compared the current crop of GOP 2008 hopefuls with their counterparts in 1948.  In that year, New York Governor Thomas E. Dewey, a respected but uncharismatic bedrock conservative, walked away with the Republican nomination over the likes of Robert Taft, Arthur Vandenberg, and Harold Stassen.  The 2008 GOP candidates were similar to those of 1948, I argued, but with one notable exception: there was no respected conservative voice like Dewey in the field.  I explored what might have happened if Dewey had been disgraced or suffered serious injury just prior to the nominating convention:

My theory: since the left flank of the GOP was in a dogfight between the gravitas of Vandenberg and the shoe leather of Stassen, it's Taft who stood to capitalize most on the hypothetical removal of Dewey.  Possibly the heavily-recruited Warren could have won on a party unity platform based on star power rather than issues, but all indications are that Warren didn't feel it was his time yet to push for the nomination.  (He would try that four years later, when he lost to Dwight Eisenhower; when he made noise about running against Eisenhower again in 1956, the President shut him up for good by appointing him Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.)  No, the most likely scenario I can envision is that without Dewey, the ultraconservative Taft wins.  (The nomination, not the presidency; if Dewey couldn't beat Truman, I doubt Taft would have had a chance.)

Extrapolating via comparison to the present, I argued that Taft's equivalent in 2008, Sam Brownback, stood to benefit the most from the lack of a Dewey-like figure in the field.  Despite the efforts of McCain and Romney to fill Dewey's ghostly shoes, I believed, the hole in the field would remain largely unfilled, allowing Brownback to squeak to victory on his ultraconservative platform.  I come now to revise that interpretation.

It seems 2008's Tom Dewey is preparing to enter the field.

Fred Dalton Thompson is, as Chris Cillizza explains, many social conservatives' dream candidate:

While he was never a leading social conservative voice in the Senate, Thompson's voting record during his eight years in Washington should be acceptable to anyone to the ideological right. Thompson was rated highly by conservative groups during his time in office, and surely won loyalty from conservatives when he squired Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts around Capitol Hill during his 2005 confirmation process.

There is a sense among Republicans that Thompson could stand toe to toe with with the big boys thanks to his star power and personal magnetism. The politician-turned-actor is a well-known face to many Americans from his role as Arthur Branch on the television show "Law and Order." Don't underestimate star power as a factor in politics. ...

Thompson's decision to retire from the Senate in 2002 rather than seek another term is also a blessing in disguise when it comes to the 2008 presidential race. Ever since his first race for Senate in 1994, Thompson has cast himself as a populist outsider. In that contest for the remaining two years of Vice President Al Gore's Senate term, Thompson -- a political unknown at the time -- toured the state in a bright red pickup truck and repeatedly told audiences that his opponent had "never seen the inside of a pickup truck."

By walking away from a sure-thing second term in 2002, Thompson reinforced that populist image. He also spent the next five years outside of Washington as his party steadily lost the trust of the American public. Thompson can make the argument that he wants to be part of the solution. That's a compelling argument when paired with Thompson's conservative credentials and personal attributes.

Are you hearing what I'm hearing?  Thompson's a traditional conservative, a respected figure, experienced enough to pass, famous from TV, and generally thought of as a nice guy.  Plus, he can rake in the bucks between his Hollywood and Tennessee connections.  He's someone who can appeal to the fat cats in Washington and to Middle America.  He is, in fact, the perfect GOP candidate.

Furthermore, his arrival on the scene comes at a time when the other major candidates are in turmoil.  Huckabee's Q1 fundraising numbers are enough to knock him out of the race, and Brownback's aren't much better.  Sure, Romney's raking in the bucks, but he's an obvious charlatan who won't play well down the stretch.  And Giuliani's doing fine, but what self-respecting Republican would vote for a guy who wants to federally-fund abortions when they could have someone like Thompson?

As for McCain, the biggest argument in favor of his nomination has been the Republican concept of "turn" in national politics.  As Kevin Hayden argued four months ago, "it's really McCain's turn, and he knows how to run a national campaign." But is it?  Party staffers jumped aboard the Straight Talk Express early, but McCain's fairly anemic fundraising numbers this quarter seem to be a sign that he isn't drawing the institutional support he was hoping for.  And frankly, Thompson better fits the profile of the candidate whose "turn" it is -- he's much more respectable and palatable to the largest number of people.

Of course, there are those in the party who are not thrilled about a Thompson campaign.  James Dobson has decided that, despite Thompson's avowed religiosity, the former Senator's not a Christian (apparently, Dobson thinks Newt Gingrich is one).  And George Will finds Thompson too blah to be the nominee:

This is the "Anyone else up there?" phase of the campaign for the Republican presidential nomination, which explains the political flavor du jour, Fred Thompson, the former senator from Tennessee. Conservatives are dissatisfied with the array of candidates. Of course, people usually want what they do not see, a candidate who is a combination of John Kennedy, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln -- handsome, energetic and wise.

Handsome? Thompson, whose eight-year career in electoral politics, all in the Senate, ended more than four years ago, perhaps looks presidential, meaning grave. Energetic? He is said to be less than a martyr to the work ethic. ... Is he wise? As a senator he insistently advocated increasing the government's regulation of politics.

Of course, before one overestimates Will's insider influence, it's worth noting that he supported the losing -- and most liberal -- Republican candidate in each of the last two contested primaries: Pete Wilson in 2006 1996 and John McCain in 2000.  This time around, he is supporting Giuliani, again the most liberal candidate in the field.  It's safe to say that most rank-and-file Republicans don't follow his lead on Presidential picks.

There is some question about whether Thompson will really be anointed by the DC establishment.  And there's still one shoe left to drop -- Newt Gingrich's potential entry into the race (although I've been skeptical that Gingrich will make the race from the beginning).  All things considered, however, I think it's safe to say that Thompson will enter the race as the safe, establishment conservative -- the Tom Dewey of 2008.

And we should all be very, very scared -- because he's the strongest candidate the Republicans could put up against us.

Tags: 2008, Fred Thompson, George Will, history, John McCain, Mike Huckabee, Mitt Romney, Rudy Giuliani, Sam Brownback, Thomas Dewey (all tags)

Comments

5 Comments

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Let's hope I'm wrong.

by Nonpartisan 2007-04-12 07:39PM | 0 recs
Re: 2008: Dewey Beats Hillary?

Good Read, and somewhat alarming. I also thought Brownback would move way, way up the field, but between Gingrich and this guy I don't think he will get the chance.

by LandStander 2007-04-12 09:31PM | 0 recs
Interesting Piece...But One Problem

Dewey had actually made peace with most of the new deal, unlike "mainstream republicans" of that time period, so I'm not sure I understand the comparison to Fred Thompson.  Thompson's appeal is that he is conservative in basically the same way as the majority of GOP legislators.  That seems different to me, but maybe I'm missing something.  

by HSTruman 2007-04-13 06:32AM | 0 recs
Re: Interesting Piece...But One Problem

That's a good distinction -- I'm actually trying to judge them on something as nebulous as "perception of conservatism" rather than actual issue positions.  In terms of actual issue positions, Romney's a liberal, yet that doesn't seem to matter.

by Nonpartisan 2007-04-13 08:43AM | 0 recs
Re: Interesting Piece...But One Problem

I gottcha, and I think it's a very interesting idea.  Truth be told, I simply wish Republicans like Dewey still existed.  Obviously I'm a Truman fan, but Dewey probably wouldn't have made a bad president.  Hell, by today's standards he'd be a relatively progressive Democrat.  :)

Anyway, good Diary.  

by HSTruman 2007-04-13 09:07AM | 0 recs

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