Fred Thompson is having greater influence on the Republican presidential race now that he’s out of it than he had when he was in it.
In just the few days after he withdrew his candidacy, the tall Tennessean stands out more clearly than ever above the ranks of GOP contenders. By its very silence, the absence of Thompson’s steady baritone is heard above the cacophony he left behind.
Nothing else in this campaign is making so obvious the lack of an authentic, consistent, common-sense conservative among the surviving candidates.
It calls to mind the tale of the couple tending a lighthouse. In addition to a beacon pivoting, their lighthouse had a klaxon that blared on regular intervals.
They grew accustomed to the noise, the way folks living alongside a railroad track eventually ignore the roar of passing trains. One night, the mighty foghorn failed to sound off at the appointed time.
In that instant, the lighthouse keeper and his wife awoke with a start, sat upright in bed, looked at one another and asked: “What wasn’t that?”
It is the same effect Thompson will have, by increased measure, in this floundering Republican pre-nomination campaign. As the GOP rivals “surge” then fade in opinion polls, it will become embarrassingly obvious that what conservative voters still want is not altogether there.
Not a blessed one of them – Rudy Giuliani, Mike Huckabee, John McCain, Ron Paul, Mitt Romney – is a 360-degree conservative. Each has at least one essential piece of his pie missing.
By not being among them any longer, Thompson has brought the spotlight to bear on those missing pieces.
The effect on the candidates is already having a noticeable, salutary effect. With Thompson off the platform, those remaining candidates have started fudging their credentials to shade over into the space of one or more conservative issues once occupied by the man who had no serious empty spaces.
Not much consolation for Thompson, personally, but it is a wholesome development for the Republican Party, which has been busy divesting itself of its founding principles and growing difficult to distinguish from the opposition.
This opens up a golden opportunity for Thompson to make a mighty contribution to the rescue and revival of the GOP.
He would be other than human if he were not, right about now, licking his wounds. When Adlai Stevenson lost his second bid for the presidency, he observed: “I’m too old to cry, and it hurts too much to laugh.”
Thompson is adult enough to appreciate that and to heed the advice Adlai gave a friend: "Let the world revolve only once, then get right back into politics. Never give it up."
An entirely new role awaits Thompson – who understands about roles. It is a role he could perform with distinction: He could refill to overflowing the vacuum created when he dropped out of the presidential race.
Thompson is no longer encumbered by nettlesome details of raising money, refereeing staff, making agonizing strategy decisions, suffering inadequate motel beds, wolfing down junk food, tolerating snarky questions from sound-bitten reporters, soaking his paw in warm water after a day of handshaking and being away from his wife and babies too much.
It was clear he wasn’t exactly having the time of his life in those degrading non-debate debates and debilitating bus tours. There’s no law, or order, that says a fellow can’t have fun doing the right thing in politics.
Now, here’s the role Thompson could relish: Become the Jiminy Cricket of the Republican Party, the voice of conservative conscience, clicking in the ear of its candidates. Clearly define, as none of the others could, the cardinal principles for a resuscitated Republican Party. Translate those neglected values into language that makes common sense for today’s America. Take up the party’s winning formula where the Reagan coalition left off. Spell out a 2008 victory strategy founded on the reality that America is more center-right than it is center-left. Show independents and conservative Democrats — as well as traditional Republicans — how they have more in common than do far-left liberals, traditional Democrats and independents. Craft succinct, credible concept papers that illuminate conservative values. Offer then to thoughtful publications, where their themes can be plagiarized, for that is how the politics of seminal ideas work in this country. Utilize talk radio and Internet political sites to allocute those themes. Stay the hell away from screeching-match interviews, for most television media have forfeited their credibility and, therefore, their effectiveness.
Thompson has the integrity, experience, intelligence and talent to do all that. As the uncluttered herald of unadulterated, common-sense conservative values and issues, he could set the agenda for what’s left of a ragtag political season.
If the conductors of the Republican National Convention, Sept. 1-4, were smart, they would carve out time for Thompson to deliver the kind of rallying-cry address that the Grand Old Party has not heard and seen in years.
Conservatives surveying the residual Republican candidates are already asking: “What wasn’t that?” An impressive number of voters who may not yet realize they are conservatives are beginning to pay attention to the race for president and are asking: “What’s missing from this lineup of usual suspects?”
Fred Thompson has time left to supply the answer.
He’s too old to cry, but he’s plenty young enough to rescue a political party that’s worth saving from self-destruction – and have fun doing it.
John L. Perry, a prize-winning newspaper editor and writer who served on White House staffs of two presidents, is a regular columnist for Newsmax.com.
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