The EFM Feature

In late June, I wrote a post entitled “The Life Cycle of the Thompson Campaign” in which I described the three broad stages of an “insurgent” campaign. I thought it might be fun to revisit that post now — on the eve of Thompson’s long-awaited announcement — to see where he is. Below is my original post (with a couple of minor edits for flow and continuity), with my new commentary italicized:
Politics follow patterns — patterns sometimes as predictable as the rising and setting of the sun. Since the advent of the out-of-nowhere primary candidate, we’ve now seen that the press and political establishment, once surprised by the rise of the “outsider” has now completely assimilated the process into the machinery of opinion-making and reporting. And so, EFM readers, here is the life cycle of the outsider candidate:
(1) OUT OF NOWHERE, OUR HERO EMERGES! This is where smart political commentators and reporters can play kingmaker. An attractive unknown candidate sparks their interest, and the insiders start building the buzz. A modest wave of positive reporting builds into something more substantial. Bill Clinton goes from the nobody from Arkansas who gave the most boring convention introduction in history to a centrist innovator who revolutionized education in Arkansas (he took the state from a weak 50th to a strong 50th in the national rankings!) Howard Dean goes from the rich man’s Dennis Kucinich to the “only credible candidate who speaks for the left.” On the Republican side, we saw this with early cover stories about Governor Romney in National Review and the Weekly Standard. All the smart money had the Governor as one of the leading candidates (in spite of nonexistent polling numbers). This is where Fred is now. Out of nowhere, the hero has emerged. No one was talking about Fred Thompson one year ago; now our activists are all a-flutter. But, sadly, phase 1 is all too short.
“All too short” is right. This stage couldn’t be more over. Even if I wasn’t paying attention to the news, I would still notice that I haven’t gotten a taunting e-mail message from a “Fredhead” in more than a month. And believe me, we have no shortage of readers who like to taunt EFM at every twist and turn of the campaign — and especially when they support a viable conservative alternative to Governor Romney. I haven’t heard from those folks in a while. Hello?
Are you out there?
Phase one is done.

(2) HERO? HE AIN’T NO STINKIN’ HERO! What the media builds up, the media tears down. It’s tough to be the hero. We all have our flaws, and it is just so much more fun for media folks to tear down a hero than it is to tear down a nobody. Hero Gary Hart becomes Philandering Gary Hart, Hero Bill Clinton becomes Philandering Bill Clinton, and Hero Howard Dean becomes “too liberal to win” Howard Dean. On the Republican side, “Matinee Mitt” came under sustained attack in the winter as an alleged “flip-flopper,” an attack that continues to this day. Fred is just about to move into this phase. His halcyon days are about to end. He may stumble at a debate or unknown biographical details may emerge. While I’m not sure how he’ll enter this second phase, I know that he will. All of this is predictable, but what isn’t predictable is the outcome of Phase 3 . . .
It’s tough to list all the hits Fred has taken in the last eight weeks. The shots from the mainstream media (like the L.A. Times abortion lobbying story) haven’t taken their toll nearly as much as the increased scrutiny from conservatives or the self-inflicted wounds of a “campaign” with revolving-door staffing issues. Liberal attacks only help Fred, but scroll down NRO’s Campaign Spot to see a series of negative items from the right. And Campaign Spot doesn’t even address the recent revelations regarding Senator Thompson’s pro-illegal immigrant votes. There’s no question he’s having a rough time right now, and phase 2 isn’t quite over. Even so, with the beginning of the official campaign, we’re going to see an overlap between phase 2 and phase 3.
(3) THE RUBBER MEETS THE ROAD. Here’s where presidents are made. Gary Hart slinks off the scene, Dean screams, but Clinton bites his lip on 60 Minutes (adoring wife at his side), builds a ruthlessly efficient political machine, and coasts to victory. Governor Romney answered his tough months with $23 million dollars in fundraising, three strong debate performances, and surging poll numbers in Iowa and New Hampshire. Yet we won’t know for months whether this strong response will ultimately be enough. And we don’t know if Fred can or will bounce back from his inevitable backlash. Will he build the infrastructure and raise the funds to circumvent the fickle media (including the fickle conservative media)? At the moment, that doesn’t seem to be his strategy, and if he neglects the hard work of retail politics for the allure of a pure “new media” candidacy, he’s toast.
Despite everything I said about Fred’s bad few weeks, anyone who writes him off now is hopelessly misguided. Fred Thompson can still be the nominee. He’s got undeniable charisma, he’s got better policy ideas than most of the Republican candidates, and he still seems to many Republicans to be the answer to perceived inadequacies in the current field. Combine his tremendous name recogntion advantage over Governor Romney, and you have a still-formidable (though hardly invulnerable) candidate. Staff turnover and policy missteps point to vulnerabilities in the campaign, but not necesarily to fatal flaws.
Time will tell whether the staff turnover is evidence of strong leadership (getitng the best team in place before launching an official campaign) or of worrisome and persistent disarray. Time will tell whether he will show the energy and initiative to build the kind of grassroots organizational infrastructure that raises money and gets people to the polls. Presidential campaigns aren’t won simply by appealing to bloggers (especially on the Republican side, where bloggers have a fraction of the power of their leftist counterparts). They’re still won the old-fashioned way, by moving first thousands, then tens of thousands, then hundreds of thousands, then millions of people to the polls. All that takes money and organization. Governor Romney has both, and so does Rudy. Fred doesn’t . . yet, and it will be fascinating to see if he ever will.

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