Sixty-three Republican members of the House of Representatives showed up at the Capitol Hill Club in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday afternoon to hear from Fred Thompson, the former Tennessee Senator and potential presidential candidate. Thompson spoke and took questions for a little more than an hour.
"I've not been pleased with the field of presidential candidates on our side," says Representative Lynn Westmoreland, a second-term Congressman from Georgia who attended the meeting. Westmoreland had been impressed with Thompson after his March 11 appearance on "Fox News Sunday" with Chris Wallace. Westmoreland says his view of the field reflects the consensus of his constituents. "I just don't see any excitement from people at home, at county meetings and other events."
Thompson talked about the issues that he has said will be the focus of his campaign if he decides to run — entitlement reform and national security, chief among them. He also took questions about other issues including abortion and immigration as the attendees sought to get a better sense of his brand of Republican politics.
Thompson contrasted the fever in the country about global warming with the relative lack of public interest in entitlement reform. We are so alarmed by a problem that we know so little about, he said, but we won't do anything about this problem that we know for certain we'll have to address at some point. (For those who think Thompson might run as a more conservative version of John McCain, who Thompson supported in 2000, global warming could be an interesting difference between the two men.)
On national security, Thompson reiterated his commitment to winning the war on terror and said the question in a post-Iraq world would be whether we would be living in a dangerous world or a very dangerous world.
On immigration, as on several other issues, Thompson did not lay out a specific policy proposal. Instead, he spoke in general terms. Thompson said that he does not believe it is possible to have a secure country without secure borders, a position that pleased many of the House Republicans for whom immigration is a "burning issue." He also said he would oppose any plan to offer blanket amnesty to illegal immigrants currently in the United States. But Thompson told the group that simply deporting those illegals is not a practical solution.
And on abortion, his comments echoed those he gave to The Weekly Standard last week, when I asked about press reports from his first Senate campaign in 1994 that identified him as pro-choice. Thompson said: "I have read these accounts and tried to think back 13 years ago as to what may have given rise to them. Although I don't remember it, I must have said something to someone as I was getting my campaign started that led to a story. Apparently, another story was based upon that story, and then another was based upon that, concluding I was pro-choice." He added: "I was interviewed and rated pro-life by the National Right to Life folks in 1994, and I had a 100-percent voting record on abortion issues while in the Senate."
Thompson will remain busy as he approaches a decision. In the next several weeks, he plans to post more political commentary on blogs and will continue to travel giving speeches to business and civic groups. On May 4, Thompson will speak to Orange County Republicans, an appearance in front of a politically powerful group that other campaigns had aggressively sought.
In a phone interview shortly after Thompson left Capitol Hill, Representative Westmoreland said that his colleagues left impressed. "He didn't dance around any issue," Westmoreland says. "There was no 'BS-ing' around."
Westmoreland was careful to point out that Thompson did not tell the group that he was running. And the Georgia congressman said that even after hearing yesterday's session he would not be surprised if Thompson chose not to run. But his sense is that Thompson is preparing to run.
"If someone calls you and asks you whether they should get married or run for office, they've probably already made their mind up."
By Stephen F. Hayes