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Tuesday, September 27, 2011

A Deliberative Perspective on Presidential Campaigning

At The Washington Examiner, Byron York interviews Fred Thompson, a former senator who launched a late and unsuccessful bid for the 2008 GOP presidential nomination. Thompson makes a point that many analyses of presidential races overlook: candidates need time to think and deliberate about their positions.

There's no off-Broadway," Thompson says as he recalls the campaign's early days. "It's all compressed. You don't get a chance to knock the rough edges off."

Starting late brought a variety of troubles. "If you as a candidate have not spent the last year or two putting together your organization and lining up the key people, that's a problem," says Thompson. "It's not a date on the calendar as much as it is what you've done over the previous year. By definition, a person who is getting in late and making up his mind late has not done some of those things."

There are plenty of other issues -- raising money, lining up support, dealing with the press -- but the biggest challenge for any late candidate is the most basic one: thinking things through.

"I think a candidate under these circumstances has to have skills and equilibrium that are superior to the other candidates," Thompson explains. "You have to have time to think. You've had a lot of experience. You've had life experience, you've had government experience. What has all that taught you? You can't just relate statistics and points and employment records and promise to repeal Obamacare on day one. Those are just ornaments that you put on the tree. You need the time to think things through."

Does candidate Rick Perry give the impression of a man who has had time to think deeply about how he's running for president, or why he's doing it in the first place? The short answer is no.

Take Perry's recent problems with immigration. The Texas governor's views conflict with a significant portion of the Republican base. But what if, by the time he was attacked for those views during last week's Republican debate, Perry had been making his case for months? What if he had been answering sometimes angry immigration questions in diners and town halls across Iowa since last winter? There's no way he would have made a mistake like the "no heart" remark at the debate, which did incalculable damage to his image among conservatives.

The simple secret of campaigns is that good candidates get better with practice. Watch one give a stump speech in March, and then watch again in December, and it will likely be a lot better. There's a reason Mitt Romney's debate performances have been so much improved in this campaign than in 2007-2008. He's been working at it a long time.