Fred Thompson on Federalism

I have initially been moderately discomfited but at the same time fascinated with the phenomenon of Fred Thompson being wooed by social conservatives to seek the Presidency. Note that Thompson has still not even so much as formed an exploratory committee and his current early-season popularity with GOP voters is largely a reflection of dissatisfaction with the socially tolerant politics that the current front-runners are bringing to the table.

It’s facile, though, to suggest that this much sustained excitement and interest can have gone unnoticed, and Thompson has been making moves that seem to be clearing the way for his path to seek the nomination. At the same time, it’s clear that Thompson’s a pretty smart guy, and he must realize that he needs to reach out to more than just social conservatives to actually win the nomination. So, he writes in National Review Online this little bit, nicely calculated to appeal to Republicans like me, who care less about social issues and more about seeing things get done in the right way by people with principles:

Republicans have struggled in recent years, because they have strayed from basic principles. Federalism is one of those principles. It is something we all give lip service to and then proceed to ignore when it serves our purposes. [¶] Adhering to the principles of federalism is not easy. As one who was on the short end of a couple of 99-1 votes, I can personally attest to it. Federalism sometimes restrains you from doing things you want to do. You have to leave the job to someone else — who may even choose not to do it at all. However, if conservatives abandon this valued principle that limits the federal government, or if we selectively use it as a tool with which to reward our friends and strike our enemies, then we will be doing a disservice to our country as well as the cause of conservatism.

It’s worth noting that Thompson at least claims to have put his money where his mouth is on this issue, and that he does seem to continue to take heat from some conservatives for voting against the party line because of federalism principles. I’ve not looked in depth at all of his voting record, but his article was mainly about tort reform. This is (or at least it ought to be) almost purely a state-level debate; the Federal government properly should have little to say about tort law in most situations. Thompson should be commended for being willing to swim against the tide and stand on Constitutional grounds rather than doing what is politically popular (at least within his party).

It’s also worth noting that Thompson, as have many conservative luminaries before him, is critical of the way that Republicans have chosen to govern in recent years. So I feel better about the possibility of a Thompson candidacy now for two reasons — first, he’s made a creditable case for himself as being willing to defend and fight for his principles against all comers, and second, his principles seem to have a substantial root in an understanding of the Constitution, which is one of those things that I happen to think is very good and worth defending.

Burt Likko

Pseudonymous Portlander. Homebrewer. Atheist. Recovering litigator. Recovering Republican. Recovering Catholic. Recovering divorcé. Recovering Former Editor-in-Chief of Ordinary Times. House Likko's Words: Scite Verum. Colite Iusticia. Vivere Con Gaudium.