Thompson not always at conservative core

Times Staff Writer

At the pinnacle of Fred D. Thompson’s career in the Senate, a conservative activist was so disappointed in him that he put the Tennessee Republican on a “wanted” poster. Trent Lott of Mississippi, the GOP leader of the Senate, was fuming at him. Republican colleagues were steamed when Thompson threw his weight behind a campaign finance bill that conservatives loathed.

“Has Fred Thompson Blown It?” blared a headline in a conservative magazine, accusing him of squandering an opportunity to use a set of 1997 hearings to nail Democrats for illegal fundraising.

A decade later, as Thompson prepares to formally announce his bid for the 2008 presidential nomination, he is being promoted as a godsend for conservatives dissatisfied with the established field of Republican candidates.

But during his eight-year Senate career, his only stint in elected office, Thompson was far from a champion of the party’s conservative core. In fact, in the two enterprises where he made his biggest mark -- the fundraising hearings of 1997 and the successful drive for campaign finance overhaul -- Thompson infuriated conservatives.


While he compiled a largely conservative voting record, he also carved out a maverick profile akin to that of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), with whom he co-sponsored a landmark campaign finance measure along with Sen. Russell D. Feingold (D-Wis.).

Ironically, in the 2008 campaign, conservatives are looking to Thompson as an alternative to McCain and other GOP candidates whom they consider unreliable allies on key issues.

An actor, lawyer and lobbyist, Thompson seems to have earned more forgiveness than McCain for breaking with conservative dogma, in part because his maverick streak was tempered by an easygoing manner and a willingness to stick with the GOP on most issues. But it may also be because conservatives who back him now know less about Thompson’s Senate record than they do about his performance as a district attorney in the television hit “Law & Order.”

“He carries the same baggage that McCain carries,” said James Bopp Jr., an antiabortion activist who is backing former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney for the GOP nomination. “Time does dim memories, and people need to be reminded of his support for McCain-Feingold.”

“Thompson had a chance to show leadership and did not,” said Larry Klayman, the conservative lawyer who issued the “wanted” poster to criticize Thompson for not running more aggressive hearings on President Clinton’s fundraising.

“I would not vote for him for president.”

That statement underscores one of the biggest questions confronting Thompson: Will conservatives continue to be attracted to him once they know more about his record?

Campaign finance was not the only issue that put Thompson at odds with conservatives during his Senate years.


When the Senate voted in 1998 on impeaching Clinton on charges arising from his affair with an intern, Thompson was one of 10 Republicans who voted against conviction on one of the two counts.

And Thompson, a former trial lawyer, opposed elements of a GOP effort to curb lawsuits.

Also, though he voted with conservatives on many social issues, he did not put those issues front and center.

Abortion may prove to be an unexpectedly touchy area. He built a consistent antiabortion voting record in the Senate, but he also opposed a constitutional amendment to ban abortion.


And questions about his commitment to the antiabortion cause have arisen from claims by a family-planning group and others, reported in Saturday’s Los Angeles Times, that Thompson took a paid assignment in 1991 to lobby the administration of President George H. W. Bush to loosen an abortion restriction.

Lately, Thompson has been backpedaling on his support for the McCain-Feingold measure -- which sought to limit the influence of big campaign donors in politics -- saying that some parts of the law were not working as he hoped.

But Sen. Thompson was a central architect, not a casual supporter, of the measure. Republican leaders and conservative activist groups bitterly opposed the measure, which they believed would disproportionately hurt the GOP and its allies.

Thompson’s focus on government overhaul was a logical outgrowth of his first run for the Senate, in 1994. Though he had spent years as a lobbyist and was a senior Senate aide in the 1970s, Thompson ran as a reformoriented outsider railing against the Washington establishment. He was not seen as a hard-line conservative but as more moderate in style and politics, in the mold of his Tennessee mentor Sen. Howard H. Baker Jr.


Even before he was sworn in, a former aide said, Thompson decided to sign on to McCain-Feingold. McCain had a desk next to Thompson’s on the Senate floor and became a good friend. When the campaign finance bill was formally introduced in late 1995, Thompson was one of the few original Republicans co-sponsors.

When the measure was on the Senate floor in 2001, Thompson was part of a core group of about 10 senators that met every morning to strategize before the day’s debate. He was so wedded to the issue that he sometimes complained that his name was not included in its moniker, according to a Senate aide who worked with him on the legislation. And when the law was challenged before the Supreme Court, he filed a friend-of-the-court brief supporting it.

Thompson also entered the money-in-politics debate in 1997, when he oversaw hearings by the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee into alleged fundraising abuses by Democrats during the 1996 campaign. When Lott picked him to head the investigation, Thompson seemed like the perfect choice: He brought the star power of his acting career and the gravitas of his experience on the staff of the Watergate committee.

Republicans hoped the hearings would hit political pay dirt -- a scandal “bigger than Watergate,” as then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) put it -- by probing claims of access-peddling by the Clinton White House and efforts to funnel foreign cash into Democratic campaigns.


The way Thompson conducted the hearings may raise questions about whether he has the zest for cut-and-thrust partisanship that many conservatives want in their leaders: Although conservatives wanted to keep the focus on Clinton and the Democrats, Thompson defied Lott and broadened the scope of the investigation, giving Democrats opportunities to question GOP practices.

Among the witnesses called was former Republican Party Chairman Haley Barbour, who had to answer questions about accepting a foreign-backed loan to a GOP policy arm. Thompson allowed Democrats to subpoena conservative groups such as the Christian Coalition and the National Right to Life Committee. The groups’ leaders were furious.

“It was a highly objectionable investigation,” said Bopp, who represented those groups and refused to comply with the subpoenas, without any consequence from the committee. “It was a fishing expedition, highly intrusive and unconstitutional.”

Some conservatives were so disappointed in the hearings that they changed the nickname of Thompson’s chief counsel, Michael J. Madigan, from “Mad Dog” -- a nod to his aggressive style in the Watergate probe -- to “Poodle.”


Just when the hearings seemed about to bear fruit, Thompson shifted the focus to campaign finance proposals. That is when the Weekly Standard magazine ran its article saying Thompson had “blown it.” Lott fumed. The hearings concluded several weeks early without producing the kind of high-level smoking gun that Republicans had hoped for.

Some critics at the time said that Thompson was trying in the hearings to strike a bipartisan good-government tone to advance his own presidential ambitions. Others said Thompson was damaging himself.

“One of the qualities conservative Republican voters like in a politician is a willingness, even an eagerness, to stand his ground and take the heat from the liberally biased press,” said the Weekly Standard. “Getting a reputation as an establishmentarian good guy doesn’t cut it with the Christian Coalition.”

But then-Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), who was critical of Thompson’s handling of the hearings and bitterly opposed the McCain-Feingold measure, said recently that he and other conservatives might be willing to forgive those chapters of Thompson’s Senate career and consider supporting him for president.


Unlike McCain, Santorum said, Thompson has not “made a career of poking conservative colleagues in the eye.”