How conservative is Fred Thompson?

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After John East, a stalwart conservative from North Carolina, entered the U.S. Senate in 1981, wags began referring to Jesse Helms as “the liberal senator from the Tar Heel state.” We are reminded of this tale as Republican activists rush to encourage, if not yet fully embrace, the presidential candidacy of Fred Thompson, the former senator from Tennessee. The Republican base is evidently unimpressed or uninspired (or both) by the conservative credentials of the top three Republicans (John McCain, Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani) seeking the 2008 presidential nomination.

Mr. Thompson’s most-oft-cited conservative credential is his 86.1 percent lifetime (1995-2002) Senate vote rating compiled by the American Conservative Union (ACU), the organization that many rightly consider a leading arbiter of conservatism. In the same relative sense that Mr. Helms could be considered North Carolina’s “liberal senator,” Mr. Thompson’s ACU rating would qualify him to be “the liberal senator from Tennessee” during his eight-year stint. Bill Frist, who defeated Democratic incumbent Jim Sasser, was elected to the Senate from Tennessee the same year (1994) as Mr. Thompson, who won the seat vacated in 1993 by then-Vice President Gore. During the eight years they represented Tennessee together, Mr. Frist compiled an ACU rating of 89.3 percent, making Mr. Thompson “the liberal senator from the Volunteer state.” Moreover, during Mr. Thompson’s last two years in the Senate (2001-02), his ACU ratings (84 and 89) were well below Mr. Frist’s (100 and 100). Just as Mr. Thompson was departing, Mr. Frist became Senate majority leader, where he maintained his ACU lifetime (87.8 percent) edge over his former colleague.

Another conservative gauge is the annual Senate vote rating compiled by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. For the 1995-2002 period, Mr. Frist compiled an average Chamber rating of 97.5 percent, more than 10 points higher than Mr. Thompson’s 86.9 lifetime Chamber rating. There was much speculation that Mr. Frist would seek the presidential nomination after leaving the Senate last year. Interestingly, the same conservative cohorts that are now encouraging Mr. Thompson showed zero enthusiasm for a Frist candidacy.

The National Journal provides another informative ideological gauge of a senator’s voting record. NJ’s annual scorecard selects scores of Senate votes and divides them among social, economic and foreign-policy themes. The publication ranks the entire Senate in each area, determining that each senator is “more liberal” or “more conservative” than X-percentage of the entire Senate. Then the NJ compiles composite liberal and conservative scores encompassing all three areas and ranks the Senate accordingly.

During his eight-year Senate career, Mr. Thompson displayed a relatively more conservative record on foreign-policy issues than on economic and social issues. Specifically, in the foreign-policy area for four of those years, Mr. Thompson voted identically with an average of 20 other (presumably Republican) senators, placing him at the top of the conservative continuum. On economic issues, during three of his last four years, NJ determined that Mr. Thompson was “more liberal” than 37 percent of his Senate colleagues in 1999, 35 percent in 2001 and 34 percent in 2002. On social issues, Mr. Thompson joined 21 colleagues in 2001 and 38 other senators in 2002 in compiling the most conservative voting record each of those two years. However, NJ reported that his voting record on social issues was “more liberal” than that of 26 percent of his colleagues in 1995, 28 percent in 1998 and 38 percent in both 1996 and 2000.

During his eight years in the Senate, based upon his annual composite conservative scores that encompassed all three areas, the National Journal ranked Mr. Thompson along the conservative continuum as follows: He was the 15th most conservative senator (out of 54 Republicans) in 1995, 30th in 1996, 17th (out of 55) in 1997, 16th in 1998, 20th (out of 55) in 1999 and 25th (out of 49) in 2001. In neither 2000 nor 2002 was he among the top 20. Interestingly, during Mr. Thompson’s last two years, Mr. Frist was the fifth most conservative senator in 2001 and ninth most conservative in 2002.

Probably Mr. Thompson’s most serious and most repeated transgression against conservative orthodoxy was his habitual embrace of the various renditions of the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance “reform” legislation, which he not infrequently characterized as “McCain-Feingold-Thompson.” In fact, although the Politico reported June 13 that Mr. Thompson’s spokesman claimed the former senator had a 100 percent voting record from the National Right to Life (NRTL) organization, NRTL’s Web site reports that Mr. Thompson received scores of 87 percent (1997-1998), 78 percent (1999-2000) and 33 percent (2001-2002). Every wrong vote involved McCain-Feingold-Thompson. NRTL convincingly argues that McCain-Feingold-Thompson places a muzzle on the group’s free-speech rights at the most critical period of all — election time. Indeed, in his June 18 Newsweek column, “Of Tulips and Fred Thompson,” George Will described Mr. Thompson’s fascination with campaign-finance “reform” as follows: “Although Thompson presents himself as a strict constitutionalist and an advocate of limited government, he voted for, and still supports, the McCain-Feingold law, which empowers the government to regulate the quantity, content and timing of speech about government.” Interestingly, Mr. Frist compiled 100 percent ratings from NRTL for each of those three periods.

Finally, compared to Mr. Thompson’s lifetime ACU rating of 86.1 and Mr. Frist’s 87.8, worth noting is Arizona Sen. John McCain’s 82.3. Also worth noting are the lifetime ACU ratings of so-called “second-tier” Republican presidential candidates: Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback, 94.0; California Rep. Duncan Hunter, 92.0; Colorado Rep. Tom Tancredo, 97.8; and Texas Rep. Ron Paul, 82.3.

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