Ballooning Drama:

April 22, 2007

Fred Thompson Tests the Political Breeze

On April 11, 2007 Fred Thompson, the former Tenn. senator and current Law & Order regular, announced with great import that he had fought off lymphoma. What was his play? A Lantern : a voluntary disclosure of less-than-flattering facts which clears the air. (You say it was also a Screen on Elizabeth Edwards” cancer fight? You get an A today.)

On April 18, 2007 Thompson met privately with 50 House Republicans on Capitol Hill. Though the doors were closed, the media were invited to stand outside them. So what was the play? A Peacock , performed with appropriate restraint but surely staged to show off Thompson’s rising appeal as a potential presidential candidate.

These two mini-dramas supported a broader strategy well known to politicos as a Trial Balloon : an idea lofted into the public sphere to gauge reaction while preserving a credible or graceful exit. It’s a testing play, used to assess a marketplace and, usually, lay the groundwork for bigger plans.

Thompson’s balloon is soaring of course. He currently places third, fourth or fifth in preference polls of likely GOP primary voters. But how can this be when there are already a dozen declared and likely candidates in the Republican race? What”s the key?

In a word, Fred Thompson’s competitive advantage is theatre.

He is auditioning for the role so many Republicans love: that of a solid conservative who adores and protects his countrymen and abhors and prosecutes his enemies. Thompson can play a convincing Ronald Reagan. It is precisely the role former Virginia Senator George Allen sought, and might have won, had he not confused the two. His Macaca blunder was, for the record, an infamously botched Call Out .

Of course, a player can check the weather too many times. Thompson and his Tennessee brain trust of former Senators Howard Baker and Bill Frist, current Senator Lamar Alexander, Rep. Zach Wamp, and others know this. A prolonged overture quickly translates into a self-indulgent ego trip and, worse, a reputation for indecisiveness.

Look for framing plays – Filters , Recasts , Labels and Screens – that position and condition the waiting Senator and answer the ultimate question, “Why I am running for president?”

Posted by Alan Kelly and Michael Cornfield