The conventional wisdom during the opening months of the 2008 presidential campaign has been that the campaign has started far too early, leaving us endless months of jockeying that could prove meaningless when the real struggle for the nominations starts.
The problem with this is that it’s no longer true, despite our repetitions of it. Yes, this campaign began earlier than most. Yes, by the time it’s over it will have lasted nearly two years. But we are well into it now, and in some respects this year’s race is actually beginning to fall behind the kind of campaign schedule that has become the norm in the past few decades.
This is especially true when it comes to defining campaign themes and messages, and particularly on the Republican side. Every serious presidential campaign needs at some point to define a candidate’s ambitions in a clear thematic way: to offer a general vision for governing, followed by particular policy proposals. In the 2000 campaign, for instance, George W. Bush ran on a new way to think about how government can work with civic organizations to revitalize civil society and help the poor. Bush laid this out as the vision of his presidential campaign in a major speech in Indianapolis, which really marked the beginning of the substantive stage of the 2000 GOP race; McCain was by then already working out the substance of his “straight talk” theme as well.
Bush’s speech is well worth a read, especially for those conservatives who think they remember what “compassionate conservatism” meant as Bush originally used it, or who want to apply the term to everything they haven’t liked about the Bush years. But the most striking thing about the speech may be the date of its delivery: July 22, 1999. More than eight years ago; earlier in that election cycle than we are now in ours. The Democratic candidates this year have begun to do some of this kind of the thematic and substantive work—Edwards and Obama, in particular. But neither the serious Republican contenders nor Hillary Clinton (so in other words none of the people likely to be elected President) have really done anything like this yet. All have given some policy speeches, yes, and some have released what passes for specific policy proposals here and there, but none have really offered an overarching definition of themselves in terms of a vision of governing, or of purpose.
Perhaps Fred Thompson, who brings less of a personal story and less political experience to bear than most others, plans to introduce himself this way, and run on an idea rather than on…whatever it is that the current crop of Republicans is running on. It is no longer too early to be seriously running for President in 2008. It is beginning to be too late.