Fred Thompson Button

Former Tennessee senator Fred Dalton Thompson is tantalizingly close to announcing that he will run for the Republican nomination for president. (Yes he’s testing the water, Thompson likes to say, and “the water is warm.”)

Photo: Churchhouse Creative

With the actor/politician all but in the race, the press has been busy scouring Thompson’s political history. Divining Thompson’s true politics has become a summertime parlor game. The senator donated his files to the University of Tennessee, and so reporters have been busily thumbing through 400 boxes of Thompson’s papers.

Most of the stories we’ve seen have been about Thompson’s positions on clear-cut issues that define social conservatives. Was Thompson really (and truly) anti-abortion? Thompson has fully supported the right to bear arms, it seems. And so it goes, on down the list of the red-hot topics that seem to roast American politics these days.

The Daily Yonder enjoys parlor games as much as anybody — who’s for some dominos? — but we’re more interested in what a Fred Thompson presidency would mean for rural America. The hulking (six foot-five) actor is the son of the rural South, born in Sheffield, Alabama, and reared in the small town of Lawrenceburg, Tennessee. He’s got the Bubba look down cold — or at least Bubba who’s rich enough to smoke fine cigars. His “broad, drooping features,” Michelle Cottle wrote, “bring to mind a bear crossed with a basset hound.”

Fred Thompson

Thompson’s looks “bring to mind a bear,” (Smokey?) “crossed with a basset hound”

So, was Fred Thompson really a conservative? Well, yes, he was (is), at least according to the nation’s best accounting of congressional voting records. At the end of each Congress, Keith Poole, now at the University of California at San Diego, and Howard Rosenthal (Princeton) rank each member, from the most liberal to the most conservative. In the 107th Congress, Thompson’s last in the Senate, he ranked as the 85th most conservative out of 102 senators. (There was some turnover during the two years, 2001 and 2002, so a couple of extra senators were tossed into the mix.)

Fred Thompson was more conservative than John McCain (57th), Orrin Hatch of Utah (82nd), Mitch McConnell of Kentucky (80th) and Chuck Hagel of Nebraska (83rd). He was less conservative than Kansas’s Sam Brownback (86th), Rick Santorum (tied with Brownback) or Mississippi’s Trent Lott (91st).

The Yonder has not found much that would predict Thompson’s rural agenda — besides the hound dog looks and world-class drawl. As senator, Thompson voted for the farm bill in ’96, but in 2002 he was a leading opponent, denouncing the revised legislation as “a grab bag of regional special interests.”

Fred Thompson's red truck

Thompson adopted a red truck as his campaign vehicle

There was a partisan divide over the ’02 farm bill. Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, a Democrat from South Dakota and a champion of the farm bill, called it “a message of hope to the farmers and ranchers of this country.” A majority of Republicans voted against the measure (including presidential candidates Sam Brownbeck and Sen. John McCain). Thompson was outspoken in his opposition. “These policies defy logic, and they defy the most basic laws of economics,” said Sen. Fred Thompson (R-Tenn), adding that they will make farmers “increasingly dependent on government subsidies.”

Thompson also voted against a resolution (offered by Minnesota’s Paul Wellstone) supporting the 2000 Rally for Rural America. The rally came during an extreme farm crisis and was organized by the National Farmers Union (among others). Commodity prices had dropped through the floor and farmers were hurting. Thompson was the only senator not to support the resolution.
What else? Well, the Yonder couldn’t find much. Perhaps readers can help us here. What has Fred Thompson done — and what would he do — for rural communities?

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