Can he get away with it?

Fred Thompson refuses to confirm or deny lobbying for abortion rights. Can he succeed again in substituting folksy b.s. for a simple answer to a simple question? Maybe.

Fred Thompson is backing away from his campaign’s flat denial that he lobbied for an abortion-rights group. But he’s not making a frank avowal, either. He’s ducking, just he way he ducked the question of his use of illegally imported Cuban cigars.

Thompson gave an oblique response when asked about the matter, first reported by the Los Angeles Times.

“I’d just say the flies get bigger in the summertime. I guess the flies are buzzing,” said Thompson, who is considering running for president as a social conservative. He refused comment on whether he recalled doing the work.

That’s much more long-winded and less convincing than “No,” so I can only conclude that Thompson now figures that he can’t make “No” stand up. (He has to worry not only about his law firm’s billing records but about the White House visitor logs.) So he’s going all folksy on us again.

That leaves the wingnuts who denounced the whole thing as a hoax looking remarkably silly (not that they care). It also makes a liar out of John Sununu and either a liar or a dupe out of the Thompson campaign spokesgeek quoted in the original L.A. Times story. (Have you noticed the current crop of Republicans suffers from a deficiency of loyalty-down?)

But that doesn’t mean Thompson won’t get away with it. It depends on whether one of his rivals decides to make a point of it (with McCain the most likely), whether one of the anti-abortion groups gets fed up (which seems implausible with Rudy McRomney as the alternative), and, finally, whether the press corps keeps the pressure on or goes back to asking tough, substantive questions about John Edwards’s haircut.

Thompson might very well get away with it after all. Remember, the electorate Thompson needs to appeal to &#8212 the Republican base &#8212 has a well-developed capacity for believing six impossible things before breakfast. So if he never frankly admits what he did, they’ll do their level best to disbelieve it. Thompson is betting that he can get away without ever actually confirming or denying anything, as he seems to have done on the question of his collaboration with Richard Nixon’s conspiracy to obstruct justice.

A comparable story about a Democrat would be endlessly repeated within the Drudge/Fox News/Limbaugh echo chamber, which would lead reporters from more respectable media to treat it as part of the ongoing narrative. But there’s no equivalent mechanism at work on the other side; bloggers and Media Matters and Olberman simply don’t have the weight to keep a story alive if the reporters following a candidate want it to die.

Lest you think I’m being unfair to the relevant electorate, here’s the full text of a note from one of my more polite and literate right-wing readers:

I suppose the story could be true, but they’d better cough up some confirmation from somebody who wouldn’t mind a Republican being elected President, before expecting any Republicans to buy it. After the Rather forgery case, those minutes aren’t going to persuade many people, either, unless they’re notarized. That “fake but accurate” business has got conservatives somewhat dubious of convenient documents.

Personally, doesn’t bother me a bit, because it’s only late term abortions, and circumventions of parental responsibility, that bother me. I’m smack in the middle of THIS fight. Makes me like Thompson more, if anything.

Or to put that in English: “This story is probably false, and I completely approve of what Thompson probably didn’t do.” That’s the mentality we’re up against. They’re desperate. That’s one reason I think the Democrats should nominate a candidate who will help de-mobilize the wingnuts, instead of a candidate who will help mobilize them.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com