Is Fred Thompson a Small-Government Conservative?

With former Tennessee senator Fred Thompson creeping ever closer to a formal announcement that he will run for president, it is worth asking whether he is the genuine small-government conservative that has been missing from the top tier of the Republican field (with all due apologies to Ron Paul). A preliminary look at his record suggests that while he is not quite the second coming of Barry Goldwater or Ronald Reagan, he may be much better on most issues than the alternatives.

During his eight years in the Senate, Thompson had a solid record as a fiscal conservative. The National Taxpayers Union gives him the third highest marks of any candidate (trailing only Paul and Rep. Tom Tancredo). While he sponsored or cosponsored legislation over the course of his career that would have resulted in a net increase in federal spending of $3.1 billion, that is the smallest increase among the contenders. (By comparison, John McCain would have increased spending by $36.9 billion). He generally shared McCain’s opposition to pork barrel spending and earmarks, and voted against the 2002 farm bill. He voted for the Bush tax cuts and has generally been solid in support of tax reduction.

He has been a consistent supporter of entitlement reform, voting to means-test Medicare and supporting personal accounts for Social Security.

His record on free trade is solid. In the past he has been supportive of comprehensive immigration reform, but has been critical of the current bill, shifting toward a “control the borders first” position. Still, he has not been Tancredo-like in his anti-immigration statements.

On federalism, there may be no better candidate. His Senate record is replete with examples of his being the lone opponent of legislation that he thought undercut federalist principles. He took this position even on legislation that was otherwise supported by conservatives. He opposes federal action to prohibit gay marriage on federalist grounds, although he supports state bans. One blight on this record is his vote in favor of No Child Left Behind.

On the other hand, he supported McCain-Feingold, although he has now backed away from that position, suggesting the law has been overtaken by events. He told John Fund that he was now willing to consider scrapping campaign finance in favor of full disclosure. And his position on civil liberties generally is troubling. He supported the anti-flag burning constitutional amendment and expansion of federal police powers generally. So far he has given no suggestion that he breaks with the Bush administration on important issues like habeas corpus, torture, and surveillance.

On foreign policy he has been a hawk, and supports continuing the war in Iraq. Alas, that seems standard for the GOP these days, but Thompson appears to also take the neoconservative line on Iran, North Korea, and China. It’s hard to be a small-government conservative while favoring widespread military intervention. War is a big-government program.

Of course, spending the last several years in Hollywood has enabled Thompson to avoid taking positions on many current issues. Once he gets in the race, Thompson will have to be much more specific about his positions. But, given the fact that McCain, Romney, and Giuliani are clearly big-government conservatives, Thompson has an opportunity to seize the small-government mantle.