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The costs of lobbying

August 15, 2007 |  2:15 pm

Washington's traditional career path is politician-turned-lobbyist. Fred Thompson, when he finally enters the Republican presidential race, will test the political cost of following the opposite route.

Before he won his Senate seat from Tennessee in 1994, Thompson toiled for years as a lawyer who specialized in greasing the wheels of government (while also beginning his acting career). Today, Politico.com spotlights a controversial project he promoted, which it characterizes as "one of his home state’s biggest government-funded boondoggles."

The Politico's Kenneth P. Vogel gets to the nub of the challenge looming for Thompson in writing: "It’s a part of his past that runs counter to the fiscally conservative outsider image he’s seeking to cast as he positions himself for an all-but-certain bid for the Republican presidential nomination."

The venture in question is the Clinch River nuclear breeder reactor, an experimental enterprise near and dear to the heart of Thompson's political benefactor, former Sen. Howard Baker (R-Tenn.). The project was authorized in 1970 as a potential boon to the nation's energy concerns (yes, that issue has been around for a while). But the plug was pulled 1983 -- after, Vogel reports, "taxpayers had sunk into it $1.7 billion, more than four times the original estimate, and were left with only a giant hole in the ground to show for it."

We're not sure how strongly the specifics of the Clinch River matter will resonate in the current campaign; the fight over it is long since forgotten and we're sure ...

it still has its defenders (Thompson presumably among them).

Still, it will be interesting to watch how aggressively his rivals use Thompson's past against him. And, more important, what voters make of it at a time when the label "lobbyist" carries the taint of the Jack Abramoff scandal.

The first flap to surround Thompson during his slow dance into the presidential contest, of course, sprang from his lobbying activities -- The Times' report that in the early 1990s he was hired by a family-planning group to try to ease a federal abortion restriction.

The disclosure seemed to cause little damage to Thompson's standing among the social conservatives who will be crucial to his White House bid. Most of these activists have focused on the solidly antiabortion record he compiled in the Senate and his comments that his commitment to this cause is even stronger now.

But Thompson and his staff handled the initial stages of the abortion story poorly, raising questions that persist about whether he can effectively organize and oversee a presidential campaign. And the Politico story suggests that more instances may surface in which Thompson's stand on the issues do not square with his efforts as an influence peddler.

As one of his supporters told Politico: “This is the problem with lobbying: It may have been lucrative, but it makes it hard to be true to your school."

-- Don Frederick

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