Fred Thompson ended his presidential campaign today. He should have issued a product recall.
Thompson’s flaw was not that he lacked ideas. Conservatives liked his views on immigration, and he was serious about Social Security reform. He was more candid than his rivals when he talked about managing the growth and cost of entitlements. He even turned out to be an occasionally spirited political presence at debates, when he let the inner Cranky Fred slip out.
The problem with Thompson’s run was that the candidate didn’t want to campaign all that much. This was the big rap against him when he flirted with entering the race during the summer, and it turned out to be true. A loss for Thompson’s campaign is a victory for conventional wisdom. Much of it has been proved wrong this campaign season (McCain’s doomed! Obama’s doomed! Hillary’s doomed!), but here is one piece of professional political thinking that withstood confrontation with reality: You must show an interest in running for the most powerful office in the world to gain that office.
Thompson’s campaign was highly anticipated because so many in the GOP were unhappy with the crop of candidates which seemed to lack a complete conservative, but from the start, Thompson seemed to be stuck in a state of repose. His announcement in Iowa, held before an imposing set of columns and faux stone that looked like the facade of a small bank, stirred little more excitement than if he’d been offering free checking. More lounge-worthy moments followed. At Florida’s state GOP convention, where candidates had to pay for time before the crowd of 4,000, Thompson’s rivals gave passionate speeches. Thompson spoke for a lean and uninspiring five minutes. The press copies of his daily schedule always looked like they’d been handed out with a couple of the pages missing. The candidate seemed like he might just show up for events in sweat pants. On the day of the Iowa caucus, I told a senior Thompson aide that Bill Richardson had a superstition about campaigning on Election Day. “Don’t let Thompson hear that,” the aide joked. “He’ll cancel his events for the day.”
At the outset, this was all part of Thompson’s sell. He was convinced that he could blow off a lot of the old-fashioned requirements of campaigning—the baby kissing, the pancake flipping—by getting out the word on the Internet, talk radio, and Fox News. But given the hype leading up to his official run—he briefly led national and key state polls—Thompson rarely met expectations in any medium. “I haven’t come across anyone who has said, ‘Wow, that Fred Thompson!’ after seeing him,” New Hampshire Republican state Rep. Fran Wendelboe told me in mid-October, a sentiment I heard repeated in future conversations.
Putting time and energy into a campaign is helpful not only because it shows voters you want the job, but also because it gets a candidate comfortable with the daily rhythm of campaigning. It may have been that Thompson’s real problem was that he was too methodical rather than lazy. After his late start, he buried himself in briefing books—reading in-depth on issues as far afield as space policy. The study time limited (or gave him an excuse to limit) his exposure to actual voters. Thompson liked to joke that voters never dropped a candidate because he was late getting into the race, but voters also don’t sign on to a candidate they’ve never seen or heard. Thompson won some favorable reviews for his last debate, when he was more polished than in his previous showings. If he’d caught his stride a month or two months earlier, he might have sparked that kind of interest when it counted.
Thompson has not said whether he’ll endorse another candidate. He certainly seemed to help his old friend John McCain out in South Carolina by eating into Mike Huckabee’s vote among conservatives. A Thompson endorsement could probably help McCain in the closely fought Florida primary on Jan. 29. But Thompson is too preoccupied for the moment with his mother, who is sick, to be issuing any endorsements. But even if he weren’t, we’ve learned that Fred Thompson does things at his own pace.