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The Fred Thompson Effect

Why a dark-horse candidate can’t save the GOP.

By now, it should be obvious that anyone hoping party insiders will draft a Jeb Bush or Chris Christie or Rick Perry to rescue the lackluster Republican 2012 field from itself is living in a hopeless fantasyland. But in case you need even more evidence, consider this: Dark-horse candidates who aren’t fully committed to running for president, deep within their bones, have a terrible track record of misfires and flameouts.

We need look no further back than 2008 for a vivid historical example. That year, Republicans were in a similar mood, disenchanted for one reason or another with Giuliani, McCain, Romney, Huckabee, and the whole crew. At that point, the GOP’s brilliant backup plan was Draft Fred Thompson. His positive qualities were obvious enough: The former senator and longtime actor had a conservative enough record to be acceptable to activists without being threatening to swing voters; he seemed articulate and reasonably smart; and he was, of course, a celebrity who got to play a gruff, tough, avuncular prosecutor. He was sort of Tim Pawlenty with a growl and gravitas.

Thompson’s perceived electability was such that his putative candidacy was a much-awaited event, expected to change the dynamics of the race overnight. And once he finally announced in September of 2007—on “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno,” no less—he won a slew of early endorsements, including the coveted nods from the National Right to Life Committee and Iowa’s conservative potentate Steve King.

But it was already becoming clear that he lacked commitment. Even before his appearance on “Leno,” there were abundant signs that he wasn’t running for president so much as walking—or even riding a golf cart—with abundant stops for rest and ice cream. His first Iowa appearance, in August, was at the Iowa State Fair, a must-do for any candidate and particularly one like Thompson, who had already skipped the official Straw Poll that serves as the major fundraiser for the state GOP. With the eyes of the first-in-the-nation-caucus state on him, Big Fred showed up at the sweaty, extremely informal event sporting Gucci loafers and proceeded to spend the day tooling around the fairgrounds in the aforementioned cart—a very big no-no for anyone who wasn’t either disabled or a major Fair donor.

This turned out to be an apt harbinger of Thompson’s campaign style. In their account of the 2008 campaign, Dan Balz and Haynes Johnson summed up the problem:

His campaign went through three phases: anticipation, hype, and disappointment. He initially surrounded himself with a team that had little experience in modern presidential campaigns. They convinced him new media offered a way around the rigors of the campaign trail, which appealed to a man with a reputation in Republican circles as a not particularly hard worker. …
“Fred was sold a bill of goods about what it took to run for president,” communications director Todd Harris later told us. “He was given the distinct impression … that in 2008 all you needed to do was have a heavy blog presence, appear regularly on Fox News and specifically on Hannity & Colmes, and from time to time go out and have an event.”

Despite tons of national press, and the support of King and the NRLC, Thompson limped home with a poor third-place finish in Iowa. He then staked everything on a final effort in South Carolina, and again finished third, managing in the end simply to take votes from Huckabee and guarantee McCain a win that got him to the brink of the nomination. The whole exercise was a pointless disaster that raised the GOP’s hopes and ultimately saddled the party with a weak nominee—so weak, in fact, that McCain had to choose Sarah Palin as his running-mate in order to preserve a semblance of unity.

The truth is that Republicans ought to take a good honest look back at the Thompson campaign and ask themselves if they really want a candidate who has to be talked into running. Indeed, Fred is by no means the first to be coaxed into a race by insiders who made it sound easy to convert the acclaim of elites into caucus or primary wins. Political history is littered with Big Dogs who quickly got into trouble in the tall grass of actual nomination contests: Wilbur Mills in 1972, who won a booming 4 percent in New Hampshire; Birch Bayh in 1976, who lost with a seventh-place finish in Massachusetts; Lloyd Bentsen, who was destroyed by Jimmy Carter despite raising tons of money; John Connally, another big fundraiser who couldn’t win actual votes; Howard Baker, who dropped out after New Hampshire in 1980; and Phil Gramm, who burned out in 1996. Fred Thompson was also not the first candidate of “half a mind” to run for president whose diffidence ultimately repelled voters. Eugene McCarthy in 1968 and Bill Bradley in 2000 both famously had trouble taking their own campaigns seriously; and Nelson Rockefeller in 1968 and Ross Perot in 1992 stumbled painfully because of their indecision about whether to run at all.

The moral of the story for 2012 is that the presidential campaign trail is brutal and unforgiving—particularly right now, and particularly for Republicans. The early Republican caucuses and primaries will be dominated by conservative activists who want a crusade, not a mere political campaign, and will almost certainly punish candidates who don’t give the impression that they will fight for every vote. This is a very poor environment for a “draft,” or for a politician pretending to run, reluctantly, out of a sense of civic obligation. Even Ronald Reagan got himself into early trouble in 1980 by campaigning as though voters owed him the nomination, with bands playing “Hail to the Chief” before every speech. He lost Iowa that year, and had to run a savagely ideological campaign in New Hampshire in order to recover.

So as the days rush by and this already slow-to-develop Republican nomination contest begins in earnest, insiders hoping for dark horse salvation need to get a grip and realize that it’s very unlikely they’ll be saved from this field by Christie or Jebbie or Petraeus or Rubio or Perry. All the hype in the world can’t replace commitment and extra time spent in church basements or living rooms in Pella and Nashua and Spartanburg. Just ask Fred Thompson.

Ed Kilgore is a special correspondent for The New Republic.

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