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Not with a bang, but a whimper

January 19, 2008

So long, Fred; we hardly even knew ye.

Well, that's not entirely accurate -- we knew you far better than we've known many a politician who's thrown his hat in the Presidential ring in years past (or even this year; see "Hunter, Duncan" or "Gravel, Mike" for examples).

We knew you well enough that, when it seemed that the Republican field needed a White Knight to ride in on a shiny steed and save it (and us) from itself, we didn't call on Newt Gingrich or Jeb Bush; we called on you.

We supported you through the flirtations with running for office. At first, it was understandable. After all, you're a family man, with young children and a comfortable day job, and it would have been far too much to ask for you to simply shelve all of that for the high-stress life of the Presidential candidate without giving the matter a second thought. Whatever your decision, though, you knew that rank-and-file Republicans the country over were calling out your name, and were ready to pledge their support to you should you agree to throw your hat into the ring for the nation's highest office.

We waited with bated breath, as expected announcement date after expected announcement date passed by, with little or no action on your part. As the summer wore on, and gave itself over to autumn, though, the game became a bit less enjoyable for the rest of us.

Like the townspeople who tired of hearing the young sheepherder cry "Wolf!" over and over again when there was no such threat to his flock, those who had supported you wholeheartedly at the beginning of this process began to waver in their commitment, and the field of "FredHeads," as so many of those enthusiastic supporters called themselves, began to dwindle.

During the run-up to your candidacy, you said all of the right things. Appearing on ABC Radio, on the Sunday shows, and at speaking engagements, you spoke to the parts of us on the conservative end of the spectrum that weren't being spoken to by the other candidates. Immigration reform, strength in prosecuting the war on terror, a return to Federalism -- all issues for which you were the most articulate, and (it appeared) most viable, spokesman.

Finally, in September, you made the announcement that so many had been dying to hear in April, in May, even in July. At that point, though, it was too late for any but the most dynamic of campaigners to make up the ground lost to the rest of the field in this longest primary election in my memory.

You still had a chance, though. You continued to say so many of the right things that, had you been able to build and manage a campaign staff that was worthy of the ideas of which you spoke, you still could have risen through the ranks to share frontrunner status. The endorsements and stamps of approval you received speak to the power of those ideas. The National Right to Life; Human Events; Rush Limbaugh; even Pejman Yousefzadeh, this site's most eloquent classical liberal -- all saw what you had to offer in the realm of policy and ideas, and either selected you as their representative in this race, or at least bade the Republican Party keep you in their minds as the conservative alternative to the greatly flawed field we have found ourselves, for better or worse, stuck with this election cycle.

Unfortunately, the campaign itself never came together. Despite the fact that it was built around the people's chosen White Knight candidate, and around the most solid slate of conservative ideas in the race, the Fred Thompson for President campaign suffered from being one of the most lackluster, disorganized, and uninspired electoral efforts that I can remember. For whatever reason, you as the candidate never quite took the ownership of your own campaign that was necessary to make it successful -- and, as a result, it foundered before ever really getting out of the harbor.

It is not with glee that I bid adieu to the campaign that Fred Thompson for President. While your departure will not have a large effect on who succeeds in this race from this point on, due to the disappointingly low number of overall supporters you ended up with, losing you from this race means that, once again, we have no option who speaks to the entirety of our conservative selves. Though you weren't the perfect all-things-to-all-people candidate (take the disappointment on the part of some SoCons with your support for Federalism over a Human Life Amendment as one example, or your poor numbers with female voters as another), you remained somebody that the entirety of the Big Red Tent could have comfortably supported as our party's nominee.

Unfortunately, in order to become that nominee, one must win the primary election -- and, whether it was because you got some bad campaign advice, because you weren't experienced enough at running for office, or simply because you really didn't want the job and care if you got elected or not, you never even put up a real fight in the primary.

Though South Carolina may not even be the official final nail in the coffin of your candidacy, for those who took the realistic view -- unencumbered by their support of your bid for office -- the proverbial handwriting had long since been on the wall. After the third-place Iowa finish, there still may have been hope, even though your assured place among the frontrunners had been taken by another out-of-nowhere candidate, Mike Huckabee. However, after the abysmal performances in New Hampshire and Wyoming -- not to mention Michigan and, today, Nevada -- it became abundantly clear that any talk of Fred Thompson, Republican Nominee for President was, at best, a non-starter.

So, as the results come back in South Carolina, with exit polls showing it a McCain-Huckabee race with Thompson a nonfactor, it seems to be as good a time as any to thank you profusely for your time and for your ideas, to wish you luck in all of your future endeavors, and to turn out the lights once and for all on the Fred Thompson for President experiment.

We all wish that the end had been scripted differently, and had taken place much later than this. In the end, though, your campaign seems best described not by a phrase, but by a question: "What if?"

What if you had entered the race in the spring or early summer, when your popularity and support were at their highest? What if you had picked a competent campaign staff at the beginning of the race -- and stuck with it throughout? What if you had really taken ownership of that campaign, and executed it more effectively? What if you had done what we were all dying to see after seven years of President Bush and the "new tone," and refused to let the media define you?

What if you had acted like you actually wanted the job?

As the Thompson campaign finishes its several months of winding down, "what might have been" is a compelling -- but ultimately futile -- game to play.

Perhaps, in the end, the answer is as simple as "it just wasn't meant to be." We'll never know.

So, Fred Dalton Thompson, as you ride slowly and quietly off into the sunset, not a hollow man but -- most unfortunately -- the owner of one of the most hollow campaigns that I can recall, the words of T.S. Eliot come to mind:
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.
So long, Fred; we hardly even knew ye.

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