Fred Thompson officially dropped out of the presidential race this afternoon, immediately raising the question: How do you quit something you never really threw yourself into?
Thompson’s campaign obituary will make note of the extraordinary opportunity that brought him into the race–the G.O.P. establishment and base were united in their apathy toward all of the announced candidates and yearning for a white knight to ride to rescue– and his baffling lack of enthusiasm for seizing it. The actor and former Senator plunged in months too late (with a sleepy appearance on Jay Leno’s couch), was frequently absent from the campaign trail, failed to develop a compelling campaign theme, and even found himself–despite his thespian credentials–upstaged by Duncan Hunter in several debates.
Why he bothered to run in the first place remains a mystery. A broad-based draft movement, born of the above-mentioned apathy, made him a G.O.P. front-runner before he’d ever said a word as a candidate: Maybe he genuinely believed winning the nomination would be a similarly light lift?
In the end, his only lasting contribution to the race may have been the assist he gave John McCain, his old Senate buddy. Thompson entered the race when McCain appeared to be on the verge of exiting, but by December they’d reversed roles.
It was then that Thompson suddenly began showing some life as a candidate, and he directed much of it at two of McCain’s chief rivals: on the Saturday before the New Hampshire primary, Thompson mercilessly ridiculed Mitt Romney in a nationally-televised debate, and in South Carolina he spent two weeks firing away at Mike Huckabee.
McCain beat Romney by five points in New Hampshire and Huckabee by three in South Carolina, enough to make him the G.O.P. front-runner. That’s probably enough for McCain to forgive Thompson for once pledging not to run in ’08.
At 65, Thompson is probably through running for office. He could return to acting. Or he’d be a logical candidate for a cabinet post in a McCain administration. And maybe he’d be interested in that, since winning a Senate conformation doesn’t require working any rope lines.