Going into the Iowa caucuses, I predicted that Thompson would finish a strong third—in those long-distant days of two-and-a-half weeks ago, it still made sense to talk about such a thing as a “strong third.” Thompson finished a weak third, only a few hundred votes ahead of McCain. Then, this past Thursday, I argued that Thompson needed to win or place—and that he could. In that now irretrievable moment of some 48 hours ago, when polls showed that Thompson had been climbing throughout the week, a second-place finish seemed possible. Instead, we now know, he has once again finished a weak third, this time nosing just slightly ahead of Romney. Mistaken predictions? Painfully so. But never incredibly unrealistic. Thompson stood a chance.
In spite of his campaign. As best I could make it out, as recently as November there really wasn’t much of a campaign organization at all, just good folks sitting around Thompson’s dining room table, laying plans as best they could. The mistmatch between Thompson’s seriousness about policy and his relaxed approach to the hard work of campaigning proved exasperating—a word I used more than once on the Corner–right up until these last ten days. It was difficult to say, as I once wrote, whether Thompson was more interested in succeeding George W. Bush in the White House or Chris DeMuth as director of the American Enterprise Institute. Thompson, as I noted at another point, needed to recognize that the Gipper only made it look easy. But Fred Thompson was an authentic and thoroughgoing conservative, and an irresistibly likeable man, and from the moment he began his bus tour of Iowa, a couple of weeks before the Iowa caucus, both he and his campaign began to improve.
And then came South Carolina. Ten days ago, Thompson dominated the debate in Myrtle Beach—so much so that, as John Podhoretz put it, Thompson’s performance was not only the best of the night but the best of the entire campaign. After the debate, a bus tour that produced growing crowds, fundraising that netted enough money for advertising throughout the state, polls beginning to tick in Thompson’s direction, and a candidate who grew more energetic and determined by the day, until, at a rally last night, Thompson appeared, to quote Byron York, “impassioned.”
“The Founding Fathers had it right from the very beginning,” Thompson said. “The wisdom of the ages, the fact that our basic rights come from God and not from government, the notion that a government big enough and powerful enough to give you anything is big enough and powerful enough to take anything away from you…respect for the rule of law…the institution of the market economy…[the belief] that if a person earned a dollar, that dollar belonged in the person’s pocket…” Those should be our guiding principles, he said.
“We’re having a little discussion in the party nowadays about what that means for the future,” Thompson told the crowd. “Some people think we need to get away from the Reagan coalition, because it doesn’t exist any more.” The audience erupted into boos. “Some people seem to think that we need to be a little bit more what they called progressive…Well, I reject that concept with every fiber of my being.”
Watching the returns come in this afternoon I found myself recalling my great uncle, who was a harness racer, and a horse named Schuyler Hall–maybe because the commentators kept talking about the political “horserace.” Schuyler Hall’s first owner raced the horse as a trotter, with mediocre results. My great uncle retrained Schuyler Hall, racing him instead as a pacer.
The gate would open, the other horses would launch onto the course…and Schuyler Hall, at first attempting to trot rather than pace, would rear up and throw his head from side to side, going nowhere. My great-uncle would talk to the horse, calming him. And then Schuyler Hall would find his gait, starting to pace. The rest of the field would by now be approaching the first turn. But Schuyler Hall would settle into one of the fastest paces my great-uncle ever recorded, closing on the other horses with every step. The spectators would cheer, and then, as Schuyler Hall began passing one horse after another, leap to their feet. After having begun to race four or five seconds after the rest of the field, Schuyler Hall would always finish in the middle or better.
“The horse never finished first,” my great-uncle would say. “But when Schuyler Hall found his gait, you never saw anything more beautiful.”