COLUMBIA, SC—One by one, the great libertarian hopes of the 2008 presidential cycle have been dashed.
New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson was touted—some might say over-hyped—as an example of a Western "libertarian Democrat" for his friendliness to gun rights, for signing a medical marijuana law, and for a tax-cutting record that earned him a B on the Cato Institute's Fiscal Policy Report Card. He dropped out of the race after failing to break the six percent mark in Iowa or New Hampshire. At his final debate appearance in New Hampshire, the Clinton-Obama-Edwards triumvirate hardly seemed to notice him.
While few thought Congressman Ron Paul, the one-time Libertarian Party candidate and anti-war Republican, would be a viable contender for the presidency, lots of people thought that he might at least raise the profile of libertarian ideas. Now his history of associating with the uglier side of the paleolibertarian movement has come back to haunt him, and many once-sympathetic observers are wondering if his campaign might actually be bad for libertarianism.
That leaves former Tennessee Senator Fred Thompson. For a while, during his endless flirtation with the GOP race, Thompson looked to some people like the Great Libertarian Hope. The Cato Institute's Michael Tanner praised Thompson last May for "a solid record as a fiscal conservative," adding that in the Senate he was "a consistent supporter of entitlement reform" and a reliable vote for free trade. "On federalism," Tanner wrote, "there may be no better candidate."
Indeed, Thompson is the only major candidate who talks about the importance of federalism, which has helped earn him endorsements from an impressive roster of libertarian-leaning law professors, including Volokh Conspiracy blogger-profs Eugene Volokh, Jonathan Adler, Todd Zywicki, and Orin Kerr.
On the stump, Thompson likes to say that "a government big enough and powerful enough to give you anything is big enough and powerful enough to take anything away from you." He waxes on about how the principles this country was founded on include "respect for a market economy, and what can be done in a free country with free people doing free things in healthy competition with one another and trading with their neighbors."
Alas, Thompson has hardly taken the race by storm. Glenn Reynolds wrote last month that he might have joined Volokh et al. in endorsing Thompson if he hadn't observed how poorly Thompson's campaign is run behind the scenes. That poorly run campaign has yielded poor results. Thompson's low-key affect and introverted personality made him ill-suited to the hands-on retail politicking that Iowans expect, and he edged out John McCain for third place in the Iowa caucuses by just three tenths of a percentage point despite spending much more time than McCain stumping in the Hawkeye State (McCain focused on New Hampshire, where he won). He made almost no effort in the New Hampshire and Michigan primaries, where he got less than 2 percent and less than 4 percent of the vote, respectively.
Now Thompson is putting all of his hopes on a strong finish in South Carolina. "We have to be very successful [here]," Thompson spokesman Jeff Sadosky told me Wednesday. "He would say he has drawn his line in the sand in South Carolina. We've been down here for the last couple of weeks while everybody else was up in Michigan. We're campaigning heavily throughout the state. It's his neck of the woods." Does he have to finish second or better? "I'm not going to get into that," says Sadosky. "We're working hard, we're going to be successful. I'll let the pundits figure out where we need to be."
Very well, then: Thompson needs to finish second or better in South Carolina, or his campaign is over. There are signs that he's gaining steam; polls show a small uptick in support for Thompson over the past week, coming at Mike Huckabee's expense. But it's not at all clear that it'll be enough. In Orangeburg on Wednesday, at 6:30 in the evening, Thompson attracted a good-sized crowd. At 12:45 the next day, Mike Huckabee attracted an even bigger crowd in Florence.
Huckabee's mixture of nanny-statism, populist economic rhetoric, and social conservatism makes him a libertarian's nightmare, and anything that trips him up is to be welcomed. But if Thompson really is dragging down Huckabee, the biggest beneficiary is McCain, who is either leading or tied with Huckabee in every poll this week. A libertarian journalist could fill a book with things that are troubling about John McCain, and reason editor Matt Welch has done so.
Perhaps something will change the dynamics of the race in the remaining hours before South Carolina Republicans go to the polls tomorrow, and Thompson will catch a break. But at the moment, his prospects don't appear to give fans of smaller government any reason to abandon the pessimism that has by now become all too familiar.
John Tabin is a writer and blogger for The American Spectator.