John Thune: Probably Not the Next Big Thing

Perhaps as an antidote to Sarah Palin's media domination over the last two weeks, frequent Palin critic David Brooks offered on Thursday a different presidential contender for 2012: South Dakota Sen. John Thune. And Tuesday, Washington Post political guru Chris Cillizza picked up the tune. "For months—if not years—the Republican/conservative smart set has been looking for a fresh face on which to hang their hopes and dreams," Cillizza wrote. South Dakota Sen. John Thune may be that person."

Wait, really?

Brooks's rather guileless New York Times column doesn't make a compelling argument that Thune has anything new to offer, but simply that he is reliably conservative, affable, and not likely to say anything dumb:

His positions on the issues are unremarkable. He is down-the-line conservative on social, economic and foreign policy matters. What's notable is the way he talks about the issues and jumps off from them ... He doesn't have radical plans to cut the federal leviathan. He just wants to restrain the growth of government to bring deficits down. He doesn't have ambitions to restructure the tax code. He just wants to lift burdens on small business.

Cillizza names Thune his dark-horse pick for the GOP nod in 2012, but he's similarly tepid. Thune's strengths, he writes, are a good core of advisers and a strong fundraising base he built in 2004, when he impressively toppled then-Democratic Senate leader Tom Daschle.

Brooks points out that the friendly, pragmatic, and unquestionably conservative mold worked well for Bob McDonnell in Virginia, but as Dan Stone and I have both argued, that defeat was more a statement about voters' concerns in the Old Dominion than it was about the national Republican electorate. As Brooks says, Thune's record is not distinguished. It's hard to find any especially impressive legislation he's sponsored since arriving in the Senate four years ago. His most prominent moment was an eponymous amendment that would have allowed gun owners with concealed-carry permits to move across state lines with guns concealed, regardless of other states' laws. In fact, the amendment failed, although it did have the interesting effects of making Democrats trumpet states' rights and triggering an amusing controversy about violence in Central Park (Thune deployed an outdated idea of the park as a hot spot for violence, and was promptly corrected by New Yorkers).

While Thune's had a solid career in politics, including three terms in the House of Representatives, his biggest accomplishment was knocking off Daschle—a sizable feat, to be sure. But he did it by a hair in a state that voted decisively for Republicans in each of the last three presidential races. It seems a stretch to imagine that Thune could transform himself into the Republicans' man for the job in 2012 unless Barack Obama missteps badly—or steps leftward—enough to lose droves and droves of moderate and independent voters.

On the other hand, Obama's quick ascent shows it's now impossible to dismiss a candidate based on a short track record—although Thune hasn't demonstrated the ambition a young Obama had, and doesn't have the advantage of a political base like Illinois (see also: South Dakotans' lackluster performance in White House runs). And if Democrats continue to focus their fire on figures like Tim Pawlenty, they could overlook a gathering head of steam from out on the prairie.