With speculation growing that he’ll join the wide-open 2012 Republican presidential field, South Dakota Sen. John Thune plans to roll out a sweeping proposal Tuesday to remake the congressional budget process.
Thune’s budget plan would create a joint House-Senate panel on cutting government spending, call for a line-item veto and mandate that 10 percent of the deficit be cut each year until it is eliminated.
As he tries to build up his policy credentials, Thune is also stepping up his political travel, headlining a Republican Party of Virginia event on Wednesday, to be followed by trips to Arkansas, California and Ohio on behalf of GOP Senate candidates. With Thune in heavy demand on the campaign circuit, more such trips are expected soon.
Thune’s political travel and his efforts to make a name for himself on budgetary matters has his Senate colleagues, both publicly and privately, offering encouragement if Thune decides to enter the 2012 presidential race. Never mind that his budget ideas will never see the light of day in a Democratic Senate — they help raise Thune’s policy profile within the Republican Party.
“I think he’d make a great candidate,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. “The party would be well served by having someone like him.”
Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said Thune “has all the qualities [for president].”
“John’s future is in his own hands,” Cornyn added. “It depends on what he wants to do.”
In an interview with POLITICO, Thune wouldn’t say whether he is serious about 2012, but he wouldn’t rule out a presidential run.
Thune said his “near-term goal” is to get through Election Day while helping elect more Republicans to Congress, and he declines to discuss his plans after that.
“Like everybody else right now, we’re focused on trying to help elect more [Republican] senators and create some checks and balances with the November 2010 elections,” Thune said. “I have the time and opportunity, so I’m going to go out and help some other candidates.”
Thune would be in a strong position if he wants to make a White House run. Handsome, articulate and very popular among conservatives and evangelical Christians, Thune is unopposed in his bid for a second Senate term, an unprecedented position for any Senate candidate in South Dakota history.
He also has $6.9 million in cash in the bank for his Senate reelection fund, according to his June 30 report with the Federal Election Commission, money that could be used to jump-start a presidential campaign.
“I think this is a very critical time for this country. It’s a difficult time,” Thune added. “One of the reasons I think this whole budget debate plays into that is because that’s what most Americans have in terms of their agenda for Congress to be dealing with front and center.”
Thune’s viability for 2012 is openly acknowledged by top Democrats. Jennifer O’Malley Dillon, the Democratic National Committee’s executive director, told a gathering of progressive activists last week that Thune was a potentially difficult opponent for President Barack Obama to take on.
“This is personal, but John Thune is somebody that I have nightmares about,” O’Malley Dillon said at the Las Vegas event, though DNC officials later tried to walk her comments back a bit. “I’ve worked for Tim Johnson and Tom Daschle, and he is just a guy you can’t ever count out. He has his head down and is doing some policy stuff. [You’ve] just got to start looking at him.”
Thune’s new budget-slashing plans may also give him some credibility with the tea party movement, which is heavily focused on deficits and spending cuts. As part of his budget plan, the South Dakota Republican wants to beef up pay-go budget rules, require Congress to adopt a two-year rather than an annual budget, institute a line-item veto and return unspent stimulus funds to the Treasury.
Few of these ideas are groundbreaking — most have been bouncing around Republican circles for some time — but in packaging them into one major policy proposal, Thune is trying to show he’s got a mind for budget issues.
While Thune voted for the Troubled Asset Relief Program — probably his biggest liability among conservatives and tea party activists — he has since switched positions and tried to end the program.
A source close to Thune said the senator now believes the bank bailout vote “was a bad vote,” an acknowledgement aimed at limiting the political fallout with the anti-government-spending faction of the GOP.
Some Republicans find Thune appealing because they think that everyone on the current list of GOP presidential wannabes — Mitt Romney, Sarah Palin, Mitch Daniels, Newt Gingrich, Mike Huckabee and Haley Barbour, among others — has serious vulnerabilities.
“I’m worried about the slate of candidates likely to run,” said a Senate Republican, speaking on condition of anonymity. “It’s hard to see any of them giving Obama a real challenge. But John could do that.”
But a major hurdle for the 49-year-old Thune is convincing potential supporters, big donors and party honchos that he has the “fire in the belly” to take on better-known figures within his own party and then square off against a sitting president backed by tons of cash and an experienced campaign team.
“It’s not a question of whether [Thune] can win” the Republican nomination, a GOP strategist said. “It’s whether he really wants to do it, really go for it. I think he has to show people that, if he runs, he’s really serious and not looking to be a [vice presidential] option or just get some headlines.”
“If he runs, John will be a first-tier candidate. Don’t mistake him as a dark horse,” said Curt Anderson, a longtime GOP political consultant. “He is the complete package — smart, savvy, telegenic, and he has a national fundraising base ... that he developed from defeating Democrat leader Tom Daschle.”
Jonathan Martin contributed to this report.
Tuesday, July 27, 2010
Thune for President?
Could the dragon slayer of 2004 become a dragon slayer again in 2012? Hmmm....