Thune: The Generic GOP Candidate

February 17th, 2011 at 12:01 am David Frum | 21 Comments |

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John Thune for president? Why?

The famously tall senator from South Dakota is apparently readying himself to seek the Republican nomination, reports Robert Costa in today’s National Review Online: “As he settles into a high-backed chair in his private Senate office, John Thune tells me that if he jumps into the 2012 presidential race, he will be in it to win it — no test-run for 2016, no show-horse spectacle. ‘The reason you do it is that you really believe that the future is now,’ he says. ‘I believe that.’”

The liberal blogger Matt Yglesias summed up the reaction of many Democrats to a Thune candidacy. “I can’t think of any reason whatsoever why John Thune is considered a viable presidential candidate.”

The best answer to the Thune mystery is offered by editor Noah Kristula-Green: “The most popular Republican for 2012 is Generic Republican.” And John Thune is the most splendidly generic Republican in the 2012 race.

Thune has an American Conservative Union rating of 100. Yet despite his rock-ribbed conservatism, Thune has by and large avoided damaging controversies. Thune’s career in politics is long: He began as a legislative aide to Sen. James Abdnor back in 1985, and has spent all but two of the past 14 years in Congress. Yet his record is safely brief: Thune’s major legislative initiatives gained federal assistance for small railways and airports in his state. He also successfully beat back a proposal to close Ellsworth Air Force base, one of South Dakota’s largest employers.

At a time when other leading Republicans struggle beneath high negatives, Thune presents a small target, despite his impressive height.

Which, of course, is a good thing. Democrats have done well by nominating personable politicians with scanty records, our current president being the outstanding example. The trick might work for Republicans too.

But here’s the challenge associated with nominating a generic candidate: A Ronald Reagan arrives with an agenda of his own. A President Thune will succeed in government only to the extent that somebody has developed a coherent and credible policy agenda for him.

And that work of policy development is precisely the work that is not being done by today’s Republicans.

True, Republicans have ideas about how to cut the federal budget. Budget-cutting is important, no question. But the budget is not the totality of America’s national challenges. Far from it.

Listen to Mitch Daniels, governor of Indiana, speaking at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington last week. “Upward mobility from the bottom is the crux of the American promise, and the stagnation of the middle class is in fact becoming a problem, on any fair reading of the facts.”

The facts corroborate Daniels’ concern. A child born poor in the United States is less likely to escape poverty than a child born poor in Denmark, Germany, or (gulp) France. There’s strong reason to think that a child born poor in the United States today is less likely to escape poverty than a child born poor in the United States in 1970.

If the hardening of class divisions and ever more extreme inequality has become a problem as Gov. Daniels says, what should be done? Democrats have their answers. Where are the Republican answers? I can agree that it’s not the job of a candidate for president to develop those answers. His job is to be good-looking and friendly and appealing to the median voter. But the work of developing relevant policy is somebody’s job. And in today’s Republican world, those “somebodies” are to a disturbing extent AWOL.

Originally published in The Week.

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21 Comments so far ↓

  • rockstar


  • Moderate

    Undistinguished but presidential-looking, articulate and scandal-free. He doesn’t differ from his party on any meaningful issue (although TARP is unpopular now, most Republican Senators supported it).

    He is obviously mimicking Obama’s campaign.

    Even though Mitch Daniels is obviously far better qualified, he is short, and will probably be relegated to VP.

  • NRA Liberal

    Republican answer to hardening inequality:

    1. It doesn’t exist (spurious statistics)
    2. It’s SOCIALISM!
    3. But, American exceptionalism!
    4. If it wasn’t for unions, the jobs would have stayed here.

  • TerryF98

    “Generic Republican” is viable against Obama. As soon as you put a name to Him/Her however they drop like a stone. That shows you what a totally crap load of candidates the GOP has to choose from. Not one of them has any decent ideas or personal qualities, and it’s rather late for a new decent one to emerge.

    Thune has little name recognition and would never survive a GOP primary.

    The GOP primary is going to be a train wreck of epic proportions, playing out against a background of GOP obstructionism and a very real effort to kill the economic recovery.

    Thune has little name recognition and would never survive a GOP primary.

  • CentristNYer

    According to a new poll, more than half of Republican voters now believe that Obama was born outside the US. If Thune doesn’t board the train to Crazytown soon, he doesn’t have a chance at the nomination.

  • ottovbvs

    All very entertaining but somehow I don’t think Thune is going to be the Republican candidate.

  • Cforchange

    How generic is this candidate?? Women’s reproductive rights will move to the front. The Dems will then argue with proof that these issues were the top priority of the GOP in 2010 even though they proclaimed the first priority to be fiscal issues.

    Defunding Planned Parenthood will not correct the deficit. Plus do you really think the majority wants to defund PP which is widely used on the college campus for birth control – does the GOP really think that the average voter is that big of a hypocrite? Nope – look at Richer’s survey results, Thune won’t cut it.

    • Carney

      Nice try. GOP nominees have always met certain basic social-conservative litmus tests, key among them being pro-life, which includes at a minimum not funding abortion with tax dollars. Planned Parenthood is a huge abortion “provider” – any funding provided to it for any purported reason thus frees up money for abortions. Thus, the GOP in general opposes funding PP. Nothing new about that. Thus, no reason it would be a bigger issue this cycle than in the past.

      • Cforchange

        Wrong Carney – this litmus test of which you speak wasn’t always in place. I never remember Regan trying to defund PP. Only in the 2008 election did this intolerant language appear in the platform as documented on the official GOP website. I as a lifelong GOP voter never had this presented to me until this time. I bet Barbara Bush would stand with me here.

        There are small town PP offices throughout the US that do not perform any surgery – they educate and supply birth control. These clinics are needed and popular. Abstinence is not reality. That is fact. Nice try yourself.

        While the GOP can keep pushing this agenda they may win elections where the majority doesn’t show to vote. But the White House will not turn GOP until moderation is presented. How long do you think a non prospering electorate will tolerate the House presenting legislation that can not be passed – how much money does it cost to operate the House each month that nothing is accomplished. Tea Party discord is coming and victory may be short lived.

  • Watusie

    South Dakota ranks 46th in population and population density. Cows outnumber people there by 4.5 to 1.

    82% of Americans live in cities and suburbs. Thune’s chances of convincing those voters he understands their situation? Nil.

    “Thune: He’s Tall” is not the best slogan in the world.

  • Carney

    The real test of how serious a candidate Thune is will be, how harsh will he be in attacking Mitt Romney? If he pulls his punches, he’s running for veep, although of course he’ll be happy if he catches lightning in a bottle.

  • Carney

    On inequality:

    The fact that upward mobility has slowed in America is not necessarily a sign of crisis or policy failure. With a robust upward mobility “machine” in the form of a dynamic economy, combined with widespread scholarships available for bright but poor students, and the removal of old social barriers, each generation sees more and more intelligent poor people lifted out of the underclass. That means that each generation, the proportion of the underclass consisting of undiscovered, unlifted high-potential people is going to get smaller and smaller. So you should EXPECT upward mobility to slow, as the poor become, on average, less and less intelligent and capable as the intelligent and capable among them leave poverty.

    In other words, our slowing upward mobility may well be, and in my view probably is, a sign of policy success, rather than failure. Europe’s higher upward mobility is a sign that they’re further behind us in the process of finding and uplifting their talented poor.

    We should, however, be careful not to exacerbate the problem. As Frum himself has pointed out, it’s hard to fight poverty when you’re importing more poor people, hard to fight low educational achievement when you’re importing more uneducated people. I would extend that to paint out that we should test for intelligence and aptitude, in other words, potential, rather than merely past results, among immigrants. We really don’t need to pad the already large population of people who simply don’t have what it takes to climb out of the lower class, and who will leave the rest of stuck with their low capacity descendants forever.

    • Cforchange

      To have this opinion you are a very lucky person – cavalier, lucky and probably young.

      • Carney

        Yes, pointing out reality makes me a bad bad mean person. Nice people frolic through gumdrops-and-rainbows fantasylands.

        • Cforchange

          In reality, there are physically ill, extremely intelligent but poor individuals. That is the luck I speak of, the luck and good fortune of health. Once again you are cavalier for not understanding this.

          As lessado points out, the large middle class of the 1980′s and 1990′s has for the most part moved down the ladder and their circumstance is often not of their control. If the upwardly mobile were so smart, how come they made so many bad bank loans? If they are truely smart and failed so miserably, they must be criminal too.

  • lessadoabouteverything

    interesting theory Carney but not supported by facts. The poverty rate is increasing, not decreasing and people are not show horses, meaning that we don’t have a subset of people genetically predisposed to serfdom generation after generation. And I don’t count it as a success because one out of many becomes richer while everyone else becomes poorer. You are also implying that book intelligence is the only key to success, but I have plenty of my own relatives who own and run their own small businesses (home repair, landscaping, electrician, etc.) without college.

    As to Thune, lets not forget the last South Dakotan to win a nomination and what happened to him.

    • Carney

      Of course the poverty rate is increasing – in the short term, we’re in a recession, and long term, as I already said, we’re importing poor people.

      As “people are not show horses” – neither human beings among all the living species in existence, nor our brains specifically, among all the organs in our body, are magically supernaturally immune to the laws of physics, chemistry, biology, and genetics.

      We most certainly DO have a subset of the population that is essentially incapable of taking care of itself, generation after generation. Low IQ is closely correlated with every social pathology. Low IQ is closely correlated with high time preference, high impulsiveness, poor ability to foresee consequences, low ability to defer gratification, and more. All the patient, long-suffering idealistic teachers, mentors, social workers, outreach counselors, motivational speakers, etc., in the world are little better than helpless in the face of this overwhelming fact.

      In no way have I said a college degree is or should be necessary to be able to support oneself. In fact, I’m strongly critical of public policymakers who assume that all people should go to college.

  • forgetn

    maybe the GOP has given up, if the mark of success for the White House candidate is how bland he his, then the election become — “I’m not Obama” these things never turn out good

  • lessadoabouteverything

    “We most certainly DO have a subset of the population that is essentially incapable of taking care of itself, generation after generation.”

    Utter and complete rubbish. The vast majority of the worlds population are subsistence farmers, I guarantee you that any typical Mexican campesiño or Vietnamese rice farmer is far more capable of surviving out in the wild than you are. You would be dead in a matter of weeks unless they kept you alive by showing you basic survival skills.

    Obviously you have never lived among the worlds poor, I mean real poor, in rural China or Africa or a host of countries, very little crime, very little “impulsiveness”, I could go on and on but why bother, you simply can’t imagine anything beyond your pampered life.

  • _will_

    i appreciate Thune’s ability to not shoot off at the mouth (AFAICT) re social wedge issues. but his 100 rating from ACU and his ties to the cabal of C-Street theocons are going to be his Achilles heel with moderates.

    you know, the GOP might do well to run an actual deficit hawk/ intellectual/ social and foreign policy moderate (an “Arnie Vinick” for you West Wing fans), but as long as they keep up the intrusive, anti-liberty, theocratic tone, they’re not going to see the inside of the WH for a while. Sure, you’ll shore up your Red States, but it’s no way to win POTUS.

  • Ingen ”norsk” president « minerva

    [...] for å henge med, og har fordelen av naboskapet til sitt eget Minnesota. Thune har vært kalt ”den generiske republikaneren”, altså den som ikke skiller seg særlig ut fra oppfatningen av den gjennomsnittlige [...]