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An Ode to the Non-Candidacy of John Thune

For everybody who's been asked who could beat Obama in November and responded, "The guy who's not running."

by
Bridget Johnson

Bio

March 12, 2012 - 9:56 am

O John Thune, John Thune, where art thou?

He’s comfortably ensconced in Hill office SD-511, of course, going about his daily duties as the Republican senator from South Dakota.

He’s not on the campaign trail for president of the United States.

Too bad for the GOP.

Even back when the pack of Republican presidential hopefuls was filling a debate stage end-to-end, my answer was the same when asked which one I thought could beat Obama in November: “The guy who’s not running.”

Thune pushed back early against presidential speculation, announcing in February 2011 that he wouldn’t seek the Oval Office this year.

That undoubtedly evoked a bigger sigh of relief from the Democrats’ campaign operation than when Mitt Romney said he didn’t care about the very poor. In July 2010, DNC Executive Director Jennifer O’Malley Dillon told the Huffington Post that there was just one prospective Republican candidate who scared her, and he was never a Pennsylvania senator.

“This is personal but John Thune is somebody that I have nightmares about,” she said. “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] just got to start looking at him.”

Daschle, of course, was Senate minority leader when Thune beat him in the 2004 elections. It marked the first time since 1952 that a Senate party leader lost his seat. Six years later, no Republicans or Democrats challenged Thune for re-election.

Yep, Thune does look like he could be carved into Mount Rushmore tomorrow. But the Republican Conference chairman also comes without a lot of baggage. He’s kept his head down, in semi-obscurity and scandal-free, not prone to letting loose with soundbites that can be used as political weapons.

He’s a Washington insider just at the point the Republican Party needs someone who knows how the system works to beat it. He’s cool and measured during debates and could handily challenge Obama point for point. He’s a born fundraiser. He’s the candidate for the antithetical voters who say that Obama must be unseated in the most important election of our lifetime, then rate ideological purity over a candidate’s electability. On second thought, some of them would still find fault with Thune, but consider the voters you must secure to win a presidential election who would find no fault with the fact that Thune’s PAC didn’t give to Joe Miller for Senate.

Let’s not even take into account my informal polling of liberal friends who swoon at the sight of the senator. One such friend, a journalist and Obama voter who also has a burning crush on Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), said approvingly of Thune, “Mmm-hmm. … I’d vote for him. Mmmm-hmm.” Acknowledge that a lot of the electorate isn’t that deep, but put forth a candidate with the goods to back up the pretty face.

I have no illusions that Thune is going to bust onstage at a brokered convention and wrest away the nomination, though if he did the weeping and cheers and soaring soundtrack might resemble the end of Rudy. The senator gave his endorsement to Romney last November, along with dozens of others in Congress.

The current crop of GOP hopefuls is what it is.

So this isn’t just a paean to one senator out of 100 and the GOP’s best chance out of the other four hopefuls, but an ode to everyone banging his or her head against the wall when looking at the limitations of their primary ballot.

This is a political campaign in which we’ve overdosed on “meh” by this point, with challengers you never thought you’d see at the top of the polling all taking their turns as the anti-Romney. While taking a break from writing this piece to go run an errand, I saw the pinnacle of anybody-but-Mitt sentiment: a “Republicans for Obama” bumpersticker.

Especially in this era of social media and overkill media exposure — can you imagine if Calvin Coolidge had to do the round of primary debates today? — “meh” kills a presidential campaign. Especially when you’re up against an incumbent. Bob Dole? Meh. John Kerry? Meh meh. Ronald Reagan? Vavava-voom, buh-bye Carter. Americans elect the candidate they like better, and this is backed up by favorability ratings going into elections.

Gallup found in polling released last week that Democrats are more charged up about Obama than Republicans are about any of the presidential hopefuls — more than double the positive intensity score.

So if Republicans are meh on a nominee, imagine how the general electorate will feel. And the Obama campaign offensive hasn’t even begun against the eventual nominee, yet is assuredly scooping up every juicy bit of the gaffetastic primary into their arsenal.

The PJM poll last month found only Rick Santorum edging out Obama in a hypothetical head-to-head matchup, with a block of undecideds who could turn either way. The polling sample was a third Democratic, a third Republican, and a third “something else.”

In match-ups with “fantasy candidates” — Mitch Daniels, Paul Ryan, Chris Christie, Jeb Bush, Sarah Palin, and Condoleezza Rice — only Rice edged out Obama, suggesting that voters are so eager for a “none of the above” GOP choice that they’d handily latch onto someone completely out of right field, who hasn’t even dabbled with the idea of a presidential campaign.

Not offered in the hypothetical head-to-heads? John Thune, who could also handily take on Obama in one-on-one hoops action. And that would be a hypothetical that doesn’t even take into account the moment when the voting public would endlessly see and hear the two on TV.

And I guess we’ll never know. I know, by playing hard to get this time around Thune is well-poised for 2016, especially if Joe Biden takes a shot at the White House. Like shooting fish in a barrel.

But for 2012, the Republican slate is what it is: no one to give the DNC — or Obama — nightmares.

Bridget Johnson is a veteran journalist whose news articles and opinion columns have run in dozens of news outlets across the globe. Bridget first came to Washington to be online editor at The Hill, where she wrote The World from The Hill column on foreign policy. Previously she was an opinion writer and editorial board member at the Rocky Mountain News and nation/world news columnist at the Los Angeles Daily News. She is an NPR contributor and has contributed to USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, National Review Online, Politico and more, and has myriad television and radio credits as a commentator. Bridget is Washington Editor for PJ Media.
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