Information, observations, and analysis from the James River valley on the Northern Plains-----
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David Kranz reported in the Argus Leader this week that John Thune does not shy away from being regarded as a maverick by leaders in his party. Does that mean that a man who was totally programmed in speech and action by his Republican handlers to appear as an automaton disciple of George W. Bush has had an epiphany and found an independent identity?
It means the image-makers have found the need for a new image. John Thune can no longer be hauled around South Dakota on George W.'s coattails because those coattails have become tattered and weak. As Al Franken put it, that portion of Americans who believed in W.'s competence have met truth face-t0-face in the last year: Iraq, Social Security, Katrina, Sister Miers, and a multitude of bumbles and reversions to the Watergate mentality within the Republican Party challenged the faith of even the most devout Bush believers.
John Thune needs a new image. Ellsworth provided an opportunity, but only the most oblivious to the real situation behind the saving of Ellsworth believe the base was kept open by his efforts. Other people in West River were working on Ellsworth long before the base-closing list was even announced. The biggest factor in saving Ellsworth was the Rumsfeld Pentagon. The base closing strategies had all the keen and focused thinking of the strategies for going to war in Iraq. The base closure list was based on bottom-line thinking and political expediency with hardly any consideration given to essential strategies of air defense and national security in the interior U.S. The proponents for keeping Ellsworth open had tremendous ammunition on the security front. It also had ammunition in terms of little or no savings in closing the base posed against the tremendous economic destruction it would cause. The committee that worked in behalf of the base did its work exceptionally well, and John Thune's handlers were shrewd enough to maneuver him into what looked like a leadership position on the matter. They got a retired general to write letters of praise and even his campaign handler, Dick Wadhams, came to town when the decision to keep the base open was formally announced. John Thune was not saving Ellsworth; he was saving his political ass.
The maverick image is needed, if Thune is to have any credibilty. South Dakotans in West River like the maverick image, despite the fact that their economy is so dependent upon federal programs. Clint Roberts, the Marlboro man, was once their representative, and he thought he could win re-election by keeping the focus on his cowboyness. It didn't happen.
Right now, too close an identification with George W. Bush and the Republican Party is a liability. Thune's handlers certainly see a necessity to distance Thune from them. But Thune will have to face something that was not used effectively in the 2004 campaign: his record in the House of Representatives.
However, the biggest threat to John Thune's political future is his 2004 campaign. All his opponents need do is replay the advertisements and the comments he made against Tom Daschle. At this time, his suggestion that Tom Daschle's remarks regarding the war on Iraq were tatamount to treason in providing support and comfort for the enemy appear to be the cheap and false politics that they were. Thune appears desperatetly malicious.
In John Thune's future, there is no way he can escape his past. All the rehabilition of image and posture his handlers can muster won't change the campaign of 2004.