Since he went to the Senate from South Dakota on his second try in 2004, John Thune has been watched increasingly by the national media. Much of this has to do with his very election. Beaten on his first try in the closest race of 2002 — in which Thune lost by a much-disputed 524 votes to Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson — the former three-term House member roared back two years later to unseat his state???s senior senator, Democrat Tom Daschle. In so doing, Thune became the first candidate in either party to unseat a sitting Senate majority leader since 1952, when the young Barry Goldwater defeated then-Majority Leader Ernest McFarland (D-Ariz.).
Like Clay Overbury, the hard-charging politician portrayed in the late Gore Vidal???s novel “Washington DC,” Biola (Cal.) University and University of South Dakota graduate Thune has moved from Capitol Hill staffer — he was legislative aide to his mentor, South Dakota???s late GOP Sen. Jim Abdnor — to House Member to the Senate. From there, he has moved with seeming ease up the ladder of the Senate GOP hierarchy: chief deputy whip in 2006 and then chairman of the Senate Policy Committee — the ???ammunition depot??? for conservative lawmakers — in 2009. In January of this year, just days before his 51st birthday, Thune was elected chairman of the Senate Republican Conference, the No. 3 leadership position.
Noting this quicksilver rise, some Thune-watchers have guessed that the evangelical Christian and father of two was destined to move into the top job as majority leader. If so, he would be following the trail blazed by Democrat Lyndon Johnson when he became majority leader in the Senate — and Master of the Senate, as the title of Robert Caro???s biography of his all-powerful days in the job suggests.
But others see Thune as a player in presidential politics. Last year, he seriously explored and finally rejected a campaign for the Republican presidential nomination. More recently, the South Dakotan has been rumored increasingly to be on Mitt Romney???s list of potential running mates.
In an exclusive interview with Human Events last week, Thune preferred to talk less about national politics and more about the pressing issues that he and his colleagues must deal with — notably, the clash between Republicans and the White House over whether to extend all or some of the Bush tax cuts.
Tax cut wars
Are Senate Democrats nervous, we asked Thune, about pushing the measure advanced by President Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) that would raise taxes on individuals making more than $200,000 a year and families who make more than $250,000?
???They should be,??? Thune shot back, ???because they talk about that as raising taxes on the rich, but, as we have pointed out, that does raise taxes on almost a million small businesses. Nearly 1 million small businesses would be hit with higher taxes, and they employ 25 percent of the American workforce. So this notion that somehow all you do is raise taxes on the rich, you are raising taxes on the very people you are looking to get the economy back on track and to get Americans back to work.???
Thune recalled how Senate Democrats, ???40 of them in 2010, voted to extend the existing tax rates and the president at that time made the argument that in a slow economy that ???you don???t want to raise taxes, it would be the wrong thing to do.?????? And at that time the economic growth was at 3.1 percent and now it???s about 2 percent. I think what???s changed is it???s a political year and the president sees an advantage creating this class warfare argument and using the politics of division to try and get re-elected. What it tells you is that this is more about the election than it is about the economy for the president.???
When we asked him to be a bit daring and name some of the ???uneasy??? Senate Democrats, Thune did not flinch. In his words, “[Democratic Sens.] like Jon Tester [Mont.] and Jim Webb [Va.] and Mark Pryor [Ark.] and Claire McCaskill [Mo.] and any of the Democrats who are in particularly competitive races and who are in states with small businesses, and have farmers and ranchers as constituents, are going to be very uneasy about having to make a vote that would raise taxes on nearly a million small businesses and put at risk 25 percent of the American workforce.???
As to whether Reid is having a problem lining up Democrats to vote with the Obama program on taxes, Republican Thune feels ???that???s a vote they really don???t want to have. They did have the votes last week on extending the rates for people under $200,000 and [Reid] was able to marshall his team to stay with him on that. It???ll be really interesting for me to see when you get a real clear vote — probably sometime later this year — on whether or not we???re going to extend the rates and for whom, how many Democrats are available to us on that.???
As to whether this will be before or after the election, Thune replied: ???I suspect that the debate vote on [tax] rates doesn???t occur until after the election. So by then the races will be decided. But I think that there must be Democrats that are walking the plank right now for their leader and for the president, trying to defend the president???s position. I???d be very nervous about the campaigns back home and how that issue might be used against them by their opponents, because if I was the opponent, boy I would make big hay out of the fact that they are people who are raising taxes on small businesses in a down economy.???
Our interview came a day before the Republican controlled House voted to extend all of the Bush tax cuts. Thune feels there is a ???good possibility??? that the Democrat-controlled Senate could vote to extend just some of them and the measure would then go to conference. In that case, he said, ???somebody???s going to have to blink and I???m going to go back to what the president said as recently as two years ago — that we shouldn???t be raising taxes on small businesses, that it???s a mistake, it would strike a blow to the economy. And that was at a time when economic growth was significantly stronger than it is today.???
Citing a recent analysis from Ernst and Young concluding that a tax increase on small business would cost more than 700,000 jobs, and 1.3 percent of economic growth and reduce wages by 2 percent, Thune concluded that ???Democrats always want to talk about middle-class Americans. Well, if you???re going to reduce wages for middle-class Americans by this tax increase, it doesn???t seem like something they???d be for either.???
The Conference chairman warned his GOP colleagues not to back down and feels the public would blame them for costing 98 percent of the American wage earners??? their tax cut extension ???only if Republicans get weak and defensive. If Republicans stay strong on their arguments, that argument is a winning one with the American people. Even if they aren???t in that tax rate category, they understand that it impacts their employer and most Americans understand that the people who employ workers in this country are the people who create jobs.???
What???s ahead in Congress and for Thune?
Although the tax issue is the immediate priority of Congress, Thune feels that lawmakers must eventually address regulatory reform. Although it will probably ???be an agenda item after if (Republicans) win, it must be addressed. The cost of doing business in this country is going up dramatically as a result of just this proliferation of excessive, overreaching regulations coming out of Washington.???
Regarding immigration reform, the senator said he subscribes to the view that ???we want to have a big fence and big gate. We want to discourage illegal immigration and if we want to allow more people in this country, we must have a legal mechanism to do that. But, if we encourage people to break the law we will only in the long run get more of the same. So, I think that enforcing the borders is job number one. Enforcing the laws, job number two. And that means employee workplace verification. There are ways in which you can get more people in here legally and I think we ought to look at some of those visa programs that encourage folks with skill sets that we want in our economy to get here.???
As we left his office, we couldn???t resist: what will John Randolph Thune say if Mitt Romney calls and asks him to be his running mate?
???Well, I don???t expect that call to come,??? he chuckled, ???I know that there are people under serious consideration by the Romney campaign and all of whom would fill out a very strong ticket for us. I have a job, like the job I have and look forward to working with a Republican president who wants to solve problems, but I expect that to happen from the Senate. We???ve got some big challenges as a nation which I know are going to require some presidential leadership which we don???t have today. So I???m working hard to get that leader elected, but I don???t expect to be on the ticket.???
Perhaps not. But it seems safe to say that, at 51, we are going to be hearing from and listening to John Thune address policy for years to come.