As a game of political chicken shapes up between freshman U.S. Sen. John Thune and the White House, the biggest casualty could be President Bush’s agenda.
With strong backing from the national GOP and the president, Thune defeated Tom Daschle, the Democrat’s number-one man in the Senate, in a race that saw South Dakota become one of the nation’s most contentious political battlegrounds.
Thune and his supporters were able to out Daschle as the liberal obstructionist he really was–as opposed to the moderate he played on the county-fair circuit. Daschle’s charade didn’t always work, but he could at least trumpet his seniority and position as minority leader to voters concerned about preserving Ellsworth Air Force Base in Rapid City. Thune countered that a GOP senator on friendly terms with President Bush would be in a better position to keep the base–South Dakota’s second-largest employer–from closing its gates permanently.
Not one year from the election, Thune finds himself in the worst position he could imagine. Those friendly ties didn’t stay the Pentagon’s hand, and Ellsworth has been marked for closure. Democrats are saying that the Thune couldn’t deliver the goods when it mattered.
Although it is natural for a state to want to hang on to a military installation with an estimated economic impact of $278 million and an annual payroll of $161 million, local politics cannot stand in the way if national security dictates that the base must close. But, in this case, the Base Realignment and Closure Commission has some legitimate reasons to consider a reprieve for Ellsworth.
The Department of Defense scored bases on a set of criteria that included current and future mission capabilities, geography, cost of operation, environmental impact, and economic impact on surrounding communities. According to the Pentagon report, Dyess Air Force Base in Texas nudged out Ellsworth 56.7 to 50.8 in the scoring.
Thankfully, for Ellsworth supporters, this doesn’t appear to be a clear-cut victory for Dyess. Are there really sufficient “operational efficiencies” to warrant moving the 24 B-1Bs south? Cost should be an issue, but not at the sake of national security. The B-1B fleet is currently split between the South Dakota and Texas bases. Do we really want to have the B1-B’s at one base? Thune has also questioned why the domestic list of base closures was made before the Quadrennial Defense Review and the restructuring of overseas bases were completed.
Politics is about more than helping friends, but without friends, battles can’t be won and principles can’t be defended. An angry Thune has reversed course and said he’ll vote against John Bolton’s nomination as U.N. ambassador. Bolton’s vote was already going to be close, and it’s one the White House can’t afford to lose, given that, for better or worse, it has now been styled a referendum on the president’s foreign policy. Thune has also refrained from showing his hand on another major component of Bush’s second term agenda, the Central American Free Trade Agreement.
Thune need only look one state south to see Chuck Hagel, proof that a Republican senator can buck party and president and face no consequences. The maverick club isn’t so exclusive that it wouldn’t make room for another member, especially a bright newcomer fresh from a public falling-out with the president.
Such a turn of events would be a defeat for Republicans around the country, as well as for those in South Dakota who defeated Tom Daschle and helped the party and the president secure a legislative majority. The White House and the GOP leadership in Congress had best figure out a way to help their friend from South Dakota.
–R. Andrew Newman is a freelance writer in Nebraska.