Defaced poster boy

Robert Novak
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Posted: Aug 22, 2005 12:00 AM

WASHINGTON -- The Base Realignment and Closure Commission (BRAC) will have finished its work by week's end, and Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota probably will be closed forever. That also will close Sen. John Thune's tenure as national Republican poster boy following his victory last year over Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle. This is a cautionary tale of what happens when politicians forget politics.

 President Bill Clinton saved Ellsworth for then Sen. Daschle during the last BRAC process in 1995, but President George W. Bush was detached in 2005. The resulting closure demolishes Thune's home state prestige and threatens Republican domination of western South Dakota (where Ellsworth is located) by eliminating 6,000 civilian jobs. Local political setbacks may be reversed, but damage to Thune as a national fund-raiser and candidate-recruiter seems irrevocable. He has been transformed from regular to maverick. Bush might ask himself: Is closing one air base worth this?

 BRAC's defenders say the price is not too high because no military installations could be closed if politics prevailed. Yet, to ignore Thune and consider Ellsworth the same as big-state base closings contradicts the image of a White House that puts politics first. Instead, the Bush team looked like tone-deaf, old-fashioned Republicans interested more in going by the book than winning elections.

 Thune has declined to speak on the record until the BRAC process is finished, but he clearly is no happy warrior. Were it not for Bush, Thune would be finishing his third year as governor of South Dakota. Anxious to regain control of the Senate in the 2002 elections, the president pressured Thune to challenge Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson. Thune lost by 524 votes thanks to questionable election procedures, but instead of protesting, he moved on to challenge Daschle.

 While Thune's conservatism was more in tune with South Dakota than Daschle's liberalism, the Democratic floor leader argued he could do more for the state. Campaigner Daschle told how in 1995 the Air Force marked Ellsworth for closure and he went to Clinton. The president telephoned the Pentagon to take Ellsworth off the list before it reached the BRAC.

 Thune tried the same thing this year, but Bush withheld himself from the process. The new senator talked to Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Bush political adviser Karl Rove and Cheney aide Scooter Libby. But the same people who could not do enough for candidate Thune could do nothing for Sen. Thune. The Air Force, still smarting from Clinton's intervention, made the Ellsworth closing stick this time.

 As Republican poster boy, Thune had been in nationwide demand as the Daschle-slayer. In May, he shut down those efforts to concentrate on Ellsworth, declining over 100 invitations after raising $2 million in one week. He effectively resigned as a recruiter for Senate candidates on grounds that his own experience was disillusioning. The early favorite as National Republican Senatorial Committee chairman for the crucial 2008 elections is now off the list.

 When the year began, Thune's political future seemed unlimited. He was young (44), handsome, articulate, conservative. Now, he is becoming a "Son of the Wild Jackass" familiar to the Great Plains. Seeking separation from the White House, Thune came out against confirmation of John Bolton as United Nations ambassador and broke with Bush by opposing the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA).

 North Dakota's Kent Conrad and Byron Dorgan, two of the most partisan Democrats in the Senate, were able to save Grand Forks Air Force Base even though it fell below Ellsworth in most measurements. Former Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Ronald Fogleman's firm received $400,000 from the city of Grand Forks to argue its case. An Air Force old boy exercised more clout than a rising Republican politician.

 Thune's political plea that fell on deaf ears at the White House cannot even be offered to the nonpolitical commission. The South Dakotans argue that closing their base would save only $252 million and could cost as much as $1.75 billion over 20 years. Chances that the BRAC will accept those numbers and keep the base open? About 15 percent. Like Harry Truman, John Thune has found it hard to find a friend in Washington.