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Thune's misplaced anger

By Trevor Bothwell
web posted July 18, 2005

Sen. John ThuneFreshman Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) and I have something in common: It seems we'll both be out of a job in the not too distant future, owing our respective fates to the latest round of the Defense Department's Base Realignment and Closure process.

Whereas yours truly is explicitly endangered by the BRAC recommendations as a result of his employment in Patuxent River, Maryland with the Defense Finance and Accounting Service, which is one of 21 DFAS branches nationwide (of 28 total) recommended for closure, Sen. Thune is more indirectly affected, though potentially no less severely.

After promising during his 2004 Senate campaign that, if elected, the White House would not close bases in South Dakota, Ellsworth Air Force Base -- the state's second-largest employer -- nevertheless found itself on the list of closings now under consideration by the BRAC Committee. This has subsequently prompted many South Dakotans to second-guess their decision to displace then-Minority Leader Tom Daschle, who is reputed to have bragged about single-handedly saving Ellsworth from the BRAC list in 1995 due to his rapport with President Clinton.

Since the release of the Pentagon's BRAC recommendations on May 13, Sen. Thune appears to have spun into full panic mode, no doubt fearing that unless he can successfully lead an effort to thwart the closure of Ellsworth, he'll be a one-term senator. As such, Thune has introduced legislation to delay BRAC indefinitely, has threatened to sue the Department of Defense, and announced in a June 28 press release that "the U.S. Department of Labor is granting $1 million to the South Dakota Department of Labor to help the State initiate early planning for workers who could be at risk" as a result of Ellsworth's closure.

John Thune's irrational if not irresponsible behavior has not gone unnoticed by Citizens Against Government Waste, which bestowed upon the senator the dubious honor of Porker of the Month in June for "doing everything short of writing to Santa Claus to derail the [BRAC] process." America's premier taxpayer watchdog organization substantiated its decision by criticizing Thune for leading voters to believe that his relationship with President Bush would protect Ellsworth AFB in the first place, stating that "BRAC is designed to exclude such political favoritism, and taxpayers should not be forced to fund unnecessary bases just to satisfy one senator's campaign promise."

Thus the heart of the matter. The BRAC process exists above all to afford the Pentagon the ability to restructure military resources in order to adapt to existing threats to national security, and the best way to ensure the availability, viability, and efficiency of these resources is to limit waste. Indeed, the Defense Department currently reports more than 20 percent excess infrastructure (would that every government agency had an internal incentive to minimize frivolous spending). Naturally, however, this conflicts with the ambitions of our politicians, who understand that every job they can guarantee their constituents is another likely vote for them come election year.

Which brings us back to Thune, who should be spending his first year in the Senate golfing and enjoying Capital Hill cocktail parties instead of wiping egg off his face. Instead, he's spent the last two months attempting to manipulate the BRAC process and opposing two top Bush priorities this summer: John Bolton's confirmation as U.N. ambassador and the Central American Free Trade Agreement.

Though the senator invites outsiders to draw their own conclusions about his recent policy stances, he isn't shy when admitting, "I'm going to play whatever cards I have to get the best possible outcome I can for my base." And given that Thune boasted, "What goes around, comes around," in an interview with South Dakota's Rapid City Journal, it isn't a stretch to assume he has decided to use his votes on the Senate floor to "punish" the president, who endorses the base closings.

Unfortunately, conservatives seem to be buying Sen. Thune's hissy fit for fear that his antics will result in negative reverberations within the Republican Party. In fact, R. Andrew Newman wrote in the July 4 issue of National Review that the "White House and the GOP leadership in Congress had best figure out a way to help their friend from South Dakota," since 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."

I couldn't disagree more. Thune's actions don't so much illustrate a problem with the BRAC process or even GOP leadership as with American politics in particular. If ever there were an issue that screams for the necessity of congressional term limits, this is it. Essential proceedings such as BRAC -- which the president insists "will result in a military that is more efficient and better prepared" for the dangers of the new century -- should not be held hostage to politicians who are able to build up enough clout to command preferential treatment.

John Thune decided to stand in front of Ellsworth AFB in 2004 with Sen. Bill Frist to give South Dakotans the impression that he had powerful friends in Washington. John Thune chose to campaign on the grounds that a freshman Republican could command the president's ear more easily than a seasoned Democrat. John Thune gambled, and he won a Senate seat. But as the senator has now realized, there is no statute of limitations on the repercussions of empty promises.

While Sen. Thune's frustrations are understandable, they are nonetheless misplaced. He made a conscious decision to exploit Ellsworth prior to last year's election, and he continues to do so today, banging his utensils on his high chair as he attempts to delay BRAC now that he realizes the president -- whose avid support last fall played no small part in Thune's victory -- apparently refuses to intervene. Moreover, to the senator's detriment, even reasonable and practical objections to Ellsworth's closure will now simply be perceived as frantic reaction to unfulfilled and ill-advised campaign promises. Perhaps the biggest lesson here is that while this episode shows Thune's true colors, it also shows Bush's true colors -- a man of integrity willing to support hard choices for the good of the country.

So where does Thune go from here? Currently the senator is presenting arguments to the BRAC commissioners as to why Ellsworth should stay open -- namely, that it's unwise to house an entire bomber fleet in one location. Fair enough. But considering Ellsworth was recommended for closure precisely to consolidate all B-1 bombers at Dyess AFB in Texas, Thune's efforts appear to be futile.

However, I don't believe all is lost. Sure, Thune might lose Ellsworth. But he's still in the first year of a six-year Senate term. For one thing, this allows him plenty of time to start acting like a leader and educating his constituents about the importance of BRAC (which admittedly might not mean much to any of his 3,700 constituents facing job loss). More importantly, such action could potentially pay enormous dividends to our entire political climate if Americans finally began to realize that having a military base in their backyard shouldn't necessarily guarantee politicians a career on easy street.

This could be a tall order in view of the positions Thune's already taken, but let's face it; politicians couldn't continuously dole out streams of baseless promises if the general public wasn't gullible enough to actually believe them. And if the senator is willing to work with the federal government to help replace the base with private industry instead of whining about how unfair the BRAC process is, he's at least got a shot at a reprieve.

Or, Sen. Thune could continue to subordinate integrity and, more importantly, national security to his personal political ambitions, in which case he'll deserve to be unseated in 2010. Far later than I will have been.

Trevor Bothwell is a freelance writer living in Maryland and hosts a web log at www.therightreport.com. He can be contacted at bothwelltj@yahoo.com. ©2005 Trevor Bothwell


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