Some days the Republican Party seems to be going crazy.
Its public image is often shaped by people who appear to have gone into government as a steppingstone to talk radio.
But deep in the bowels of the GOP, there are serious people having quiet conversations. The people holding these conversations created and admired Bob McDonnell's perfectly executed Virginia gubernatorial campaign. And now as they look to the future of their party, the name John Thune keeps popping up.
Thune is the junior U.S. senator from South Dakota, the man who beat Tom Daschle in an epic campaign five years ago. The first thing everybody knows about him is that he is tall (6 feet 4 inches), tanned (in a prairie, sun-chapped sort of way) and handsome (John McCain jokes that if he had Thune's face he'd be president right now).
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The second thing people say about him is that he is unfailingly genial, modest and nice. He grew up in Murdo, S.D., population 612. His father was a Navy aviator in World War II and a genuine war hero. He was called back home after the war to work in the family hardware store and went on to become an educator, as did his wife.
John was a high school basketball star and possesses idyllic small-town manners. He appears untouched by cynicism. In speeches and interviews, he is straightforward, intelligent and earnest. He sometimes seems to have emerged straight into the 21st century from a more wholesome time.
After high school, he attended Biola University, a small Christian college outside Los Angeles. He then got an M.B.A. from the University of South Dakota and has spent his adult life ascending — as a congressional staffer, South Dakota Republican Party chairman, the state railroad director, a member of the House, and now the Senate.
He is down-the-line conservative on social, economic and foreign policy matters. What's notable is the way he talks about the issues and jumps off from them.
He is a gracious and ecumenical legislator, not a combative one.
When you ask him to mention authors he likes, he mentions C.S.
Lewis and Jeff Shaara, not political polemicists. The first person who told me I had to write a column about Thune was a liberal Democratic senator who really likes the guy.
Thune also possesses the favored Republican profile du jour: conservative at the roots but pragmatic at the surface. Like McDonnell, nobody can question Thune's conservative bona fides. As a result, he doesn't have to talk about them. Instead, he prefers to talk about what he calls the "economic cluster" of issues: job creation, balanced budgets and small-business-led growth.
He doesn't have radical plans to cut the federal leviathan. He just wants to restrain the growth of government to bring deficits down. He doesn't have ambitions to restructure the tax code. He just wants to lift burdens on small business.
He says his prairie background has given him a preference for small companies and local government. When he criticizes the Democrats, it is for mixing big government with big business: the bailouts of Wall Street, the subsidies to the big auto and energy corporations. His populism is not angry. He doesn't rail against the malefactors of wealth. But it's there, a celebration of the small and local over the big and urban.
Republican pros are attracted to Thune because he could rally the hard-core conservatives without scaring away the suburbanites. His weakness is that he's never really worked outside of government, and he's almost never shown a maverick side.
At the moment, Republicans are riding an emotional wave. Karl Rove had a piece in Thursday's Wall Street Journal that captures the mood: Barack Obama is being defined as a liberal. Independents are fleeing. The political tide is shifting.
That overstates things. Obama remains the most talented political figure of the age. After health care passes, he will pivot and pick some fights with his own party over spending. If the economy recovers, he could go into his re-election with as much momentum as Ronald Reagan enjoyed in 1984.
Republicans are still going to have to do root-and-branch renovation if they hope to provide compelling answers to issues like middle-class economic anxiety.
In the meantime, people like Thune offer Republicans a way to connect fiscal discipline with traditional small-town values, a way to tap into rising populism in a manner that is optimistic, uplifting and nice.
NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE