It's June 8, and South Dakota Republican Sen. John Thune has found himself in a tenuous position. No longer is he hero of 2004 for picking off former Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle in a knock-down, drag-out in the November election.
He's at an off-the-record luncheon with the Free Congress Foundation, a conservative think tank, to record a 42-second sound bite for the FCF's website and also, apparently, to answer for his sins. The meeting, staged at the Kriebel Center on Capitol Hill, takes a sharp turn when attendees begin asking Mr. Thune about his campaign to save Ellsworth Air Force Base from the Pentagon's chopping block. Why would he withhold support for John Bolton, nominated to be the next UN ambassador, just because Ellsworth was going down? they probe.
The general charge was clear: Mr. Thune is a pork-barrel politician. Citizens Against Government Waste labeled Mr. Thune "Porker of the Month" for June 2005. "They were firing all these hostile questions at me over Bolton," Mr. Thune told WORLD later. "I wanted to say, 'Hey, do you want Daschle back?'"
In May the Department of Defense announced plans to restructure the military's bases in moves designed to save billions of dollars (see "Base motives," May 28). The Pentagon suggests the Air Force shut down Ellsworth, a South Dakota institution and home of the B1 bomber.
Mr. Thune wants to save Ellsworth and he's fighting back any way he can-no matter what he's being called. He's filed legislation to delay the Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) recommendations. He's threatened the Department of Defense with a lawsuit. He's even allowed for speculation that his vote on Mr. Bolton's nomination is linked to the future of Ellsworth. If conservative groups say the freshman senator is just playing pork-barrel politics, the South Dakotan fires back that Ellsworth is essential to the nation's defense.
But the criticism from right-leaning groups is not comparable to what Mr. Thune would face in South Dakota should Ellsworth close. If South Dakotans lose their jobs at Ellsworth, Mr. Thune might lose his. The base is the state's second-largest employer, and much of the 2004 campaign, in which he unseated Mr. Daschle, centered on who would be better suited to defend Ellsworth.
Military leaders involved with BRAC say it's time for Ellsworth to go-that, in essence, keeping the base open weakens the national defense by allowing for fiscal waste. The Department of Defense argues that the Air Force's B1s could all by housed at Dyess Air Force Base outside Abilene, Texas. It may save money, but it's not a wise move, Mr. Thune told WORLD: "It puts all your eggs in one basket. That raises vulnerability."
According to the Department of Defense's own findings, Ellsworth is better than Dyess in terms of hangars, supplies, runways, and personnel costs. But apparently the warm, arid weather of West Texas proved decisive for Dyess, rather than the often-blustery climes at Ellsworth.
The decision to shut down Ellsworth won't just have a military impact. The base is in western South Dakota-an area known for Mt. Rushmore, the base, and huge empty spaces. BRAC officials say that creative uses of closed bases can help offset job losses, but Mr. Thune said that presupposes a population center to fall back on. "It would take us about a quarter century to catch up. We'll lose a lot of population in the Black Hills. . . . Out here in the middle of western South Dakota, it's not like you're going to build a theme park."
But this was never supposed to happen in the first place. Mr. Thune was supposed to have powerful friends. The former Republican congressman was handpicked by the Bush administration to challenge Mr. Daschle, a long-time thorn for conservatives. In May 2004, early in the Senate campaign, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist traveled to South Dakota to campaign for Mr. Thune. The pair stood before a gaggle of reporters in an empty parking lot in front of Ellsworth talking politics and the BRAC process.
Mr. Daschle had campaigned across South Dakota reminding voters how he had rescued Ellsworth in 1995. As Mr. Daschle told it, he quickly parleyed his relationship with then-President Clinton into saving the base. Last year, the (London) Independent quoted Mr. Daschle on the campaign trail: "I went to see the president, and we talked for 90 minutes. At the end, the president picked up the phone, called the secretary of defense and said he wanted the base taken off the closure list. That's why that desk of mine is so important for South Dakota."
Mr. Thune countered that even a freshman Republican would have a better chance with President Bush than the seasoned Democrat. Especially with help from his friends. In the parking lot outside the base, Dr. Frist said he saw a bright future for Ellsworth, adding that he intended to protect the base during the BRAC process.
But more than a year later, after the BRAC realignment was announced (including plans to add more than 1,000 military jobs to Dr. Frist's home state, Tennessee), the majority leader released a statement attacking the plans to take jobs away from two Tennessee bases-and not a word about Ellsworth.
Right now, saving Ellsworth is all about clout-a code word for the politics of pork barrel. Clout is bringing home the bacon. And clout is something Mr. Thune will have to create, perhaps out of thin air. Freshmen senators aren't supposed to have any.
It's a task for a senator beyond Mr. Thune's years. Win, and he'll be heralded a hero of the state. Lose, and he'll face an angry public and an electorate in 2010 that may still be filled with people who lost their job when Ellsworth closed.
Back at the Free Congress luncheon, Mr. Thune tells about an encouraging word. "This guy came up to me afterwards and said, 'You're doing exactly what Jesse Helms would have done if he were here today.'" He may just have to copy the fiesty Helms style to get the job done.