By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 22, 2011; 8:24 PM
When President Obama began to seriously explore running for the White House, among those whose opinion he sought was the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy. Don't wait, Kennedy told him. The longer you stay in the Senate, the more difficult it will be to win the presidency.
Does that advice hold relevance for Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.)? Thune announced Tuesday that he would not seek the Republican nomination in 2012, a decision that surprised almost no one. But the question is whether he has, consciously or unconsciously, chosen a career path that could hinder whatever dreams he has about becoming president some day.
Thune's interest in the presidency is clear. In the fall, the Weekly Standard's Stephen F. Hayes wrote a lengthy profile titled, "Dakota Dreaming: The presidential hopes of John Thune." The senator sounded very much like a candidate at that time. He told Hayes he was serious enough about running in 2012 to have "gamed out his 'pathway to get there.' "
To many Republicans, Thune would have been a very attractive candidate in 2012. He has the physical attributes. Youthful, tall, rangy and handsome, he certainly looked the part. It was no wonder that Thune and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) became the bipartisan "it" couple on the night of the State of the Union, attracting buzz and plenty of camera shots as they sat in the House chamber listening to Obama speak.
Although he's from a small state, his geographical roots and skills at retail politics would be valuable in Iowa's first-in-the-nation caucuses and in the always crucial Midwest battlegrounds in a general election. He proved his mettle as a candidate in 2004 by toppling former Senate majority leader Tom Daschle (D), after a losing effort two years earlier against Sen. Tim Johnson (D). Running two high-profile races in two years, he learned how to raise money, an invaluable asset for a presidential candidate.
Lately, however, his interest in running for president seemed to flag. His wife, Kimberly, told The Washington Post's Philip Rucker that she worried most about the impact of a presidential campaign on their daughters, though she said she would be fully behind him if he decided to run. Thune told Politico a few weeks ago that he liked where he was, meaning the Senate. He said he felt he was "in a place where I think I can make a difference."
No one with a burning desire to be president would mistake the powers available to the occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. with those available to someone who calls the Capitol home.
Thune had liabilities. He voted for the Troubled Assets Relief Program, which is anathema to many tea party activists. Though involved in many issues, he was not identified with any particular issue or cause or big idea. His speech at the American Conservative Union's recent Conservative Political Action Conference gathering rang few bells with the audience. He threw out one idea for controlling spending that sounded gimmicky - adding a new committee in Congress to deal only with spending cuts.
But everyone has liabilities. Overcoming them is what successful candidates do.
Thune is a member of the Republican leadership in the Senate. He chairs the Senate Republican Policy Committee. With Arizona Sen. Jon Kyl's decision not to seek reelection next year, Thune will be in a position to move up the ladder at least another notch.
He will be in the thick of the action in some big fights over the next two years. If Republicans gain control of the Senate in 2012, he will have significantly more power to affect events. Those are reasons enough to forgo a presidential campaign for now.
But the decision is not without consequence if he still has the presidency in mind. For the time being, Thune has chosen to pursue a career as a Senate insider. He is not just a member of the Senate, a free and independent politician. As a member of the leadership, he will inevitably become more and more a creature of the institution.
History has not been kind to Senate insiders who seek the presidency. Neither Obama nor John F. Kennedy, two senators who did manage to win the White House, was anything close to a Senate insider. Thune might be putting himself in a political straitjacket, if the White House is his ultimate goal - even though he has just finished his first term in the Senate.
Another factor should be obvious. He has passed up running for the nomination in a year when the GOP field is unsettled and, in the estimation of many GOP strategists, weaker than in past campaigns. Obama might be tough to beat for reelection, but the nomination might be had by a fresh-faced senator still able to draw his own portrait. Even in losing, he would have gained invaluable experience as a candidate.
Compare that with what could await him in 2016. With the presidency open, there could be lots of potentially strong Republican candidates, including a crop of governors elected in November who will be seasoned by a full term as executives.
Finally, recall what Kennedy told Obama in fall 2006. Obama was then in his second year as a senator, a rookie on the national stage. Many people thought he would be rushing things to run in 2008. Kennedy was not one of them.
Kennedy said the votes Obama would have to take as a senator - on hot-button issues, on controversial policies - would hamstring him as a national candidate. That "finishes you as a national political leader in this country. You just can't do it. It's not possible." Obama decided not to wait.
Thune is not in the same position Obama was then. Obama was already a phenomenon with a constituency hungering for him to run. Thune has chosen not to run, for now. He remains an attractive politician and, at age 50, has a bright future ahead. His decision not to run may be the wisest course for him right now. No one can say today how it might affect whatever hopes he has to become president. But the decision may not be as lacking in consequences as Thune may believe.