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Generic GOPer: The ideal presidential candidate
Democrats have done well by nominating personable politicians with scanty records. The trick might work for Republicans, too
David Frum
David Frum
J

ohn Thune for president? Why?
 
The famously tall senator from South Dakota is apparently readying himself to seek the Republican nomination, reports Robert Costa in today's National Review Online: "As he settles into a high-backed chair in his private Senate office, John Thune tells me that if he jumps into the 2012 presidential race, he will be in it to win it — no test-run for 2016, no show-horse spectacle. 'The reason you do it is that you really believe that the future is now,' he says. 'I believe that.'"
 
The liberal blogger Matt Yglesias summed up the reaction of many Democrats to a Thune candidacy. "I can't think of any reason whatsoever why John Thune is considered a viable presidential candidate."
 
The best answer to the Thune mystery is offered by FrumForum.com editor Noah Kristula-Green: "The most popular Republican for 2012 is Generic Republican." And John Thune is the most splendidly generic Republican in the 2012 race.
 
Thune has an American Conservative Union rating of 100. Yet despite his rock-ribbed conservatism, Thune has by and large avoided damaging controversies. Thune's career in politics is long: He began as a legislative aide to Sen. James Abdnor back in 1985, and has spent all but two of the past 14 years in Congress. Yet his record is safely brief: Thune's major legislative initiatives gained federal assistance for small railways and airports in his state. He also successfully beat back a proposal to close Ellsworth Air Force base, one of South Dakota's largest employers.
 
At a time when other leading Republicans struggle beneath high negatives, Thune presents a small target, despite his impressive height.
 
Which, of course, is a good thing. Democrats have done well by nominating personable politicians with scanty records, our current president being the outstanding example. The trick might work for Republicans too.
 
But here's the challenge associated with nominating a generic candidate: A Ronald Reagan arrives with an agenda of his own. A President Thune will succeed in government only to the extent that somebody has developed a coherent and credible policy agenda for him.
 
And that work of policy development is precisely the work that is not being done by today's Republicans.
 
True, Republicans have ideas about how to cut the federal budget. Budget-cutting is important, no question. But the budget is not the totality of America's national challenges. Far from it.
 
Listen to Mitch Daniels, governor of Indiana, speaking at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington last week. "Upward mobility from the bottom is the crux of the American promise, and the stagnation of the middle class is in fact becoming a problem, on any fair reading of the facts."
 
The facts corroborate Daniels's concern. A child born poor in the United States is less likely to escape poverty than a child born poor in Denmark, Germany, or (gulp) France. There's strong reason to think that a child born poor in the United States today is less likely to escape poverty than a child born poor in the United States in 1970.
 
If the hardening of class divisions and ever more extreme inequality has become a problem as Gov. Daniels says, what should be done? Democrats have their answers. Where are the Republican answers? I can agree that it's not the job of a candidate for president to develop those answers. His job is to be good-looking and friendly and appealing to the median voter. But the work of developing relevant policy is somebody's job. And in today's Republican world, those “somebodies” are to a disturbing extent AWOL.

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