On the Senate floor Tuesday, at about 4:30p.m. ET, a Republican senator strolled out in a nonchalant fashion for a 13-minute speech on the budget and mounting deficits, a speech that could have been given by just about any member of the 49-strong GOP conference on just about any day. But this speech was different and no doubt had a larger audience, because it came from a public official who many think has his sights set on the Oval Office in 2012.
"The numbers are mind blowing," Sen. John Thune, R-SD, said about the debt, "Can't even wrap our heads around the immensity of these numbers that run into the trillions. But they should be a very big red flag indicating...that something, something has gone very wrong here in Washington. The American people are struggling with high unemployment and a difficult economy trying to make ends meet. The American government...ought to be doing what it can to balance its own budget, not spending like drunken sailors in a way that will put the future of many American families at risk."
It was a speech sure to be seen as one designed to buttress the senator's economic and broader policy credentials. against a growing field of political veterans possibly jumping into the 2012 race.
From the moment Thune stepped onto the national stage in 2002, slaying then-Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle in a hard-fought race, campaign watchers have speculated about his potential for higher office, and certainly his colleagues now appear to be ready to support him.
"He has the looks, the savvy, the charm, and the wherewithal to do it. I truly believe this could be John's if he wants it, and I'm not even remotely alone in that sentiment up here," said one Republican senator who asked not to be quoted speculating about his close friend's political future before anything is announced.
And on Tuesday, it certainly sounded as if the 49-year old Thune had his eye on that political future. In his floor speech, Thune, chairman of the GOP Policy Committee, outlined a massive plan to "reform the budget process" and reduce the deficit.
"My proposal is a three-legged stool that aims to support our country and economy while reducing the burden our rapidly expanding government places on American families and businesses the first proposal is to create," Thune said.
The senator's legislation would create a standing budget deficit reduction committee that must submit an annual plan "to cut the deficit by 10% every budget cycle and to do it without raising taxes." Secondly, the Thune plan would make the budget "a binding joint resolution signed into law by the president." Thune went on to outline a need for a presidential line item veto and an aggressive 10-year spending freeze on discretionary spending capped at 2008 fiscal levels (adjusted for inflation).
Thune, as he has in the past, called for ending the stimulus program and reclaiming unspent funds, a popular cause for conservatives.
The ambitious budget overhaul plan, which stands virtually no chance of passage in the Democratically-controlled Senate, had all the hallmarks of one laid out by a potential presidential candidate, as Thune faces what could be a very tough field of GOP challengers should he decide to run in 2012, from Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin to economic powerhouses - former Mass. Gov. Mitt Romney and Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, known to be a favorite of former Bush Administration officials.
Thune is running unopposed in his bid for re-election to the Senate this year, an unheard-of phenomenon in South Dakota, and yet he has racked up nearly a $7 million war chest, a move that could give him a leg up on fundraising in 2012.
Not only that, the senator has plans, according to Politico which first published the story about Thune's speech, to headline a GOP event in Virginia on Thursday, and will soon travel to Arkansas, California, and Ohio on behalf of his colleagues, echoing a pattern of political assistance, ironically, made by President Obama when he was in the Senate. Thune, like Obama in 2006 before he announced a presidential run, is in heavy demand.
And as if practicing his campaign rhetoric against the man he could face in 2012, Thune concluded Tuesday, "We've got to move beyond the same old political games and the same old phony rhetoric. We need real commitment to making a real difference. There's another old saying that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. The president, the Democratic leadership of Congress want to keep doing the same thing over and over. Borrowing money, spending too much and then borrowing even more, but thinking that somehow with all that borrowing and spending we'll buy our way out of the hole we're in...That's just insanity."