Tim Johnson’s secret to success

It’s not difficult to get things done, according to an old saying, if you don’t care who gets the credit.

That may be a fitting tribute to Tim Johnson, one of three South Dakota Democrats who served more than 20 years in Congress in the past six decades. He announced his retirement Tuesday at USD, in a typically low-key event that blended humor with touches of sadness.

Johnson was the least charismatic, the least well-known, the least controversial of the three big Democrats. He was also the most politically successful.

George McGovern was a national, even a global, figure for four decades. Tom Daschle rose to become the Democrats leader in the Senate, and a key adviser and mentor to President Obama.

McGovern, who served for 22 years, ran for president three times, and considered races for the White House in two other election cycles. Daschle, who put in 26 years, pondered runs for the presidency in both 2004 and 2008.

Tim Johnson, who almost certainly will leave with 28 years in Congress, never saw himself as a future president, at least as far as we know. He had other goals.

Johnson mentioned a few on Tuesday as he announced his plans to retire from his business in less than two years: He worked to bring needed water to both cowboys and Indians in South Dakota.

Johnson pushed to keep Ellsworth Air Force Base open. He backed projects that boosted his home state, using the old, often-arcane rules of Congress, and was a very effective legislator.

And he reached out to Republicans and independents in SD, and enough of them noticed to elect him to the Legislature four times, to Congress five times, and to the Senate three times. He did so, it’s worth noting, by landslide margins in 6 of his 8 statewide races.

The two times he was in close elections, he defeated Republican icons: Larry Pressler in 1996, and John Thune in 2002. Who else in state history defeated such a pair of opponents in back-to-back elections?

No one.

Meanwhile, both McGovern and Daschle ended their careers as defeated candidates, rejected by the voters of their home state. It stung.

Tim Johnson rolls off into the sunset undefeated, 12-0 in general elections, and 15-0 in all races, with a reputation as a decent, modest and successful politician with a wry, clever sense of humor. He is admired by his fellow vote-chasers, too.

I hope he writes an autobiography, because he has been much, much more than just another politician.

South Dakota voters knew that for 36 years.

Thune VP buzz buzzing buzzily

He’s not at the top of the list. We can’t all hail from Ohio, after all. But South Dakota’s own John Thune is in the mix as the quadrennial Veepstakes speculation enters the frenzied stage.

South Dakota's own John Thune is in the Veepstakes mix. Huzzah!

With Mitt Romney’s GOP nomination all but wrapped up, we have a few months ahead of us of media obsession over this potential game-changer.

I’ve seen Thune on various lists over the past weeks, heard his name escape the lips of TV pundits and even seen his photo in a montage while he got no mention in the accompanying article.

The latest to catch our attention here at the MDR is this piece from a Virginia paper that lists Thune as a fourth-tier(!) contender and labels him “a whitebread sandwich.” Well, I never.

He gets more prominent mention in this WaPo blog post.

My take – worth what you’re paying for it – is that he’s an attractive choice. Very unlikely to gaffe it via a live mic, knowledgeable on the requisite range of issues, comfortable with crowds of all income levels, not a bad bio and “impeccable conservative credentials,” according to another Washington Post assessment.

But my gut tells me he’d rather not. Not this time, anyway. It seems to me the upside is limited in an uphill race he wouldn’t control. The downside seems to have too much potential. Romney could gaffe it in a contagious way that would be difficult to recover from. A landslide defeat, not probable but possible, would hang over his head indefinitely. The rabbit hole has already proven a wild ride. Who knows what misadventures await?

Perhaps more interesting is that none of the pundits seems to think Thune will be Romney’s choice, but they all feel the need to include him in the mix. If that doesn’t say rising star, I don’t know what does. And there aren’t too many places left for a fella to rise to.