Friday, October 28th, 2016

When Tommy ran for President


This column from January 11, 2007, for the Waukesha Freeman looked at former Governor Tommy Thompson’s record and his presidential aspirations. Worth re-reading before the Senate primary election on Tuesday. – James Wigderson

Thompson will only find
nostalgia in presidential bid
Former governor will have trouble
planting himself in Iowa voters’ minds


January 11, 2007

When I first heard former Gov. Tommy Thompson was forming an exploratory campaign, I said to my wife, “I hope he’s not planning on exploring any place that doesn’t have roads. He’ll have asphalt and concrete laid down faster than you can say ‘four-lane highway.’”

Turns out Wisconsin’s intrepid explorer is planning to explore Iowa once a week until February 2008, or until the money runs out. Iowa is the home of the infamous Iowa Caucuses, the first delegate-awarding contest in the race for the Republican nomination for president.

Three years ago, the Iowa Caucuses gave us Sen. John Kerry and the Howard Dean scream. Because both major parties’ nominations will be wide open, next year Iowans will be wondering why the circus sideshow is in town in the middle of winter.

Just think who the entertainment will be: Sen. John McCain, Gov. Mitt Romney, former Gov. James Gilmore, Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich and even Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback.

Is Iowa ready for Tommy Thompson, presidential candidate? The former Wisconsin governor has $1 million in pledged money (IOUs), a map and a commitment to visit Iowa once a week.

It’s hard to explain to those who have never experienced the Tommy! Magic why Wisconsinites have such a warm spot in our hearts for the big lug.

Yes, the mangled syntax is still there. One of the headlines on Thompson’s exploratory campaign Web site, “America must come together and get to work solving problems, building country.” Or my personal favorite, “We need to rise up to meet the great expectations we have always held for our future generations.”

But that isn’t the reason Wisconsinites have such affection for the former governor. As political consultant and blogger Brian Fraley reminds us, Thompson was a governor with an impressive record. He was a pioneer for welfare reform and education reform. Under his leadership, the Wisconsin economy grew, state taxes went down and unemployment reached record lows.

No wonder he had to be dragged to Washington, D.C. kicking and crying by President Bush. The good times were rolling here, and Thompson could (and did) claim the credit.

The downside of the Thompson era was the explosion in growth in spending, literally doubling the amount spent by the state of Wisconsin. Thompson left just in time, leaving his successor, Scott McCallum, to try and figure a way out of the fiscal hangover. “Budget deficit” became a political term in vogue for the first time in Wisconsin politics, and McCallum lost a three-way race for governor to Jim Doyle.

Thompson joined the Bush administration as the secretary for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. There he advocated against the president’s policy restricting embryonic stem cell research, was perceived to have mishandled the Anthrax scare and presided over a dramatic increase in federal spending for the senior prescription drug plan (even as he underestimated the costs).

Thompson also became the country’s No. 1 health nag, urging all of us to lose weight. Even I preferred the Thompson that lived in Wisconsin to the Thompson that lived in Alexandria, Va.

When Thompson left health and human services, he bragged to the staff at the National Institutes of Health, “We doubled the budget. You didn’t know whether or not a nondoctor, a nonscientist, the governor of a rural state like Wisconsin would be very supportive of you.”

Implying, of course, that rural states are not pro-science. That will play well in Iowa.

So the question becomes, why Tommy? What niche does he fill?

Pro-life? Less so since Thompson became an advocate of embryonic stem cell research. Small libertarians? With his spending record and belief in the nanny state? A Washington outsider? He was in the Bush Cabinet and there are two other governors and a world-famous mayor running. Conservatives? Romney, Gingrich, Brownback, Gilmore and even McCain have better claim on the hearts of conservatives.

Thompson’s explorations may be only a short journey away, but he won’t like what he finds. The age of Thompson ended when he stepped down as governor, and instead of an exploration what we’re really witnessing is a nostalgia tour.

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