The Other Thompson

“Thompson” is on the lips of many Republican primary voters and Right-leaning pundits hunting for a conservative standard bearer. While most of them have in mind Fred Thompson, the GOP might want to take another look at the “other” Thompson — Tommy.

Former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson is by most accounts “one of the darkest of the dark horses,” as Charlie Cook remarks. He barely registers in polls and has raised less than $400,000. He gathered only about 250 people when he announced earlier this month he was running as a “reliable conservative, one who puts principles into practice.” However, as he vigorously demonstrated in an interview for this story, he offers an impressive resume, a record of reform, a jovial demeanor, and a wealth of specific policy ideas.
Thompson is a familiar face in Iowa where candidates descended just last week to make their pitch to the first caucus state. As a four-time governor of a neighboring state and son of a small rural town, he has his greatest chance of breaking through in the Iowa caucuses. Recognizing this political reality, he has an entire section of his campaign website –“Tommy Across Iowa”– devoted to his Iowa speeches, media coverage and campaign travels as he “visits every county in Iowa.”

Aside from his Iowa connection, Thompson makes a strong pitch for his candidacy, saying what sets him apart from his competitors is “accomplishments and ideas.” He says “I am the father of welfare reform in America, the biggest social change in 40 years. I started Badger Care, a program to expand health care to poor kids and families. I also started school choice.” He goes on to explain that when he started as governor the state was facing hard economic times but through his policies he turned Wisconsin into the “star of the snow belt.” University of Wisconsin Political Science Professor John Coleman says Thompson retains a good reputation in the state, remembered as a “personable, pragmatic, amiable, regular, small-town kind of guy.”

Thompson was one of the nation’s most innovative and politically successful governors in recent memory. First elected in 1986 he won election in a largely Democratic state four times.  In 1996 the CATO Institute described him as “the nation’s premier public policy innovator.” On economic issues, he cut the state income and capital gains taxes, almost eliminated the inheritance tax and helped encourage creation of more than 740,000 jobs during his terms. His website counts up 91 tax cuts worth $16.4 billion in taxpayer savings during his terms.

In 1990 he created the nation’s first private school choice program. Joining with local parents and Polly Williams, a state representative from an inner-city Milwaukee, he overcame objections of teachers’ unions and Democrats to introduce a program which allowed low-income parents in Milwaukee to send their children to private non-sectarian schools. In 1995, Thompson expanded the program to include religious schools-another national first. David Boaz of the Heritage Foundation says of Thompson: “The school choice reform was pivotal in putting choice on the national agenda . . . Thompson and Polly Williams deserve most of the credit.”

Thompson’s record on welfare reform is also unmatched. As John Hinderacker, now of Powerline fame, wrote for the Claremont Institute in 1999: “In 1986. . .Wisconsin’s welfare caseload peaked at more than 100,000 families and became a significant political problem. Tommy Thompson was elected governor that same year on a platform that focused on welfare reform. In the following years, under Gov. Thompson’s leadership, Wisconsin pushed reforms that imposed responsibilities as a condition of receiving benefits. These reforms culminated in the requirement that able-bodied welfare recipients work for their benefits.” His reforms eventually cut welfare rolls by an astonishing 93%.

As HHS Secretary in the first term of the Bush administration Thompson is credited with developing bioterror and Avian flu emergency response plans and serving as the Chairman of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. As he does now on the stump, he advocated preventive medicine programs and improved technology to reduce paperwork and health care costs. However, Boaz and other fiscal conservatives are sharply critical of his role in the Bush Medicare drug plan which was the largest expansion of an entitlement program in a generation.

Thompson still defends the Medicare drug plan, saying 82% of seniors now support it but that like any government program it needs “more evolution, more transparency.” He specifically mentions introduction of more generic drugs and competition, saying that as a large government program, it needs “constant supervision.”

In his administration Thompson would “transform health care” by making the health care a “wellness and prevention” system.  By focusing on chronic diseases and using technology he says costs can be dramatically lowered.  He also favors private competition by insurers to provide coverage for the uninsured “without government mandates.”

On social issues Thompson has the potential to keep the heat on other candidates. As governor he signed one of the country’s first partial-birth abortion bans and remains strongly pro-life. He also opposes gay marriage. He really is a gun owner and has long been a Second Amendment advocate. (He also boasts of his admittance to the Motorcycle Hall of Fame.)

On foreign policy Thompson gives a detailed explanation of his Iraq policy which includes sufficient “protection” for our armed forces, an Iraqi vote on America’s continued presence, allowing Iraqis in eighteen provinces to elect local leadership (thereby encouraging Iraqis to move to areas run by their own ethnic leaders and defusing sectarian strife) and an oil revenue sharing program modeled on Alaska.

On a broader front he favors expansion of “medical and educational” diplomacy which would “export expertise” in these areas to developing countries and improve America’s reputation.  He specifically suggests using two large medical ships with newly graduated medical students to travel the world, bringing medical assistance and enhancing goodwill toward America.

From his interviews and detailed statements on his website it is clear that this is not a candidate who only offers sound bites. Coleman observes that “one attraction for voters will probably be that he tries to offer fairly concrete plans and ideas rather than rely solely on a lot of pie-in-the-sky rhetoric.” Thompson thinks this differentiates him from his competitors, saying, “Everyone else talks about generalities and problems. Someone has to come up with solutions.”

Thompson also believes that if voters are concerned about the “competence,” that issue is “made to order for me.” He says that he is the only candidate to assemble 15 budgets as a governor as well as a federal budget-the HHS budget which is the largest part of the federal budget. He says with a record of improving the economy and changing welfare, health and education policy he has a “track record” of competence like “no one else.”

Even if Thompson is a long shot to make it to the top of the ticket he certainly would be a wise choice for the short list of Vice Presidential contenders. Larry Sabato observes: “Thompson potentially offers an attractive purple swing state and maybe some help in split Iowa, too. He would be a domestic policy complement to a foreign policy heavy Rudy or McCain, or a regional balance for all the other major Republican candidates.”

Thompson’s presence could make for a livelier primary race and a more informed debate about the future of the GOP. Although the phrase may be shopworn, it is hard to dispute that in 2008 he will be the “Reformer with Results.”