Don’t let the gray hair fool you. Tommy Thompson is as spunky as ever. But back when he was top dog in Wisconsin, politics was a mere boxing match. Now it’s Mortal Kombat. Can he master the new game?
The state’s longest-serving governor stopped by the Milwaukee Press Club the other day to explain why he would be an “excellent” choice to fill the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Democrat Herb Kohl. Like many a politician, the Republican Thompson, who’s 70, made his case with truths, half-truths and exaggerations.
An impressive truth is that in all but 18 months of his 14 years as governor, Democrats controlled the Legislature. Yet, "nobody can't say I didn't accomplish a great deal.” Amen to that. Trouble is, the Republican Party now views as a character flaw playing nice with the other side to get things done.
The former Bush cabinet member did his obligatory attacks on President Obama. Thompson said that, under Obama, the national debt has soared from $10 trillion to $16 trillion – which is a teeny bit less deceitful way to put it than do the Republicans on the presidential campaign trail, who say outright Obama caused the rise. Actually, the lion’s share ($5 trillion) of the increase stems from the continuing impact of President Bush’s economic policies, especially his tax cuts and two wars. In seeking to end the tax cuts for the wealthy, Obama has tried to slow the hemorrhaging, but the Republicans have blocked him at every turn.
Like Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich, Thompson is milking so-called welfare reform. Gingrich was speaker of the House when Congress and President Bill Clinton did what was never done before or since – end an entitlement program: Aid to Families with Dependent Children. The replacement was Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, which is not an entitlement. The Wisconsin version of TANF is Wisconsin Works.
Thompson boasted that the switch, which indeed he did spearhead, led to a 90% reduction in the state welfare caseload – whch he views as an astounding success. Trouble is, cutting off life support for needy, powerless kids and and their moms takes neither brains nor guts. It just takes a cold heart. The correct measure of success is how are poor families faring. On the streets desperation seems to have only intensified..
Don’t get me wrong. Welfare as we knew it needed reform, mainly because it was losing almost all political support. And the alternative had to be work-oriented. But imbedded in W-2 are wrong-headed policies that reflect a disdain for poor people and keep the program from being the help it ought to be.
When asked about the successful effort to date of current Gov. Scott Walker to eliminate the right to collective bargaining for public employees, Thompson made clear he would not criticize his successor. “He’s the governor, and I support him. I was not there when he was making his decision based upon the facts and evidence that he had. I’m not going to come now and Monday morning quarterback and say I would have done it different. I probably would have, but I don’t know.”
He gave a similar reply when asked whether he would have sent back to Washington the $810 million Walker returned for high-speed rail from Chicago to Milwaukee to Madison. A rail buff and former chairman of the Amtrak board, Thompson said he supported Walker, but he would have made the Milwaukee-to-Madison leg truly high speed. As it was, he said, the train would have had too many stops to go fast.
I swear I could almost hear Thompson thinking something like this: That kid made some boneheaded decisions, but I have no choice but to support the top Republican in the state.
Once it was not uncommon for Republicans to openly back collective bargaining or high-speed rail. But times have changed. Thompson made note of the new landscape: When he first ran for governor, he was criticized as being too conservative. Now, he said, the criticism is that he’s not conservative enough.
Thompson admitted that the negative tone of today’s politics turns him cold: "We have just way too much of tearing things down in the country,” he said. ”I don't believe in this politics of destruction."
The other Republican candidates are state Assembly speaker Jeff Fitzgerald and former southeastern Wisconsin Congressperson Mark Neumann. The sole Democrat running for Kohl’s seat is Madison-area congressperson Tammy Baldwin