With his narrow victory on Tuesday, Tommy Thompson proved that neither the national Tea Party organization nor a rich opponent, nor a year of relentless attacks by the Club for Growth associating him with ObamaCare could overcome old-style, hail-fellow-well-met politics in Wisconsin.

"I want you to drink a beer tonight," Tommy declared in his acceptance speech.

That's our boy.

"Judging by his hammered acceptance speech, I'm not sure Tommy Thompson fully grasps campaigning in the age of YouTube," Twitter user WisconsinDefender quipped.

There is something charmingly humanizing about Thompson's win, and all the good memories of a less divisive political era that it conjures up.

Sure, our once-progressive state is now mainly famous for Ayn Rand acolyte Paul Ryan and his plan to destroy Medicare. And our union- busting, education-gutting governor survived a genuinely grassroots recall effort by raising more money than any state politician in history, mostly from out of state.

But the radical rightwing machine that has been bulldozing teachers, the elderly, poor kids, and the entire middle class slipped a gear when it took on Tommy.

When the longest-serving governor in Wisconsin history woke up from a nap and decided to run for the Senate, the rightwingers who had taken over his party thought they'd make short work of him.

Republican politics in Wisconsin got a lot meaner since Tommy last held office.

This is no longer the era when the head of the statewide teacher's union and the governor get together to cut deals, as they did in Thompson's day. This is the Tea Party era. Republicans like Tommy are nearly extinct.

Tommy did, in fact, praise Obama's health care reform and, more importantly, launched BadgerCare to provide health insurance to thousands of low-income parents and their children all over the state. And unlike the current breed of rightwing Republicans in Wisconsin, who love to bash the idea of a railroad line connecting Milwaukee to Chicago and Minneapolis and turned away $800 million in job-creating federal stimulus funds to do just that, Tommy served on the board of Amtrak and proudly advocated a high-speed rail line connecting Wisconsin to Illinois and Minnesota.

A Republican who supports infrastructure and health care for the poor? Heresy!

Former Congressman Mark Neumann, the free market fundamentalist, and his former staffers at the national anti-tax group Club for Growth, took out after Tommy with a vengeance.

To stay in the game, Tommy was reduced to running against his favorite programs--trains and health care--doing his best imitation of a Tea Party stalwart. No one was fooled.

It seemed, for a time, as if Neumann's campaign of destruction would help win the Senate race for Eric Hovde, the attractive but relatively unknown hedge fund manager from Shorewood who lived most of his adult life in Washington, DC.

Club for Growth ran ads against Hovde, too (not radical enough). But Hovde's money and his endorsement by the Tea Party PAC gave him a temporary edge.

Especially when Hovde made an expensive ad buy during the Olympics and boosted his poll numbers to make the race a tie, Tommy's days seemed numbered.

But Tommy survived.

Don't get me wrong. If Tommy wins the general election against Tammy Baldwin--polls show them neck in neck right now--he will no doubt cast some awful votes with his Republican colleagues in the Senate.

But at least Tommy's win shows that the coalition of big money and radical rightwing politicians like Paul Ryan is not invincible.

Tommy made a point of saying that both Ryan and Governor Walker had called to congratulate him. "We took our state back on June 5," when Walker survived the recall, he declared. "Now we're going to take our country back!" The crowd at his victory party began chanting "USA! USA!"

"USA is right!" Tommy shouted back, ready, as ever, to join the party.

Somehow it all seemed pretty benign.

"Paul Ryan is fixated on the debt. Tommy doesn't have that same fixation," explains veteran Republican politician Melvin Laird. Laird served nine terms as a Wisconsin Congressman, and was President Nixon's defense secretary. "There's a little difference there between Tommy and Paul. Tommy understands you have to compromise more."

From where we now stand, politicians like Laird and Richard Nixon seem like great liberals. Nixon's universal health care plan was far more progressive than Obama's Affordable Care Act.

And in Congress, Laird had a reputation for working across the aisle on the defense and health care committees. "I really believe that what we have to do is work together," he says.

Nostalgia only gets you so far, of course. Tommy is busy remaking himself for the new era.

Stanley Kutler, historian and author of many books on Nixon, offers a good perspective on the shifting winds of politics and the Republican Party.

When he was invited to speak at the Nixon Library (over the outraged objections of a few Nixon die-hards on the board), Kutler says he wandered into the gift shop, where he found a mug with the logo "What Would Nixon Do?"

"I know what he'd do," Kutler says, laughing. "He would try to become a leader of the Tea Party."

So is Tommy.

If you liked this article by Ruth Conniff, the political editor of The Progressive, check out her story "Paul Ryan’s Darwinian Plan for America."

Follow Ruth Conniff @rconniff on Twitter

Add new comment

By submitting this form, you accept the Mollom privacy policy.


Trump's politics are not the problem.

The fiery Milwaukee Sheriff is on the shortlist to head the Department of Homeland Security.

By Wendell Berry

Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more 
of everything ready made. Be afraid 
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery 
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card 
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something 
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know. 
So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord. 
Love the world. Work for nothing. 
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it. 
Denounce the government and embrace 
the flag. Hope to live in that free 
republic for which it stands. 
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man 
has not encountered he has not destroyed.
Ask the questions that have no answers. 
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.

Say that the leaves are harvested 
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus 
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion—put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come. 
Expect the end of the world. Laugh. 
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts. 
So long as women do not go cheap 
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy 
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep 
of a woman near to giving birth? 
Go with your love to the fields.
Lie easy in the shade. Rest your head 
in her lap. Swear allegiance 
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos 
can predict the motions of your mind, 
lose it. Leave it as a sign 
to mark the false trail, the way 
you didn’t go. Be like the fox 
who makes more tracks than necessary, 
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.

Wendell Berry is a poet, farmer, and environmentalist in Kentucky. This poem, first published in 1973, is reprinted by permission of the author and appears in his “New Collected Poems” (Counterpoint).

Public School Shakedown

Progressive Media Project