Tommy Thompson/Scott Walker Smackdown
Wisconsin's famous Republican governor is basking in the limelight.
No, not Scott Walker, whose approval rating is sinking to Dick Cheney levels (dropping from 46 percent to 38 percent since April, with 58 percent of Wisconsinites saying they'll vote to kick him out).
Nope. I'm talking about Tommy Thompson--Wisconsin's longest serving and ever-popular ex-governor.
Tommy leapt back into the political arena last week, 13 years after his name was last on the ballot, to announce his bid for the Senate.
His announcement comes just in time for the Presidential election and the still-unscheduled recall election for Governor Scott Walker.
Tommy seems to have reappeared to remind people that it doesn't have to be this way. Remember what it was like when Wisconsin's star Republican governor expanded health care for uninsured children, granted prescription drug access to the elderly, took pride in and supported our great schools and university system, drank a lot of beer at Packers games, and just generally liked people?
Sure he wasn't a slick politician.
Who can forget Tommy's helpful remark when he was President George W. Bush's Health and Human Services Secretary: "For the life of me, I can't understand why terrorists haven't attacked our food supply--because it is so easy to do."
Or his excuse, during a 2007 Presidential debate, for saying employers should be able to fire gay people--"I could not wait until the debate got off so I could go to the bathroom."
Wisconsinites breathed a sigh of relief when Tommy left the national stage and came back home again.
But that doesn't mean they ever stopped liking him. If he ran for governor today, he'd beat Scott Walker hands down. His Wisconsin was never so divided.
Tommy is such a people person, he stopped outside a fundraiser where he was supporting one of the Republican state senators facing recall last summer--Alberta Darling--to shake hands and chat with the protesters outside.
No wonder the current Republican leadership in the state hates him.
Every time our current governor sees a big crowd of ordinary citizens--nurses, teachers, firefighters and snowplow drivers--they are carrying signs and marching against him, by the tens of thousands.
One of Tommy Thompson's chief rivals for the Senate, Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald, had to sneak into the Capitol through underground tunnels to avoid the angry citizens outside.
That's just not Tommy Thompson's style.
Thompson took great pride in creating BadgerCare, which gave health insurance to the state's low-income children. Scott Walker just announced Medicaid cuts that will kick 29,000 kids off of BadgerCare.
That's the sort of tough stance the popular kids in today's Republican Party endorse.
Besides Fitzgerald, who is running on his record ramming through Scott Walker's union-busting legislation, Tommy's rivals include rightwing crazy guy Mark Neumann, the Club for Growth candidate.
Club for Growth, which drowned Wisconsin in TV ads during the recent state senate recall elections, is on message again. This time, the target is Tommy.
"As Governor, Thompson supported massive tax and spending increases," one ad declares.
Wisconsinites remember those days--that was when the state's private sector was booming and public sector workers had secure, recession-proof jobs.
Real personal income growth in Wisconsin in the 1990s surpassed the rate of growth in the nation by 24 percent, according to one University of Wisconsin study.
Another Club for Growth ad ties Tommy to Obamacare.
Contrast that with Scott Walker, who wants to cut $467 million from Medicaid.
Walker also dealt a $1 billion budget cut to the public schools, is dismantling our regulatory apparatus and great university system, and still had to face the biggest job-loss number in the nation for October.
The Tommy/Walker struggle for the heart of the state party is supposed to be happening behind closed doors. Publicly, Walker and Thompson speak of their mutual respect and admiration. But the differences are not lost on Wisconsin voters.
Tommy has been trying to appeal to Tea Party types lately, attacking the same federal health care reform he once endorsed.
But the fissure in the Republican Party is so obvious, a Republican lobbyist and former Thompson campaign insider teased me the other day by asking, "Is The Progressive magazine going to endorse Tommy?"
No, The Progressive, which denounced Thompson's welfare reform experiments in the 1990s and school voucher program in Milwaukee, would not back Thompson's Senate bid, even if our nonprofit status allowed us to endorse candidates.
But Thompson's candidacy sure sheds an interesting light on the extremism of the current crop of Republicans.
If you liked this article by Ruth Conniff, the political editor of The Progressive, check out her story "Wisconsin's Recall Signatures Pouring In."
Follow Ruth Conniff @rconniff on Twitter
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