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Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Tommy’s Last Hoo-Ha

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It doesn’t make sense to call it former Gov. Tommy Thompson’s last hurrah. There was something phony about the whole public charade from the very beginning.

Last week Thompson announced that he wouldn’t run for Russ Feingold’s Senate seat, a job he had never shown any interest in holding. Thompson made his announcement before one of those angry rallies of right-wing extremists claiming to be modern-day tea party revolutionaries, a group that really didn’t want Thompson to run for the job anyway.

In fact, a number of tea baggers from around the state boycotted the Madison rally specifically because the former Republican governor who doubled state taxes and government spending during his 14 years in office was going to be allowed to speak.

The non-story was preceded by weeks of media buildup citing meaningless polls claiming Thompson would be a strong candidate for the job he didn’t want (and that the loudest voices in the Republican Party didn’t want him to run for).

Although Thompson clearly enjoys being mentioned as a candidate for anything, the last job he would want is to be one of 100 members in the Senate. You could multiply his loathing by infinity if the job were junior senator in the party out of power in a system where leadership opportunities are based on seniority.

Thompson wants to run things. Although Thompson served in the state Assembly in the ’60s and ’70s, he was considered little more than a small-time bozo until he was elected governor in 1987.

It was as governor that Thompson came into his own as someone who could get things done, often in tough negotiations behind closed doors with a few under-the-table deals on the side.

The only elective office beyond governor that Thompson ever really felt suited his talents was president of the United States. That made him one of an extremely small number of people in this country to believe that.

Thompson first attempted to run for president in 2000, noting publicly he certainly had accomplished far more as governor than George W. Bush ever had.

Of course, qualifications of the candidates or even the number of actual votes cast had nothing to do with the outcome of that election. The conservative majority on the Supreme Court awarded the presidency to Bush even though nationally he had received 543,895 fewer votes than Al Gore.

The unaccomplished former governor of Texas then appointed Thompson his secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS). In 2008, Thompson once again sought the Republican presidential nomination, although hardly anyone noticed.

Drastic Changes to GOP

Besides the fact that he didn’t want the job, what made the idea of Thompson running for the Senate even more unrealistic was how drastically the Republican Party has changed since Thompson’s glory days.

When Thompson was governor, Democrats thought he was about the worst they had ever seen. That was because they had no idea how bad Republicans could get.

The Republican Party has shifted so much further to the right that Thompson’s governorship now looks suspiciously moderate to screaming tea partiers.

Thompson consistently opposed efforts by bloodthirsty members of his party to restore the death penalty, which the state had abolished in 1853. Although Thompson’s so-called welfare reform didn’t provide nearly enough education and jobs above poverty level for poor women, it included far more job training and child-care assistance than in many other states.

As Bush’s HHS secretary, Thompson managed to save UW-Madison’s pioneering stem cell research program under a president opposed to stem cell research.

As chairman of the Amtrak Board of Directors, Thompson even envisioned a high-speed rail system that would connect major cities throughout the Midwest with Wisconsin as a centerpiece.

As a Republican politician who believes in using government to get things done, Thompson is totally out of step with tea baggers who don’t believe government should do anything except cut the taxes of affluent, older, white Republicans.

Coincidentally, a survey by The New York Times and CBS News recently documented that those are the characteristics of a majority of the so-called tea party movement: affluent, older and white.

A government that actually does something for all the people is “socialist” in the new tea party political dictionary. That is why such extremists even angrily opposed government action to head off a second Great Depression.

And they certainly object to the government creating jobs for people who need them or providing affordable health care to everyone.

They’re willing to accept money from government programs that benefit them such as Social Security and Medicare. But they’re perfectly happy Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan has proposed dismantling those programs for people in the future.

For his Last Hoo-Ha, Tommy Thompson was embarrassingly out of place at a tea party rally. It was like watching Engelbert Humperdinck on stage at a hip-hop club.