Commentary Magazine


Topic: Tommy Thompson

GOP’s in a Wisconsin State of Mind

When Newt Gingrich led the Republicans back to power on Capitol Hill during Bill Clinton’s first midterms, the revolutionaries came with a famous to-do list. But the most successful item on that list by far was almost certainly their ability to get welfare reform enacted with a Democratic president. Such congressional victories are rare; this one remains celebrated by both parties. So it was an odd feeling for former Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson in 2007 when he ran for the GOP presidential nomination and seemed unable to get any traction with his reform credentials.

Gingrich may have passed welfare reform, and Clinton may have signed it, but Thompson enabled both. No one carried the ball farther down the field on welfare reform than Thompson did as governor of Wisconsin. He also wasted no time in reminding voters that he passed the nation’s first school vouchers program to include private schools. But if Thompson is far from the spotlight, even as these issues crop up once again, he can take solace in the fact that his state remains front and center in just about every major reform fight. In fact, when conservatives talk about states being “laboratories of democracy,” they seem to have Wisconsin in mind.

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When Newt Gingrich led the Republicans back to power on Capitol Hill during Bill Clinton’s first midterms, the revolutionaries came with a famous to-do list. But the most successful item on that list by far was almost certainly their ability to get welfare reform enacted with a Democratic president. Such congressional victories are rare; this one remains celebrated by both parties. So it was an odd feeling for former Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson in 2007 when he ran for the GOP presidential nomination and seemed unable to get any traction with his reform credentials.

Gingrich may have passed welfare reform, and Clinton may have signed it, but Thompson enabled both. No one carried the ball farther down the field on welfare reform than Thompson did as governor of Wisconsin. He also wasted no time in reminding voters that he passed the nation’s first school vouchers program to include private schools. But if Thompson is far from the spotlight, even as these issues crop up once again, he can take solace in the fact that his state remains front and center in just about every major reform fight. In fact, when conservatives talk about states being “laboratories of democracy,” they seem to have Wisconsin in mind.

Paul Ryan has taken the reins on budget issues for the GOP, but his public persona is inextricably tied to his proposed entitlement reforms, especially Medicare. Ryan’s ideas became the Republican Party’s budget. He became a standard-bearer at a level usually reserved for presidential nominees. (When Gingrich slammed Ryan’s proposal as “right-wing social engineering,” he was practically booed and hissed out of the race.) Ryan’s reforms became their own litmus test to see if conservative presidential candidates were “serious” about the country’s fiscal future.

And no one will soon forget the liberal reaction to Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s public union reforms–the deepest in the country. To avoid even voting on legislation, Democratic members of the state’s Senate fled Wisconsin to live in a hotel in Illinois. It didn’t exactly do wonders for the Democratic Party’s credibility, but neither did the DNC-organized protests; the nicest protesters compared Walker to Hosni Mubarak, the less generous compared him to–who else–Hitler. In fact, Walker’s reforms were tough but smart, and have provided a much-needed boost to the state’s economy. Fearing the effect of fiscal restraint on their taxpayer-financed largesse, the unions helped organize recall elections for state senators and Walker himself. The GOP survived, and so did the reforms.

And today at National Review Online, Katrina Trinko profiles Reince Priebus, the first-term Republican National Committee chair who has improved the party’s fundraising, kept a lower profile, and stayed more on-message than his predecessor. Priebus is also from Wisconsin.

So what is it about the Badger State? At first glance, Wisconsin might seem an unlikely laboratory for conservative reforms. It hasn’t thrown its electoral votes into the Republican column since 1984–though George W. Bush nearly nabbed the state in 2004. And though it has become more competitive in recent years, that should only make it less given to producing politicians willing to take the political risks Ryan and Walker have. Washington, D.C., isn’t exactly famous for political courage, so reformers take the risk of being demagogued into the ground–having their voters and their caucus scared off. But Wisconsin’s voters aren’t so easily bullied by unions either.

Wisconsin, then, is a peculiar kind of potential swing state. Wisconsin’s conservatives are not only enacting serious reforms, but are encouraging the national party to follow suit. (Compare this with Florida, where politicians walk a very careful line with regard to entitlement reform in an election year.) Is creative conservative reform the path to a Wisconsinite’s heart? Perhaps its liberal leanings have helped. Thompson’s reforms came just as the state was beginning to vote Democratic in presidential elections, and voters seemed to seek some kind of balance–the state hasn’t gone Republican in a presidential election since Thompson became governor, but it has also only had one Democratic governor in that same time (Walker’s predecessor).

Whatever the reason, the success of Wisconsin’s reform-minded politicians suggests the country isn’t as resigned to a welfare state future as many fear. Even without a candidate in a presidential election year, the state remains at the center–and often sets the terms–of the debate.

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Did ObamaCare Help the Democrats?

ObamaCare is the law of the land (for now), the president is out selling it to a skeptical public, and the Democrats are still heading for an election wipeout. The supposed cure-all for the Democrats’ electoral woes — the passage of “historic” legislation that the country was going to learn to love – has proven to be anything but. Hotline reports:

Today, 4 of the 10 most vulnerable Senate seats are open seats held by Democrats, while just 2 are GOP-held open seats. At least 2 of those Dem seats (DE and ND) are leaning toward a GOP pickup. New polling suggests that Dems have a better shot at winning in OH than MO, but these polls simply reflect the current environment. Once the candidates and campaigns begin to engage, we may see those numbers start to bounce around a bit more. At this point, Democrats hold 8 of the top 10 most vulnerable seats, with the potential — should former HHS Sec. Tommy Thompson jump into the WI race or ex-state Sen. Dino Rossi challenge Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) — for the GOP to expand the playing field even further. Our expectation at this point: a GOP pickup of 5-8 seats.

And the same factors that pointed to a wave election — antipathy toward an ultra-liberal agenda, a brewing populist uprising, Democrats’ ethics problems, a tepid economy, high unemployment, and the nagging enthusiasm gap between Democrats and Republicans — persist or have intensified. As The Hill notes: “Almost every Democratic strategist acknowledges the party will lose seats in Congress this fall. The question is whether the loss will be moderate or severe, or even enough to give Republicans control of the House.” So far, generic polling suggests the Democrats haven’t been helped at all by ObamaCare.

Just as many of us predicted, passage of ObamaCare did not end the health-care debate. The debate instead has continued to rage and spread to states as governors and attorneys general decide whether to sue to block its imposition and how to handle the crushing costs it will impose if the courts do not invalidate it. The discussion has now embroiled private industry, which is engaged in a fight with the Obami over write-downs. ObamaCare’s passage has continued to fuel the Tea Party movement, which is finding new respect among the mainstream media. And we can expect that with each sweetheart deal that is uncovered, and with news of continued premium increases, there will be another round of  recriminations, adding fuel to the anti-Democrat furor.

We won’t know if the Democrats would have been worse off had ObamaCare failed. But for now there’s little evidence that it’s helped them.

ObamaCare is the law of the land (for now), the president is out selling it to a skeptical public, and the Democrats are still heading for an election wipeout. The supposed cure-all for the Democrats’ electoral woes — the passage of “historic” legislation that the country was going to learn to love – has proven to be anything but. Hotline reports:

Today, 4 of the 10 most vulnerable Senate seats are open seats held by Democrats, while just 2 are GOP-held open seats. At least 2 of those Dem seats (DE and ND) are leaning toward a GOP pickup. New polling suggests that Dems have a better shot at winning in OH than MO, but these polls simply reflect the current environment. Once the candidates and campaigns begin to engage, we may see those numbers start to bounce around a bit more. At this point, Democrats hold 8 of the top 10 most vulnerable seats, with the potential — should former HHS Sec. Tommy Thompson jump into the WI race or ex-state Sen. Dino Rossi challenge Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) — for the GOP to expand the playing field even further. Our expectation at this point: a GOP pickup of 5-8 seats.

And the same factors that pointed to a wave election — antipathy toward an ultra-liberal agenda, a brewing populist uprising, Democrats’ ethics problems, a tepid economy, high unemployment, and the nagging enthusiasm gap between Democrats and Republicans — persist or have intensified. As The Hill notes: “Almost every Democratic strategist acknowledges the party will lose seats in Congress this fall. The question is whether the loss will be moderate or severe, or even enough to give Republicans control of the House.” So far, generic polling suggests the Democrats haven’t been helped at all by ObamaCare.

Just as many of us predicted, passage of ObamaCare did not end the health-care debate. The debate instead has continued to rage and spread to states as governors and attorneys general decide whether to sue to block its imposition and how to handle the crushing costs it will impose if the courts do not invalidate it. The discussion has now embroiled private industry, which is engaged in a fight with the Obami over write-downs. ObamaCare’s passage has continued to fuel the Tea Party movement, which is finding new respect among the mainstream media. And we can expect that with each sweetheart deal that is uncovered, and with news of continued premium increases, there will be another round of  recriminations, adding fuel to the anti-Democrat furor.

We won’t know if the Democrats would have been worse off had ObamaCare failed. But for now there’s little evidence that it’s helped them.

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Replace and Reform but First Vote

A new Rasmussen poll reveals that ObamaCare is, in fact, a winning issue — for those who want to repeal it:

The latest Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey, conducted on the first two nights after the president signed the bill, shows that 55% favor repealing the legislation. Forty-two percent (42%) oppose repeal. Those figures include 46% who Strongly Favor repeal and 35% who Strongly Oppose it.

And this is the message on which Minority Leader Mitch McConnell says Republicans are going to run on. Politico reports:

Refusing to concede permanent defeat on health reform, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell wants to “repeal the whole bill” and replace it with insurance reforms and other measures that could get bipartisan agreement.

“They got health care,” McConnell told POLITICO with a mischievous glint in his eye. “We’ll see whether that’s a gift worth receiving.”

McConnell said that if Republicans were to win back the Senate majority in November, “at the top of our list would be to repeal and replace this health care bill.”

Politico’s reporter concedes the Republicans aren’t going to get 67 votes needed to override an Obama veto that would greet repeal attempts, but it’s no longer inconceivable that the Senate could flip, leaving the remaining Democrats (especially those up for re-election in 2012) quaking. Republicans have excellent to good shots at picking up Pennsylvania, Delaware, Colorado, Arkansas, North Dakota, Nevada, and Illinois. Throw in Wisconsin (if former governor Tommy Thompson runs) and California as competitive states, and you see a pathway to a GOP Senate takeover. (I suspect both sides are going to be very nice to Independent Joe Lieberman, who may once again be in the catbird seat after the November election.) Certainly there will be other issues — repeal of the Bush tax cuts in 2011, unemployment, and national security. But if you have a large base of active support on one key issue – which the other side obsessively emphasizes — it’s hard to resist making that issue the central focus of the campaign.

If Republicans run and win big on a “Repeal ObamaCare” message, Democrats will once again face a choice: continue to ignore the will of the voters, or take another look at the monstrous health-care entitlement (and the additional mounds of debt accumulated by then). We know Obama’s answer — he’d rather have just one term than give up his grand achievement. But by then, Democrats may have a different answer.

A new Rasmussen poll reveals that ObamaCare is, in fact, a winning issue — for those who want to repeal it:

The latest Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey, conducted on the first two nights after the president signed the bill, shows that 55% favor repealing the legislation. Forty-two percent (42%) oppose repeal. Those figures include 46% who Strongly Favor repeal and 35% who Strongly Oppose it.

And this is the message on which Minority Leader Mitch McConnell says Republicans are going to run on. Politico reports:

Refusing to concede permanent defeat on health reform, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell wants to “repeal the whole bill” and replace it with insurance reforms and other measures that could get bipartisan agreement.

“They got health care,” McConnell told POLITICO with a mischievous glint in his eye. “We’ll see whether that’s a gift worth receiving.”

McConnell said that if Republicans were to win back the Senate majority in November, “at the top of our list would be to repeal and replace this health care bill.”

Politico’s reporter concedes the Republicans aren’t going to get 67 votes needed to override an Obama veto that would greet repeal attempts, but it’s no longer inconceivable that the Senate could flip, leaving the remaining Democrats (especially those up for re-election in 2012) quaking. Republicans have excellent to good shots at picking up Pennsylvania, Delaware, Colorado, Arkansas, North Dakota, Nevada, and Illinois. Throw in Wisconsin (if former governor Tommy Thompson runs) and California as competitive states, and you see a pathway to a GOP Senate takeover. (I suspect both sides are going to be very nice to Independent Joe Lieberman, who may once again be in the catbird seat after the November election.) Certainly there will be other issues — repeal of the Bush tax cuts in 2011, unemployment, and national security. But if you have a large base of active support on one key issue – which the other side obsessively emphasizes — it’s hard to resist making that issue the central focus of the campaign.

If Republicans run and win big on a “Repeal ObamaCare” message, Democrats will once again face a choice: continue to ignore the will of the voters, or take another look at the monstrous health-care entitlement (and the additional mounds of debt accumulated by then). We know Obama’s answer — he’d rather have just one term than give up his grand achievement. But by then, Democrats may have a different answer.

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