POLITICS JANUARY 15, 2001
Here are some of the things for which Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson is best known: He opposes abortion rights and signed into law a measure so restrictive the U.S. Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional. He fights with teachers' unions and helped bring a school-voucher pilot program to Milwaukee. Finally, and most famously, he despises welfare, having signed one of the first laws requiring single mothers to work in order to receive government assistance.
So it's no wonder conservatives are so gleeful that President-elect George W. Bush has tapped Thompson to run the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). "An outstanding appointment," gushed conservative activist Gary Bauer. "On, Wisconsin," cheered the Wall Street Journal editorial page. Time.com pronounced Thompson a "conservative star."
But don't be surprised if, within a year or two, Thompson has lost favor among conservatives. Yes, he has attacked big government. But he's also expanded Wisconsin's state-run health insurance program. Yes, he has opposed abortion rights. But he's also promoted stem-cell research. And, yes, he has taken on teachers' unions. But he's also befriended the transportation unions in an effort to revive Amtrak, whose board he chairs.
Indeed, the more you learn about Thompson's career, the more you discern a pattern. He starts off making doctrinaire conservative pronouncements—attacking big government, criticizing liberal permissiveness, and so on. But, once he actually has to run things, he veers left, in many cases embracing large government programs that, if applied on a federal level, would make Republicans apoplectic. This doesn't make Thompson a liberal, but it doesn't make him much of a conservative, either. In fact, it's not hard to imagine the new HHS secretary becoming a rather unpopular character among the Republican faithful—and with the new president as well.
Thompson's drift from right to left is best displayed in his signature cause: welfare reform. Initially, Thompson attacked welfare in crude, race-baiting terms. In 1986, during his first gubernatorial campaign, he described Wisconsin as a welfare magnet whose excessive generosity attracted the urban poor from neighboring states. When Anthony Earl, the incumbent Democrat, warned that Thompson's proposed benefit cuts would turn Wisconsin into Mississippi, Thompson shot back that Earl was turning Wisconsin into Mississippi already.
Thompson won the race, but, as governor, his early "reforms" consisted of tiny, ineffectual pilot programs. Then, in 1993, just before the Republican congressional rout put welfare back on the national agenda, a group of maverick Democrats decided to call Thompson's bluff. They offered to end welfare altogether—with the understanding that Wisconsin would create a New Deal- style jobs program that required work but rewarded it with a reasonable wage. The measure passed the state legislature, in part because many Democrats assumed it would force the governor into an embarrassing veto. Indeed, Thompson's own health and social services secretary had promised as much. But Thompson signed the law, proudly proclaiming that he was leading the nation in welfare reform. And he was. When President Clinton finally signed the national welfare reform act of 1996, the federal government was in effect ratifying exactly what Wisconsin had already done.
Except that Wisconsin was about to take its reforms many steps further. The original 1994 Wisconsin legislation was actually just a policy skeleton; the real transformation was in the details. As the program took shape under the aegis of "Wisconsin Works" (a.k.a. "W-2"), the reform conservatives had hailed began looking more and more like a program liberals could love, with more money for job counseling, last- resort public works jobs, child care, transportation, and so on. Today participants in W-2 get far more money and services than the old welfare recipients ever did, with benefit levels now 20 percent higher than they were just five years ago.
Some liberals still insist that Wisconsin is better at trimming the assistance rolls than at actually lifting people out of poverty. But if the state doesn't find attractive jobs for everyone formerly on welfare, it's doing a better job than just about anywhere else. Under Thompson's leadership, Wis- consin has created a seamless social safety net for low-income workers that looks more like a European social welfare state than anything else you'll find in the United States. And Wisconsin is still expanding it, most recently by improving health care through a program called BadgerCare.
BadgerCare began as an effort to claim federal money, made available through the State Children's Health Insurance Program (S-CHIP), for insuring the children of poor families. Even as less enthusiastic governors—most notably a certain Republican in Texas—were looking for ways to avoid implementing the program, Thompson eagerly pushed eligibility up to 200 percent over the poverty line. More important, his administration realized that the key to getting kids insured was to get their parents covered, too— so they applied for, and received, a federal waiver to make parents eligible as well. The results: So far, 77,000 people have enrolled, while 25,000 (most of them even poorer) have found their way to Medicaid thanks to BadgerCare's aggressive outreach. "Even when the program ran out of money, within the last year. Tommy told Joe [Leann, Wisconsin's secretary for family services], 'Don't kick anybody out,'" says David Riemer, the director of administration in Milwaukee and an architect of W-2. "Tommy said, 'We'll find the money."'
It is possible that Thompson pushed these reforms through just to polish his image. Having hitched his star to welfare reform, it was in his interest to forge whatever deals he needed to make the program succeed. But Thompson could have simply slashed the welfare rolls without spending the money to find jobs for former recipients—a politically successful formula for most GOP governors. His decision not to is strong evidence of ideological transgression. As is his ideological lineage. Just as Thompson talks about the strong work ethic he inherited from his German father, a small-town grocer who put young Tommy to work polishing eggs in the store, he also talks about his Catholic mother's abiding interest in social justice. The closer you look, the more Thompson's behavior seems in line with Wisconsin's progressive tradition, a tradition that has long crossed party lines.
Regardless of his motivation, Thompson's commitment to ereating an FDR-style jobs program has been strong enough to impress quite a few would-be critics. "For the future of welfare reform. Governor Thompson is an excellent choice," says Bruce Reed, the longtime White House domestic policy guru who might well have been HHS secretary had Al Gore won the election. "He has never shortchanged the efforts in Wisconsin, and I think it has been a real model for the rest of the country." Even Wendell Primus, who resigned from Clinton's HHS over welfare reform and finds Wisconsin's law too punitive, lauds Thompson's willingness to spend money on the poor.
If Thompson behaves in Washington the way he's behaved in Madison, at least some conflict with conservatives seems inevitable. The federal welfare law will come up for reauthorization in 2002, and, while it should pass easily, there will be fights over what to do with unspent welfare funds. Congressional Republicans have already suggested taking some of the money back and cutting future grants in order to free up more money for tax cuts. Thompson opposed such measures as governor and would probably do so again at HHS.
Health care reform could also spark tension. At the press conference announcing his appointment, Thompson made it clear that he expects to have a hand in crafting Bush's health care policies. But health care is precisely where Thompson's penchant for spending money and expanding programs will run up against right-wing doctrine on fiscal policy and the role of government. During the campaign. Bush demonized Gore's proposals as big government and committed himself to loose regulation and tax credits. Yet, in Wisconsin, Thompson has created the very kinds of programs that Gore advocated and Bush bashed.
Even on abortion, where Thompson is usually described as staunchly pro-life, he may give conservatives fits. Thompson believes in the turn-of-the-century "Wisconsin Idea"—that government and academia are partners in progress—and it's one reason he has been an eager proponent of stem-cell research on extracted embryo cells, in which the University of Wisconsin has been a leader. That's exactly the kind of research anti-abortionists want to ban. And as head of HHS, which has oversight over the National Institutes of Health and all sorts of research regulations, Thompson will be at the center of the fight.
Indeed, the real question is not Tommy Thompson's convictions but George W Bush's. W.'s father faced a similar situation: a Cabinet bereft of strong domestic policy experience, save for one crusader who just wouldn't shut up about getting more money to the working poor. The elder Bush dealt with Jack Kemp by ostracizing him, and Kemp took his dissent public. It's hard to imagine Thompson, who's more of a team player, doing the same. More likely, he'd quietly step down. Which is why the best measure of the Bush administration's domestic policy may be how long Thompson keeps working on it.
Jonathan Cohn is a senior editor at The New Republic.
This article originally ran in the January 15, 2001, issue of the magazine.