Tommy Thompson’s Obsolescence


John Chiat

The New Republic

Tommy Thompson is a popular former Wisconsin governor and Bush-era HHS Secretary. When Senator Herb Kohl announced his retirement, Republican leaders tabbed him to run for the seat, and his candidacy would give the party by far its strongest chance of winning. Unfortunately, Thompson not only endorsed plans very similar to the Affordable Care Act — something a great many Republicans did prior to 2009 — he virtually endorsed the plan itself. And now conservatives want somebody else to run. See if you can detect a theme in these comments:

“The world has changed, politically. In this environment, if you can’t defend your role in health care reform, you’ve got a problem,” said Chris Chocola, president of the Club for Growth. …

“The Tommy Thompson brand has faded. Delegates I talked to said it felt at best like nostalgia,” said one Republican who attended the convention and counts himself as a supporter of Mark Neumann, a former congressman who ran unsuccessfully in the gubernatorial primary last year.

Even his allies say Thompson needs to find a way to rebrand himself after so many years out of elected politics, a period of time in which the state party built a new stable of conservative leaders including Rep. Paul Ryan, Gov. Scott Walker and now Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus.

“If you want to define the conservative movement, it’s different in the 90s than it is today. We’re in a different economy, a different mind-set of what a conservative is. If you put that standard of being a conservative against Tommy’s record, it may not be entirely fair. The definition of conservatism has changed,” said Jack Voight, a former GOP state treasurer in Wisconsin. …

“I have never known Tommy to be a conservative. He was always friendly with unions,” said Wisconsin GOP activist Don Holt, who has run unsuccessfully for office twice. “There was a time Tommy was good for Wisconsin, but conservatives believe that time has passed.”

The theme here is that what passed for acceptable conservatism a decade ago is now unacceptable moderation. Indeed, this is the problem afflicting most of the Republican presidential field as well. Mitt Romney utterly remade himself to run for president in 2008, gaining a reputation as a pure opportunist, only to discover that his fully acceptable circa-2008 conservatism had been rendered obsolete by the party’s anti-health care reform jihad. Tim Pawlenty has had to jettison support for cap and trade just as Romney jettisoned other positions four years ago, but his only moderately hostile record vis a vis labor stands in disappointing contrast with the state of the art eliminationist stance of newfound icons like Scott Walker. Even Newt Gingrich, who once defined Republican radicalism, found himself excommunicated for noting the sheer radicalism of the Paul Ryan budget.

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