Last time Tommy Thompson ran for president, I wrote an op-ed for the Wisconsin State Journal detailing why he could never be president. Looking back, there's not much I'd change about that critique. I would have to add a chapter on his utter failure as Dubya's HHS secretary, and there's always details you're forced to leave out due to space considerations, but the piece translates pretty well from 1995 to 2007. Enjoy....
May 1, 1995, Wisconsin State Journal
President Thompson? Dream on
Although our state media fantasize aloud about the White House every time Gov. Tommy Thompson touches a tarmac outside Wisconsin, Thompson has several seemingly insurmountable barriers to gaining the GOP presidential nomination.
First, he’s never experienced the scrutiny the national media will give him. Even people who think Thompson deserves the Oval Office say that the national news media would subject his personal life to uncomfortable examination. Is America ready for a president who shakes his wife’s hand in a campaign ad? His political appointments and government contracts would undergo similar inquiry. Certainly, the Elroy factory story would resurface, as would some of his appointee’s pasts.
Second, in these days of celluloid candidates and Hollywood packaging, Thompson doesn’t quite fit the mold that the political handlers seek to fill. TV cameras are not kind to Thompson, and pretty boys like Pete Wilson have an advantage. Thompson also lacks a quick wit and suffers a Reaganesque grasp of detail.
Third, the governor has nothing that makes him identifiable, much less attractive, to the twentysomething and thirtysomething voters. There’s nothing hip about Thompson that says to young people "I understand your concerns and share your dreams."
Fourth, Thompson does not seem to have a life beyond politics. It’s dumb, but President Clinton’s saxophone playing, fruitless jogging and obsession with junk food won him votes. The same for George Bush’s love of fishing. Hobbies and human foibles make politicians seem more real, more like "us." Thompson does not seem like one of us.
Thompson’s political agenda is thin. He’s built a career on the messages of "Bad people are taking away your money, and I’m going to stop them," and "Bad people want to hurt you, and I’m going to save you from them." Every two-bit political wannabe chants this tune these days, so it’s neither exciting nor new. Even his call for a two-tear limit on welfare is a reheated Clintonism.
The shallow agenda means that Wisconsin has a host of social problems on which Thompson is eerily silent: racism, illiteracy, sexism, AIDS, domestic violence, ecological degradation, religious intolerance and more. Not that governors can "solve" such problems, but they do contribute to our secular morality and focus public attention.
For instance, relations between whites and blacks to the east, Asians to the west and American Indians to the north are strained, but I’ve not heard Thompson even say that these tensions should be eased, much less that he would help ease them.
Thompson’s narrow focus seems to extend beyond his political life. As distinguishing marks, Lamar Alexander has business and music, Phil Graham has academics, Pat Buchanan has entertainment and Jack Kemp has athletics – Bob Dole even wears his war wound like a crown – but there is no non-political field of endeavor in which Thompson has achieved distinction.
Worse, what little public image Thompson has is as an ill-tempered fellow who speaks a "ya-hey-zone" dialect from the side of his face. Although he’s not as surly as Dole or as boorish as Newt Gingrich, Thompson cannot or will not publicly convey humility, charm or warmth.
Finally, Wisconsin is a demographic wasteland. Shifts in political power follow shifts in economic power and population, which means national parties now want their headliners to come from the South, the West or, in a pinch, the East Coast. If the candidate is from somewhere else, he or she must already have a national name, like Dole. But Thompson governs a state that is not only sparsely populated, poor in diversity and politically impoverished, but considered by the rest of the nation to be frozen tundra inhabited by illiterates.
Most of America can’t find Wisconsin on a map, much less name its governor. When Kemp and Dan Quayle dropped out of contention for the GOP nomination and CNN reviewed the list of remaining "possibilities," Thompson’s name was not mentioned. His absence was repeated in the Associated Press account of the "GOP field" when Gingrich dropped out.
President Tommy Thompson? Only in his sweetest dreams.
Update: After this piece ran, one of the WSJ editorial board members called me to ask "How did you get that into print? Was Frank Denton on vacation? We've got a list of Tommy's girlfriends, but we're not even allowed to mention the issue." Denton was the publisher at the time and, apparently, a protector of Tommy.