Republican pragmatist is presidential timber

September 28, 1997|By Barry Rascovar

MADISON, Wis. -- He's not exactly Mr. Scintillating or Mr. Charisma, but Tommy Thompson seems to have what it takes to make a good president.

Yet the three-term Wisconsin governor isn't even on the radar screen of Republicans thinking about the 2000 presidential election.

Instead, the spotlight is focusing on retreads like Dan Quayle, Steve Forbes, Pat Buchanan and Lamar Alexander and a governor, George W. Bush, whose reputation outside of Texas comes from being the son of an ex-president.

That's a pity, because Tommy Thompson goes about the business of governing the way it should be done. His approach isn't ideological or deeply partisan -- though that may be what it takes to win the Republican nomination in three years.

Results count

Instead, Mr. Thompson takes a stubbornly pragmatic view: The only thing that counts is the result.

''I believe that you use what works,'' he told the National Conference of Editorial Writers recently. He said he inherited a strong conservative philosophy in small-town Elroy from his father, but one steeped in Wisconsin's progressive tradition that dictates, as Mr. Thompson put it, ''If you're going to be in public service, you have to make government run.''

He has abided by that belief since moving into the Governor's House on Lake Mendota in 1986. A man who had been a staunchly traditional Republican with a reputation as a legislative leader for blanket opposition to gubernatorial initiatives (critics called him ''Dr. No'') surprised everyone with his nonpartisan pragmatism.

Tommy Thompson goes about the business of governing the way it should be done. His approach isn't ideological or deeply partisan -- though that may be what it takes to win the Republican nomination in three years.

His big claims to fame at the moment are welfare reform and championing a school choice option in Milwaukee. In each case, he has fashioned a program based on what works, not what party doctrine dictates.

For instance, he says choice is only one of many steps Wisconsin is taking to improve urban schools -- including setting up education standards and high school graduation tests. ''It's not the panacea,'' he said of school choice, but the experiment in Milwaukee (which must clear Supreme Court scrutiny) seems to be working as a piece of the education puzzle.

On welfare, Mr. Thompson has succeeded in ending the discredited program in Wisconsin, which pleases conservatives.

But he has pumped large sums of taxpayer dollars into this new program -- which pleases liberals -- to give those coming off the dole the tools they need to find and keep a job: education; work skills and training; transportation; health-care coverage, and adequate child care.

No other state has taken such a comprehensive approach. That's why so much media attention is focused on Wisconsin.

The Thompson initiative, unlike programs in other states, isn't cheap. Just to set up a statewide child-care system for low-income parents getting off welfare will cost $180 million next year. Health-care coverage could be even more expensive.

"That may be a liberal philosophy," he said, maybe even a little "socialistic . . . but it's the right thing to do."

Listening to Mr. Thompson is refreshing. He's not driven by philosophical or political imperatives. Like the vast majority of us, he goes about his job looking for solutions, regardless of where the answers come from.

Given the right P.R. ''spin,'' he could be a pleasant addition to the presidential crowd in 2000. He is self-effacing and polite, disarmingly amusing, with a small-town boy's earnestness.

Mr. Thompson also has an iconoclastic streak: He rides a Harley-Davidson.

Three years ago, he drove his Harley around the state promoting a new baseball stadium for the Milwaukee Brewers. Two years ago, he did it to promote the five pro football teams that train in Wisconsin.


This year, his ''bikercade'' promoted a memorial to law-enforcement officers. And next year, he and his fellow Wisconsin Harley devotees are biking to Washington to boost the state's sesquicentennial.

All that and bold policy initiatives, too.

Of course, the guy's got flaws.

He came off sounding like a sore loser when Bob Dole gave him short shrift while picking a GOP running mate in 1996. He can erupt if press questions get too tough.

And he can mangle the English language on occasion, as one local columnist noted.

But he may be the best representative of the nation's 50 governors, who deal every day with nitty-gritty, real-life problems -- something Washington politicians rarely have to face.

Barry Rascovar is deputy editorial-page editor of The Sun.

Pub Date: 9/28/97

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