Wednesday, August 8, 2007

White Knight, Dark Horse or Court Jester: Getting a read on Tommy Thompson

It's a little tacky to downplay the local team, but the reality is Tommy Thompson's chances for getting elected president are even less than mine of being the next spokesman for Jenny Craig.

Still, our former governor has been lighting little fires on his lonesome RV trip to all 99 Iowa counties -- enough that some people are wondering if he's for real.

I mean, when a presidential hopeful says he'll end breast cancer by 2015, you have to wonder.

Those who wonder don't know the real Tommy from Elroy.

First, we need to get out of the way that Tommy is no political dummy. He didn't get elected to four terms as governor by being stupid.

And, while his Elroy roots show that he's not a blue blood, Tommy can hold his own with the corporate types when he needs to and ride his Harley when he wants to.

He's complex, controversial and, well, real, flaws and all.

As governor Tommy heralded some pretty exciting stuff -- Wisconsin Works which ended Wisconsin's dubious status as a welfare magnet and replaced welfare with workfare, school choice which allows children and families options to escape failing inner city schools and Badger Care to provide some medical hope for the working poor.

Of course, many politicians would support these and other glitzy ideas just to make a name for themselves. Not Tommy.

Let me share this one example.

I was invited to join a group of local officials who had a meeting to discuss welfare reform with Tommy. The meeting was arranged by a Republican legislator as a courtesy to his constituents and he dutifully made he thought would be a brief "photo op."

Not so.

The poor guy squirmed for a couple of hours because Tommy came in with a yellow legal pad, sat down and asked, "How can we make this work?" And during that time we batted around dozens of ideas -- substantive things, not fluff -- as Tommy tried to flesh them out and write down the best and the brightest.

The problem is that Tommy deep down inside truly believed in welfare reform -- the dignity of a job and the benefits to individuals, families and communities when people get paychecks instead of welfare checks. For Tommy, this wasn't just politics, it really was within his heart and soul. And with his wife and daughter breast cancer survivors, you can understand why he's so passionate about eradicating breat cancer.

Though Tommy labeled himself a conservative, he probably was a little more toward the center that most. He certainly found many opportunities to work with Democrats in the legislature.

Because of these things Tommy may well be the perfect candidate to traverse Iowa where ideas and common sense are celebrated. He very well may not win the straw poll later this month but he may help set part of the agenda for next year's presidential campaign. He seems to be the only candidate who isn't uttering variations on the same sound byte.

Still, Tommy for president is a long shot. As for being the second fiddle on someone else's ticket, anything is possible but my gut tells me he'd be a bit too independent.

But if the question is whether Tommy is for real, the answer is: yes.

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