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Tommy's Empty Tank

Tommy Thompson, Karl Rove, and the True Death of Compassionate Conservatism

There was a certain poetic genius to the fact that when Tommy Thompson decided to finally throw in the towel on Sunday, abandoning his long-shot bid for the presidency, the news was quickly overshadowed by word of Karl Rove's departure from the White House. Rove's resignation elicited conspiracy theories about impending criminal investigations and prompted new rounds of critical obituaries for the Bush presidency he handmaidened. By contrast, Thompson's exit, where it was noticed at all, served only as an opportunity to rehash some of his campaign's memorable gaffes and to print--possibly for the last time--photographs showing off his distinctly unpresidential multitude of chins.

It's hard to remember now, but well before Rove became a household name, Thompson was among the folks considered to be the future of the GOP. Along with fellow 1990s Republican governors Jim Edgar (Illinois), John Engler (Michigan), George Voinovich (Ohio), George Pataki (New York), Tom Ridge (Pennsylvania), Christine Todd Whitman (New Jersey), William Weld (Massachusetts) and Marc Racicot (Montana), the Wisconsin governor was portrayed as the thinking man's Republican, mixing conservative ideals with the practical job of governing--a neat counterpoint to the snarling, obstructionist, impeachment-happy culture warriors in the party's congressional leadership. While the cohort's stellar reputations may have owed less to their executive brilliance than to the booming economy of the Clinton era, they collectively presented an image of a party voters might trust to educate their children, protect their drinking water, and otherwise engage in the bland, grown-up business of running a country.

It was no surprise, then, that when the 2000 election rolled around, Rove busily cast his candidate as yet another member of the earnest GOP governors' club. Thanks to Texas' weak governorship, or perhaps George W. Bush's public affection for the death penalty, that mother of all wedge issues, he never had quite the same post-partisan reputation as Thompson and the others. Yet Bush's first presidential campaign played up the soft, commodious aspects of his politics--the Spanish-speaking, the MBA, the cross-party tortilla-eating of Austin during a legislative session--while limiting his public communications with the party's partisan base to the occasional dog-whistle. A glance at the popular-vote results suggests the campaign was hardly an unqualified success, but Bush ultimately took the White House, and it stood to reason he'd bring his fellow gubernatorial types to Washington with him.

Things didn't turn out that way. Initially, only Thompson and Whitman were tapped for Bush's first cabinet. While the New Jerseyan was made administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency in a sop to moderates (within the culture of celebrated GOP governors, the fey northeasterners were always more suspect than the stolid Midwestern types), Thompson was supposed to become a star. As Secretary of Health and Human Services, he would bring with him the knack for policy nitty-gritty that made Wisconsin a pioneer in conservative causes like welfare reform and school choice. So would jut-jawed Vietnam vet Ridge, summoned to Washington after 9/11 as Bush's homeland-security advisor and later as the nation's first Secretary of Homeland Security. Though the three came from diverse ideological backgrounds, each of them had a record as a popular, non-polarizing leader of a blue state--perfect figures for the build-a-better-mousetrap image Bush wished to convey.

Their star turns, though, never came. Whitman found herself undercut and humiliated by an administration that had little interest in her moderate, northeastern Republican idea of balancing business and green interests. Dominated by westerners, the administration handed industrial interests nearly everything they wanted, making Whitman look like a stage prop. Ridge didn't fare much better. Handed a sprawling agency with an ill-defined mission, he quickly shrunk in the public mind from being the savvy leader of a transformative exercise in government to being the hemmed-in chief bureaucrat in charge of airport lines. It was bureaucracy for bureaucracy's sake, the antithesis of good-government conservatism.

As for Thompson, the original compassionate conservative, there would be no small-government incarnation of the great society on his watch. Rather than reinventing Medicaid, Thompson was called on to twist Republican arms in favor of Bush's prescription drug benefit, working the floor of Congress itself--despite a traditional prohibition against lobbying inside the chamber--during the controversial "long vote" that ensured the measure's passage. It's hard to imagine Thompson the reformist governor being enamored of the open-ended, fuzzy-numbered, nakedly political bill that Thompson the Bush administration factotum helped pass. Elsewhere, Thompson's department was thoroughly politicized, with the former governor forced to swallow base-pleasing edicts on things like stem cell research while subordinates such as Surgeon General Richard Carmona were obliged to criss-cross the country praising President Bush. Like Ridge and Whitman, he was gone at the end of the first term.

One man who might once have milked political capital out of surrounding the president with guys like Thompson was Karl Rove. But by 2002, the architect had grabbed a new persona for his president: Bush 2.0, the guy who will protect you from terrorists and from all those sissies who see shades of gray. There was little place in this new style for digressions into good-government policy chatter. With the Bush administration setting the example, public affection for Republicans has tanked right along with expectations for their governing competence. Once said to be the party's future, the model of Thompson's generation of governors--the low-intensity political style, and, more important, the emphasis on non-defense/tax issues like health care or social services--is officially dead, too.

Six years after Bush first took office, it's illustrative to look what's become of the gubernatorial Republicans who drew so much praise during the 1990s. All of their states are now run by Democrats. Only one--Voinovich, elected to the Senate in 1998--remains in government. But he is a pariah to many in his own party, having broken with Bush over John Bolton and famously melted down during an on-air rumble with rightist Sean Hannity in June. Pataki, who briefly mulled a presidential campaign, is similarly suspect, having drifted leftward during his 12 years running New York. The first of the Clinton-era Republican governors to come to Washington, William Weld, suffered perhaps the greatest ignominy at the hands of his own party: After being nominated as Clinton's ambassador to Mexico, Weld found his nomination scotched by conservative stalwart Jesse Helms. So much for all that Republican excitement about his reforms to Michael Dukakis's old government.

Thompson's presidential campaign, of course, suffered from an ailment that has nothing to do with the state of the modern GOP: He was a bumblingly inept candidate. But even if he were a Clintonian back-slapper, Thompson wasn't going anywhere. Welfare reform and health care policy, or whatever other practical mousetrap-improvement proposals a conservative wonk may offer, just don't move the Republican electorate. (The actual governors remaining in the race, Arkansas' Mike Huckabee and one-term Massachusetts chief executive Mitt Romney, appear more comfortable mouthing pat slogans about "leadership" than offering a conservative version of well-intentioned programs.)

Of course, before casting Rove as the villain in the GOP's abandonment of the gubernatorial goody-goodies of Thompson's generation, it's worth going back to the scoreboard. When he ran his candidate as a policy-paper perusing governor, Rove and the GOP lost by half a million votes and dipped to 50 seats in the Senate. Waging total politics, at least the first couple times, led to more successful results. Rove didn't so much betray the wonks as cast them aside when they proved unpalatable to any body of voters not dominated by the likes of David Broder. Rove's time may have passed in 2006, but Thompson's had passed well before it.

By Michael Currie Schaffer