Tommy Thompson’s Gam­ble

Ge­orge F. Will

The Washington Post Sunday - - Outlook -

In the past 24 elec­tions, since 1912, win­ners of the pres­i­dency won a plu­ral­ity of the states along the Mis­sis­sippi River.

To­day the Repub­li­can pres­i­den­tial can­di­date with per­haps the most im­pres­sive ré­sumé says: Repub­li­cans should as­sume that in 2008 they will lose Ohio (20 elec­toral votes), where the state party’s cor­rup­tion and in­com­pe­tence cost it the gov­er­nor­ship, a U.S. Se­nate seat and a House seat in 2006. So the GOP can­di­date must carry Iowa, Wis­con­sin and Min­nesota (27 elec­toral votes). In 2004, Ge­orge W. Bush nar­rowly car­ried Iowa and nar­rowly lost Wis­con­sin and Min­nesota, the only state that has voted Demo­cratic in eight con­sec­u­tive elec­tions.

The man with the im­pres­sive ré­sumé is Tommy Thompson, who says he can carry those three Mid­west­ern states. He served four terms as Wis­con­sin’s gov­er­nor and four years (2001-05) as sec­re­tary of health and hu­man ser­vices, where he presided over a $580 bil­lion bud­get, larger than the com­bined bud­gets of the eight largest states.

Re­gard­ing Iraq, he would chal­lenge that coun­try’s gov­ern­ment to rele­git­imize the U.S. pres­ence by vot­ing to ask U.S. forces to re­main. If the gov­ern­ment does not, the United States would leave. If it does, it should then en­cour­age vol­un­tary eth­nic re­arrange­ments by es­tab­lish­ing fed­er­al­ism — strong gov­ern­ments in all 18 prov­inces — where Sun­nis, Shi­ites and Kurds can clus­ter un­der gov­ern­ments of their kind. Then it should di­vide oil rev­enue, one-third to the na­tional gov­ern­ment, one-third to the pro­vin­cial gov­ern­ments and one-third to Iraqi in­di­vid­u­als, much as Alaska does with its oil trust fund.

As gov­er­nor, Thompson was the pro­gen­i­tor of what be­came the great­est so­cial pol­icy suc­cess of the 1990s: the na­tional wel­fare re­form of 1996 that has re­duced the states’ wel­fare rolls an av­er­age of 60 per­cent. He is even prouder of his ef­forts for school choice. He an­nounced his pres­i­den­tial cam­paign at Mess­mer High School in Mil­wau­kee, an in­ner-city Catholic in­sti­tu­tion that has flour­ished in the com­pe­ti­tion for stu­dents and in its free­dom from ed­u­ca­tional bu­reau­cracy: 90 per­cent of its grad­u­ates con­tinue their ed­u­ca­tion at col­lege or vo­ca­tional or tech­ni­cal schools. Do Iowans ask him about ed­u­ca­tion? With char­ac­ter­is­tic blunt­ness, he says: “No, but I talk about it.”

In seven years, health care will, he says, de­vour $4 tril­lion an­nu­ally, which will be 21 per­cent of gross do­mes­tic prod­uct. It is, he ar­gues, ir­ra­tional to spend just 7 per­cent on pre­ven­tion of sick­ness and 93 per­cent on treat­ment. Seven­ty­five per­cent of health spend­ing goes to treat the 125 mil­lion Amer­i­cans who have one or more chronic ill­nesses, such as Type 2 di­a­betes, which is re­lated to the epi­demic of obe­sity. In five years, or sooner, such di­a­betes may in­volve 62 mil­lion Amer­i­cans and cost $400 bil­lion. Sixty per­cent of th­ese cases could, he says, be pre­vented by walk­ing 30 min­utes a day and los­ing 5 to 10 per­cent of body weight.

He has not yet lost much weight rais­ing money, but he ex­pects to have the $2.5 mil­lion he thinks will en­able him to win Iowa. That, he thinks, will be a sling­shot that hurls him to­ward Feb. 5, when per­haps 21 states will vote. Win Iowa, he says, and New Hamp­shire be­comes win- nable. Then, pro­pelled by free me­dia at­ten­tion, he can be lead­ing the few sur­viv­ing can­di­dates on Feb. 5. He says he would bet $100 to $5 that his bet­ter­fi­nanced Repub­li­can ri­vals would swap their money for his or­ga­ni­za­tion in Iowa, where he has vis­ited 33 of 99 coun­ties and will con­cen­trate most of his en­er­gies, leav­ing the re­main­der for New Hamp­shire and South Carolina.

Iowa, how­ever, is of­ten an in­suf­fi­cient sling­shot. Among the win­ners of Iowa who failed to win New Hamp­shire are Ge­orge H.W. Bush (1980), Wal­ter Mon­dale (1984), Dick Gephardt (1988) and Ge­orge W. Bush (2000).

Still, Thompson is con­fi­dent that the Repub­li­can nom­i­nee will be­come pres­i­dent. The Clin­tons’ ma­chine, he says, will whit­tle Barack Obama down to size, de­flect John Ed­wards and se­cure Hil­lary Clin­ton’s nom­i­na­tion, and she, he in­sists, is un­electable. He says he al­ready has 1,800 Iowa sup­port­ers promis­ing to bring five friends each to the straw poll in Ames on Aug. 11, so he is con­fi­dent he will eas­ily top the 7,418 votes Ge­orge W. Bush won there in 1999.

Then there is the Stur­gis Fac­tor. Thompson, who rides a Mil­wau­kee-made Har­ley, is a mem­ber of the Stur­gis Mo­tor­cy­cle Hall of Fame in Stur­gis, S.D. (pop­u­la­tion 6,260). Ev­ery Au­gust about half a mil­lion mo­tor­cy­clists gather there to en­joy the plea­sure of one an­other’s com­pany. This year’s gath­er­ing (Aug. 6-12) co­in­cides with Iowa’s straw poll. It would be a mere 660-mile ride for some Iowa bik­ers to get from Stur­gis to Ames.

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