Op Ed

Walker Is No Tommy Thompson

But in his less inclusive, more political way, he may be just as successful.

By - Jun 1st, 2017 03:56 pm
Scott Walker and Tommy Thompson.

Scott Walker and Tommy Thompson.

Tommy Thompson surfaced briefly in the news on the 30th anniversary of the beginning of the first of what would be come a record four terms as governor of Wisconsin.

The attention paid to arguably the state’s most successful politician comes at a time when the state’s current governor, Scott Walker, looks to be heading down the same kind of longevity run.

Walker loves to run for office. He runs for something every two years and has hit the stumps a dozen times. So it comes as no surprise that he will be running in 2018 for a third term as governor.

It is too early to speculate about a fourth term. But he is still a relatively young man. He would be 55 in 2022.

That’s not to say the Democrats will concede a third term, but the desolate state of the party offers relatively smooth sailing for him next year in most parts of the state, with the exceptions of the cities of Milwaukee and Madison. Major Democratic contenders have taken a pass.

Pendulums swing quickly in politics, but the Democrats have lost a message that sells. In the Progressive tradition, they offer a never-ending stream of expanding government programs. They offer subsidies to create a deeper and wider safety net.

Republicans offer more upside with a prosperity message, coupled with a more tightly managed safety net. Walker calls his platform a trampoline versus a hammock.

There are many comparisons to be made between Walker and Thompson. But they aligned completely on making Wisconsin one of the most business friendly states. One of those rankings (always suspect for their methodologies) recently put the state in the top ten for business.

Tommy was a cheerleader for business and the state, and so is Walker. Both are upbeat in tone. Thompson’s opening line was often: “Isn’t it a great day in Wisconsin?” Walker’s tag line is” “Wisconsin is Open for Business.”

When I was serving a term as chair of the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance, Thompson stormed in to object to an accurate but less-than-sterling grading of the start’s economy and tax climate. He pounded the podium and stormed out. It was great theater.

Democratic Gov. Pat Lucey was pro-business before Thompson. He was famous for his hallmark property tax exemption for manufacturing machinery and equipment. Where are such pro-growth Democrats today?

Smart strategy or not, Walker doubled down on the state’s manufacturing bet with a Lucey-like tax break by eliminating most of the state income tax on manufacturing and agri-business. A case can be made for diversifying beyond those two bedrock sectors of the Wisconsin economy. But it was a bold stroke.

An adversarial posture toward corporations may have played well back in the day when unions were a dominant force, but the confrontational strategies and tactics have given way to more collaborative management models in places of work.

That holds true whether organizations are non-union or still unionized. Global competition doesn’t allow for costly friction within a workforce or rigid work rules. Every employee has to be fully engaged in the success of an enterprise.

Union membership is way down.

The Thompson/Walker positive spin on the numbers has never wavered, even when job growth, wage levels, startup vitality and share of national GDP have long lagged the median for the 50 states.

Both governors can do a 45-minute riff on their upbeat themes without looking at a note. Both are down-to-earth and engaging. Tommy had a genius for working a room. He’s legendary for remembering people and names. Both have the Wisconsin vernacular in their language.

They are, however, far from clones.

Thompson’s approach to governing was inclusive. He created dozens of task forces and commissions to dig into complex policy matters on topics as diverse as export stimulation, juvenile justice and jobs for the next century. (Disclosure: I served on several of them.)

Like good CEOs in business, he encouraged a diversity of thought from experts in a field. He would listen hard to a distillation of the dialogue, slice and dice the conclusions for political impact, strike a direction and then set the wheels in motion to bring about constructive improvements. He was an incisive and decisive executive.

He loved policy and believed good policy made for good politics. He often said he would use his accumulated political chips to get things done.

Thompson’s signature legislation was W2 — Wisconsin Works – that tied work requirements to welfare subsidies. It spread across the nation and to the UK and Western Europe. Welfare rolls dropped.

Walker works differently, albeit in more partisan times. Like his predecessor, Democrat Gov. Jim Doyle, his decisions are shaped by a tight group of staff people in the governor’s office. The cards are kept close to the vest. Task forces and commissions are rarely used. His cabinet is in the background.

In that vein, his signature legislation — Act 10 to shackle public unions – came as a complete surprise to almost everyone, including GOP insiders.

That hardball law fit his formula: hard calls to cut or hold the line on taxes, while undercutting political opposition, all in the same stroke. Walker is more about politics than policy.

While Thompson was able to work across the aisle for some votes, Walker gets next to none from the Democrats. The times are hyper-partisan.

Walker has become a national figure through his hardball politics. Thompson hit the national scene with innovative policies like school choice.

Both made legitimate runs for the Republican presidential nomination. Both would have been better candidates than the two men who won the nominations in 2012 and 2016.

John Torinus is the chairman of Serigraph Inc. and a former Milwaukee Sentinel business editor who blogs regularly at johntorinus.com.

Categories: Op-Ed, Politics

18 thoughts on “Op Ed: Walker Is No Tommy Thompson”

  1. Jason says:

    John it is very hard to be inclusive when the other side of the aisle keeps screaming I hate you, or if we could impeach you we would, or maybe some one will threaten his life. How do you work with Senators that hide out in Illinois just so no votes are taken. How do you work in an environment where mobs storm the court house and threaten violence. On a different note, Tommy had a lot going for him. A Wisconsin economy that was a juggernaut. We had 50,000 more high paying manufacturing jobs, productivity gains were impressive. Tommy really never needed to cut government because the tax rolls were growing at such a high pace. Housing was extensive and with that property taxes grew as well. We could afford to pay lavish benefits to government workers but now is a different world.

  2. Jake formerly of the LP says:

    And Torinus is slides further into foolishness. You wonder why Milwaukee lost the most jobs of any metro in America when this money-grubbing clown is considered a “business leader.”

    Tommy cared about results of his policies. Walker does not, and it shows. Get out of the cultural trash hole known as West Bend and realize what a wreck this state is.

  3. WashCoRepub says:

    When you listen to Governor Walker give an interview, his ability to clearly and calmly lay out his vision and his goals is second to none. He has the gift of being able to make a point or repeat a series of key policy phrases (such as ‘reform dividend’) without making it sound overly mechanical or rehearsed. Couple that with the strong economic performance Wisconsin is experiencing and the low unemployment, and the Democrats are going to have a formidable challenge. It will be interesting to see what comes out of their convention this weekend, and if anyone takes that opportunity to declare as an opponent.

  4. Vincent Hanna says:

    WashCoRepub: He’s your boss right?

    Threaten violence? Look at all the white supremacists murdering people Jason. And I didn’t realize you were so delicate. You sound like a crybaby.

  5. Jason says:

    Vince, the next Star Wars movie doesn’t come out til December that is when you will see Storm Troopers. Where are all these white Supremacists. I will grab my light saber and join you for some ethnic cleansing.

  6. Daddy3Girls says:

    Walker’s one shining accomplishment is declaring cheese as the state’s official dairy product. Everything else he takes credit for has been on the coattails of the Obama economy. Watch out for the drain.

  7. tim haering says:

    TGT reached across the aisle out of necessity. Chvala ran the Senate. Walker has always had the luxury of a trifecta.

  8. Vincent Hanna says:

    Walker’s Wisconsin = “Anemic Job Figures”

    Wages and employment fell sharply in 2016 in Wisconsin’s manufacturing sector, the biggest piston in the state’s economy, in a year that also saw the state’s weakest overall job performance since the 2008-’09 recession.


    Jason and WashCoRepub, zip it.

  9. Wis. Conservative Dgiest says:

    Both Tommy and Walker are effective governors under different situations. Tommy came in to clan up Earl mess. I liked Tony but poor gov. Walker did great job in cleaning up the mess of Doyle did not wreck schools, stopped the outlaw of jobs and the state is far better off then any of the governors of the Left in my lifetime.
    The Lefties on this site are funny. Notice how many times Walker has been elected?

  10. Wis. Conservative Dgiest says:

    Wisconsin has the most people working in our history, lowest unemployment. Tommy created 750,000 jobs in 14 years.

  11. Tim says:

    “Wis. Conservative Dgiest” what are you telling all those businesses employing people under Tommy? It sure sounds like you’re saying “You didn’t build that”.

  12. AG says:

    Why are we talking about white supremacists?

    As stated, we’re at a point where unemployment is at it’s lowest point in 15 years… we have extremely high numbers of open jobs. The problem is skills and education. Until we can get Milwaukee residents who are skilled/educated/trained for the types of job openings and find people who desire to work, we won’t finally see the vestiges of our manufacturing collapse from years ago finally be resolved. If we can do that, the state as a whole will look a WHOLE lot better.

  13. Tommy left facing a $2.4 Billion deficit. And he already ahad vetoed tax increases on the wealthy and cut services to the poor. THese two sound remarkably similar.

  14. What upside to the republicans offer? Resegreting schools Through vouchers? No Union protection? RTW laws which lower wages and benefits along with allowing less safe work places? Lies about voter fraud? Less open government? Hypocrisy? Gerrymandering? Stupid idealogically generated lawsuits that the citizens pay for? Low wage jobs? A minimum wage which hasn’t changed for decades? Out of state influnces like ALEC and the KOch brothetrs owning and controlling our government? Please.
    The republican party has relied on lies gerrymandering, and fear mongering to stay in office. Their ideas aren’t popular. You just continue to own the largest media oultlest in tha state and keep proclaiming your lies as truth. You can’t come up with data that proves, republican policies are more popular.

  15. Vincent Hanna says:

    People like WCD said low unemployment wasn’t applicable when people used it to defend Obama, but they always use it as proof of Walker’s success as governor. So which is it? Either way, that number alone is not proof of a state’s economic health AG, and while Milwaukee is important it’s not like the city can do it alone. It isn’t getting much help from Madison and the GOP. Look at the story I linked to above. It doesn’t contain much good news. Worst job performance numbers since 2008-09. I don’t know how you spin that as not being bad for Walker and the GOP.

  16. Daddy3Girls says:

    The thing is, Vincent, it doesn’t even have to be spun. Walker’s supporters have proven to be impervious to evidence. Their Guyana-like fealty to the man is unnerving.

  17. AG says:

    It’s always been applicable, but you need consider other factors as well such as labor participation rate which is holding its own as well. the participation rate certainly isn’t at a peak like unemployment, but it’s been holding steady since the end of the recession, unlike nationally.

    i don’t disagree that Milwaukee could use help from the state. There are also many other factors both locally and statewide that play into it.

  18. Vincent Hanna says:

    And when you consider factors other than the unemployment rate, the state is not doing well, as today’s story makes perfectly clear. Worst job growth since 2008-09. You can’t spin that.

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