YOUNG: Winning the Wisconsin Senate seat
If early indications are correct, former four-term Wisconsin governor and Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson has moved the Wisconsin Senate race from a toss-up to a Republican toss-down. This should bring great satisfaction to Republicans and conservatives — not only for its immediate political impact, but its longer-term lesson, too. Conservatism is neither one-generational nor one-dimensional.
Even before their Missouri Misfortune transformed Missouri from the “Show Me State” to the “Oh My State,” Republicans knew winning the Senate was more a close thing than a sure thing. The presidential race is cascading down the electoral board, and political shifts look to be minimal.
Their sudden miasma in Missouri looked bad for Republican Senate prospects. Then along came Tommy Thompson’s tailwind after he won a crowded and contentious primary. Three polls released just last week all show Mr. Thompson leading — by 9 percent, 6 percent and 5 percent, with two outside the margin of error — in what was a virtual tie a month ago.
None of this should be surprising. Mr. Thompson always has been a fighter, usually a winner and consistently a conservative. He deserves a spot in the Conservative Hall of Fame if for no other reason than being the man who invented welfare reform.
Speaking of that accomplishment, Phillip Truluck, executive vice president of the conservative bastion Heritage Foundation, stated: “The real star of welfare reform today is Gov. Tommy Thompson, whose perseverance and dedication brought about this Wisconsin miracle. Wisconsin became the first state to institute genuine work requirements for welfare recipients. It bases welfare assistance on the philosophy that idleness and dependency are harmful to the recipient and the recipient’s family.”
The flaw to be nitpicked implicitly from Mr. Thompson’s accomplishments seemed to be that his resume reached too far back — i.e., that he was too far removed from the current conservative curve. Some thought conservatism had taken a new turn and left Mr. Thompson behind. Mr. Thompson’s victory and now early validation are more important to conservatives and Republicans than previously understood.
There must be something in Wisconsin’s water to result in Gov. Scott Walker’s and Sen. Ron Johnson’s wins in 2010, Rep. Paul Ryan’s intellectual leadership on Capitol Hill and Mr. Walker’s 2012 recall rebuff to the liberal Luddites. Suddenly, it seems Wisconsin is doing a darned good impression of a red state. Before all that, there was Tommy.
He was there when it was lonely. It wasn’t easy, because Wisconsin was so blue it was indigo. If you want to know how to make a crack in a blue state’s wall, you need look no further. Simply, Mr. Thompson did what was necessary, and he did it effectively. You would be hard-pressed to find a better definition of conservatism.
Wisconsin was adrift in spending and awash in taxes — losing businesses, residents and tax base. As governor, Mr. Thompson saw clearly what needed to be done, and he did it. Most importantly, he did it effectively. His reforms worked: cutting taxes, vetoing spending and promoting school choice. They were appealing to conservatives and convincing to moderates. With conservatives and moderates onboard, Wisconsin’s lean to the right was born. It still is holding up today. Just look at the latest presidential polls there, where independents are still trending Republican. According to a Quinnipiac-CBS News-New York Times poll of 1,190 likely voters released Aug. 23, Mr. Thompson holds a 15 percent and Mr. Romney a 5 percent margin — and Mr. Walker a 17 percent approval advantage — among independent voters.
The bigger lesson to be taken from Mr. Thompson’s victory and now his lead in polls is the importance of showing the why and how of addressing problems. Conservatism is not a one-size-fits-all approach. Nor is it generation-limited.
Conservatism’s most compelling argument is not its novelty or its enthusiasm. It is that conservatism is essential and effective. Conservatism’s principles work, liberalism’s don’t. Because of that — as Europe is finding out and California soon will — there ultimately is no choice except to embrace its principles. Its ultimate vindication only comes when those principles are applied effectively.
That was Mr. Thompson’s achievement as governor in Wisconsin. He applied conservatism effectively. He turned theory into success.
There are some who are so wedded to theory’s purity that they never can recognize it as successful in practice. That is not how conservatism will succeed. It succeeds because it works. The other side will always offer better promises, but it is conservatives who can offer better results.
Mr. Thompson’s latest conservative achievement reminds us of conservatism’s depth and breadth. With luck, his lead will hold because Washington needs him now.
J.T. Young served in the Treasury Department, the Office of Management and Budget and as a congressional staff member.