Tommy Thompson: Pale, Rested, Ready

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
May 17 2011 9:24 AM

Tommy Thompson: Pale, Rested, Ready

Former governor and HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson will make the race for Herb Kohl's open Senate seat, his first bid for elective office since his 2008 presidential campaign that hit the reef in the Ames straw poll. If I'm an ambitious conservative politician, I am annoyed but not scared. Thompson will be 70 on primary day, if he can be forced to a primary in the state convention. In the Bush administration, he was an advocate of Medicare Part D and No Child Left Behind; in the 2008 race, while few people were paying attention, he was sounding Huckabee notes about the importance of the health care system into a "wellness" system, and weaning kids off bad habits. Oh, yeah: And then there was the 2009 letter he and Richard Gephardt sent praising the health care bill that came out of the Senate Finance Committee.

Differences in approach among committees in the Senate and House should not obscure the fact that there is also substantial common ground and compatible provisions between the Senate Finance Committee bill, the Senate HELP reform bill and H.R. 3200 in the House of Representatives. There is broad support for key provisions in the Senate Finance Committee that would forbid insurance companies from denying coverage to people with pre-existing conditions, dropping coverage when people become ill, or imposing spending coverage caps on people when they get sick and need coverage.

Fragmentation and lack of coordination of patient care generate inefficiency, redundancy, and waste in the health care system, unnecessarily driving up costs of care. The Senate Finance Committee bill would make some progress in promoting needed coordination by encouraging formation of Accountable Care Organizations at the regional level.

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Thompson was out of elective or appointed office for six years, in which time he joined the board of Centene Corp and advocated for bipartisan, health insurance-expanding policy. The ads don't write themselves, but give a smart strategist a couple of hours.

If I'm Tammy Baldwin or Russ Feingold or Ron Kind, am I scared off? I doubt it. It's been 13 years since Thompson won an election in the state. After the 2010 election, Public Policy Polling speculated that Thompson would have had a tougher time beating Feingold than Ron Johnson did, because "businessman who's never run for anything" is an easier sell than "guy you voted for several times, who then worked for the Bush administration, looking for one last job in politics."

Fortunately for Republicans, Senate elections don't happen in a vacuum. The Kohl retirement just adds uncertainty on a map that's cluttered with open Democratic seats. Some, like Hawaii's, should be alley-oops for the Democrats, but there are candidates (like Linda Lingle in that state) who can make things complicated, and tie up resources, and... whoops, there goes another million dollars the party could have used to beat George Allen.

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. You can reach him at daveweigel@gmail.com, or tweet at him @daveweigel.