Tommy Thompson and the Bush Kiss of Death
On Wednesday, former Wisconsin Governor and Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson joined the increasingly crowded field in the 2008 Republican presidential race. But thanks to his enabling role in President Bush's Medicare prescription fiasco, Thompson's White House prospects were already dim even before last week's announcement.
Like Michigan's John Engler and New Jersey's Christie Todd Whitman before him, Thompson is yet another new wave Republican Governor of the 1990's whose rising star was snuffed out by the reverse Midas touch of George W. Bush. In 2000, President Bush hoped to remove potential rivals within the GOP. Following Michael Corleone's advice to keep your friends close and your enemies closer, Bush named Whitman to head the EPA and tapped Thompson for HHS.
Fast forward to 2007 and the stench of Bush taints Thompson's improbable presidential bid. Thompson launched his campaign in Iowa by branding himself "a reliable conservative" and touting his leadership role in Wisconsin's experiments with school choice and welfare reform. But just three days earlier, CBS 60 Minutes reminded Americans of the massive windfall to the pharmaceutical industry Thompson's Medicare drug program produced.
As Perrspectives detailed in November 2005, the corruption and arm-twisting that surrounded the December 2003 passage of the Medicare prescription drug benefit should have come as no surprise:
After all, President Bush initially opposed the program. In January 2003, CBS News reported that "a recent description of the proposal in government documents envisions 'no prescription drug coverage' for people in traditional fee-for-service Medicare." Instead, the Bush White House in 2003 wanted Medicare beneficiaries seeking prescription drug coverage to join some type of government-subsidized private health insurance program.
Ultimately, though, President Bush caved to overwhelming public pressure - and the demands of reelection in 2004 - for a prescription benefit as part of the traditional fee-for-service Medicare program. His support, however, came at a steep price.
For starters, the White House insisted that the final December 2003 Medicare Drug bill prohibit the government from negotiating prices directly with drug companies, a key demand of the pharmaceutical lobby. The same price leverage enjoyed by the Veterans Affairs Department and its program beneficiaries was surrendered by Medicare, with the predictable results described in the House report this week. In another poison pill added by the insurance and pharmaceutical lobbies, the Medicare Prescription Drug Modernization Act beginning in 2010 provides subsidies to private insurers to compete with traditional Medicare.
Perhaps even worse, a White House desperate for an election year win on Medicare deliberately misrepresented the program's costs in order to ensure passage. On December 8, 2003, President Bush rolled out a program he claimed would cost $400 billion over 10 years. Within two months, however, the White House notified Congress that the real price tag would approach $550 billion. When Medicare actuary Richard Foster sought to present the true price tag to Congress in late 2003, then agency chief Thomas Scully threatened to fire him. (As it was, then House Majority Leader Tom Delay twisted arms and extended debate on the bill by hours to coerce recalcitrant Republicans, a move for which he was later admonished by a House Ethics panel.) Fast forward two years and the estimated 10 year price tag for the Medicare prescription plan now exceeds $720 billion for its 43 million beneficiaries.
Tommy Thompson's Medicare legacy isn't a pretty one. Thomas Scully escaped punishment (or even testifying before Congress) in the wake of lightweight investigations of the vote buying and the threats against Foster. (Scully is now a lobbyist serving health care and drug firms.) And as Democrats argue that Medicare should have the same power as the Veterans Administration to negotiate drug prices with the pharmaceutical vendors, most of Thompson's Republican allies complain that the program costs too much.
Though damaged, Tommy Thompson is still a welcome face in die-hard Republican circles. The same can't be said for Christie Todd Whitman. The popular moderate New Jersey Governor, who in 1990 almost unseated the hitherto invincible Bill Bradley, hitched her wagon to George W. Bush when she came on board as head of the EPA. Within weeks, she was forced to criticize the Kyoto Protocols and became the messenger when President Bush reneged on candidate Bush's pledge to regulate carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. Saddled with the post-9/11 environmental disaster in Manhattan and used as the moderate face of the Bush war on the environment, a disgruntled and disgraced Whitman resigned in 2003. Her 2005 book calling for a renewal of the moderate wing of the GOP fell on deaf ears, with many of her more centrist colleagues swept out of Congress in the mid-term elections.
And then there was Michigan Governor John Engler. Touted as a future presidential candidate himself, Engler was an early and vocal supporter of then-Governor Bush. But Engler went from the short-list of Bush VP choices to persona non grata when he failed to carry his home state for Dubya during his dismal February 2000 primary loss to John McCain. Ultimately, the political "asbestos firewall" Engler promised candidate Bush instead surrounds himself. Like Michael Corleone's brother Fredo, Engler "is dead to" Bush. The former Michigan Governor now labors in relative obscurity as the president of the National Association of Manufacturers.
As for Tommy Thompson, he didn't help himself in the first week of his nascent campaign. Exceeding his resignation-day gaffe about the terrorist threat to the nation's food supply ("so easy to do"), Thompson last week endeared himself to no one in either party over the Iraq war. Thompson told a Milwaukee audience on Wednesday that he favored having the government in Baghdad vote to decide whether U.S. troops should stay. "I'm confident they will," he said, "but if they do vote no, they don't want us there [and] we should get out."
He could have been describing the Republican Party of George W. Bush.