The man they called “41” is gone, former President George H.W. Bush's recent passing taking us back to a time before the so-called “politics of personal destruction,” when the word “compromise” wasn't considered George Carlin's eighth dirty word.
If anyone needed proof that times had changed, all they had to do was contrast what was happening at the Bush services in D-C with what was playing out at the Capitol in Madison. As those from both parties gathered as one to remember a late President, lawmakers in Madison were busy passing measures limiting the powers of incoming Governor Tony Evers as part of a lame-duck session. Republican majorities in both the Assembly and the Senate okayed them over the complaints of minority Democrats and even a few GOP heavies like Sheldon Lubar who wrote Evers' predecessor, Scott Walker, to say that okaying the changes would be a stain on Walker's legacy.
It was just a few weeks before at a Milwaukee Press Club Newsmaker luncheon that another former GOP Governor–one who knew Bush the elder and was in the Cabinet of his son–spoke of cooperation, partisanship and what's changed over the years.
It was vintage, table-thumping Tommy during that session, to the point where he actually knocked a piece of the trim loose from the podium before his q-and-a session came to an end. I got five minutes with him before it began, asking about the pending lame-duck session (“I talked to Robin (Assembly Speaker Vos) and Fitzgerald (Senate Majority Leader Scott) and they want to cooperate”). He took me back to his three terms plus when, in some cases, he had to deal with Democratic legislative majorities. “We got tremendous things done,” he recalled, “and it was because we were willing to work together…and that's my message today and tomorrow and next week–guys and gals, let's get together. Wisconsin's got problems–let's fix 'em.”
In present-day circles, that kind of talk can earn one a RINO label: Republican In Name Only. And that might've started during the Bush era when “41” had to eat his 1988 “read my lips, no new taxes” pledge and compromise on a new budget with Democrats who then used that broken promise like a cudgel to deny him a second term in the White House four years later.
Bush would find no comfort from his own party. The Washington Post's Charles Lane says the walk-back on the promise “infuriated the GOP base and sowed a long-lasting grass roots distrust of the party establishment that fueled the rise of Newt Gingrich's rise to power in the House and culminated, arguably, in Donald Trump's 2016 insurrection.” A recent column in The Atlantic hails Gingrich as “The Man Who Broke Politics,” saying he “turned partisan battles into bloodsport, wrecked Congress, and paved the way for Trump's rise.”
Back here in Wisconsin, it would seem we have majority Republicans working in one direction, minority Democrats in another. Thompson doesn't blame the former House Speaker for that. He says it's about the math.
“When you have one-party government, there's a tendency not to reach out,” Thompson says. “And, I think it's because we've become so polarized in our governments…we've all become so partisan and we're not looking across the aisle. We do not believe it's necessary for us to work with the Democrats and the Democrats don't think it's necessary to work with Republicans. That's sad.”
We're a month and change removed from the November election that changed the Wisconsin political landscape. Thompson says the electoral wars have to be forgotten if things are to get done.
“Once the election is over, forget about the partisan issue of your party and let's look at the good and the will of the citizens,” Thompson told me. “I always did that. I said the day after the election, 'I'm the Governor for all of the people' and I think that's the philosophy that I've got to try to permeate throughout both sides.”
Good luck with that.