With our nation becoming increasingly polarized, it seems more difficult than ever to create positive change. As this Walker Webcast guest stated, we need to restore the fabric of democracy.
Tommy Thompson, four-time Governor of Wisconsin joined Willy to discuss the evolution of his leadership style, his efforts to change the dynamics of politics, the future of the republican party, combating polarization, and so much more.
Willy Walker: Good afternoon, everyone. I want to start by thanking John Thomas, a Walker& Dunlop client, and CEO of Physicians Realty Trust, for introducing me to Governor Thompson and making this discussion possible. I've been a fan of the governors for many years, and it's a true honor to have him join me today. Governor, let me do a quick intro and then you and I can dive in.
Governor Tommy George Thompson is an American Republican politician who most recently served as interim president of the University of Wisconsin System from 2020 to 2022. He served as the 42nd governor of Wisconsin and the 19th United States secretary of Health and Human Services from 2001 until 2005 in the Cabinet of President George W. Bush.
Governor Thompson is the longest serving governor in Wisconsin history, holding office from January of 1987 until February of 2001, and is the only person to be elected to the office four times. During his tenure as governor. He was also chair of Amtrak, the nation's passenger rail service. He was chairman of the Republican Governors Association in 1991 and 1992 and the National Governors Association in 1995 and 1996. After his time in the Bush administration, Governor Thompson became a partner in the law firm of Akin Gump and an independent chairman of Deloitte’s Center for Health Solutions. He has served on the boards of 22 other organization.
So, Governor, I want to start with a question on some personal preferences and then back up to your childhood growing up in Elroy, Wisconsin. First, it's my understanding that you drive a Corvette. I think there's a pretty good chance that you have $1,000 in your pocket as we talk right now and that you still water ski. Are all of those true? And if so, where did the love of fast cars, carrying a lot of cash and doing a sport most of us age out of much younger than you are, come from?
Tommy Thompson: Well, thank you for the question. They're all true. They're all true except for the water ski. And I busted up my shoulder water skiing, and I have to go back this summer because I couldn't ski last summer because I had an operation on my right shoulder, which was caused by water skiing. So, yes, I go water ski. And yes, I love my Corvette and I always have at least a thousand more of that, usually because my father always carried $1,000 and I always had to outdo my father. So, I guess it was a sort of a competition between my father and myself that I carry that much cash.
Willy Walker: You do know, Governor, that Venmo and MasterCard and some other things didn't exist back when your father was running his gas station. So that might have been the reason he carried $1,000 in his pocket than you necessarily don’t need to carry today.
Tommy Thompson: No, that’s very true. But somehow, I like having cash in my back pocket. So that's why I carry cash. It’s sort of difficult because a lot of businesses won’t take cash anymore, which is really disconcerting.
Willy Walker: Very much so. And on the water-skiing front, Governor, I mean, most people retire from water skiing in, I don't know, their thirties or forties. You're over double that age. I love the idea of you being out on the lake but is that the healthiest thing for you to be doing.
Tommy Thompson: Sure, it is. Bicycling or driving my tractor, you know, I have a very aggressive personality and I love to be involved doing a lot of things. My whole family is into water skiing and everybody in the family can outski me now even though I taught them all how to do it. So, it's sort of a competition, but they're all better than I am today.
Willy Walker: So, let's back up, Governor, for a moment to Elroy, Wisconsin and growing up in a small town in the southeastern part of Wisconsin, I believe the population of Elroy is slightly over a thousand people. What did you learn growing up in Elroy that made you so successful?
Tommy Thompson: Well, first off, Elroy doesn’t have any stop and go lights, it has a couple stop signs and you can call somebody, get a wrong number in Elroy, and still talk for a half an hour. Everybody knows everybody. What was great about growing up in a small town, everybody has to work. Everybody has to contribute. You have to play on the basketball, the football, the baseball team because they don't have enough players without you. And so, you have to be competitive. You have to be involved. And you know everybody in the community, it's an extremely nice way to grow up because people know you. They can talk to you. And they also complain to your parents when you get out of line. And that happened to me more than once. But you know, Elroy was great, it was a railroad community. And we used to hop the trains 11 and 12, and it’s funny nobody got hurt or killed. We hopped on the trains when they were leaving the station right about to the edge of town. So that's my love for railroads started way back when I was ten or 11. And that's why I was so happy to be on Amtrak. But Elroy was a great place to grow up.
Willy Walker: Your father owned a gas station and a grocery store. I'm assuming you learned a lot about customer service, both watching your dad run those two enterprises and then also interfacing with clients.
Tommy Thompson: There's no question about it, Willy, and my father, he was on the county board and every Friday night we had hamburgers and cheese, beer, and pop. And all the local farmers came in. We talked about road building, which got me interested in politics and learning how to do it. Also, my father taught me, “Tommy, you have two ears and one mouth. Use them in that proportion and you'll get along just swell.” He was German and my mother was Irish. And she said, “Tommy, smile at everybody and always say hello.” That created that gregarious attitude I have where I always shake hands, I always talk to people. And it was that upbringing that allowed me to be, I think, successful in politics.
Willy Walker: In your book, Governor, My Journey of a Lifetime ,,you state that you had a complex relationship with your father and that you termed him a tough German guy. And you go on, though, to talk about some of the really hard lessons you learned growing up that came from a place of love. How old were you when you sort of had that epiphany, that many of the things that you sort of endured as a kid were actually from a place of love and not from a place of, you know, if you will, hostility or meanness.
Tommy Thompson: Well, I never really got the love part until I got out of high school and got to college because I had to work from the time, I was five years of age. My father was German and believed that everybody if you wanted to get something, buy something, you had to go to work. So, at the age of five, I was cleaning eggs in the basement without a window, cleaning eggs that the farmers brought in and traded for groceries. So, then I got promoted from that to painting the barns. So, my father would hire me out to farmers to paint their barns and then from there, construction. So, I had a tough growing up, but it was a good growing up period. And my father was very tough, and he said, if you want to be successful, use your two ears and one mouth in that proportion and work hard and always be nice, always be friendly, but always be honest and straightforward. And that's what I got from my father, even though I didn't know he loved me until I left high school and went on to college. Then I found out he really did care.
Willy Walker: And you're a proud badger, having gone to the U.S. of Wisconsin in Madison, and you went on to go to law school there. What was it that drove you to law school, Governor? Was it that you thought learning the law would be helpful in a career in politics? Or did you think that at any point you'd just be a legal practitioner and be a lawyer?
Tommy Thompson: Well, my father was the first one in our family to go on to school. And he was in law school when he got injured severely, and he dropped out. He always felt that he got shortchanged. And so, I sort of picked up the cudgel from my father to become a lawyer. Plus, I also won a scholarship to study politics in Washington my senior year in college. And I went out there and I got a chance to work for some congressmen on my scholarship. And some senators got a chance to meet Barry Goldwater, Teddy Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy and all those individuals. And I said, this is a pretty good life. I sort of liked this life. And I said, I think I want to get involved. So, I went back after I left my summer internship and scholarship at the Capitol and decided I was going to get into law school and see if I could get elected. And so, I had this epiphany from my scholarship to Washington to come back and get a law degree and run for elected office, which I did.
Willy Walker: Was there anything from your experience, either in undergrad or at law school at Wisconsin that you either took is something that you wanted to see more of or less of when you became the head of the system. In other words, like I mean, I don't know, we all sort of have our various things. Like, was there something that you sort of said that was a great part of my education. We ought to do more of that or that was a bad part of my education we ought to get rid of that.
Tommy Thompson: Not really. You know, when I came in, they had a real problem at the University of Wisconsin. They needed somebody tough, and somebody was not afraid to make a decision because the university was closed down and they had a failed search for the president of the university, and they didn't know how to start a school. So, they brought me in to be the tough guy, to be the person that helped, not in the sense of being rude or overpowering but not afraid to make decisions. So, I called all the chancellors together and after a two-hour meeting, they said, “Are we going to start school on September 3rd or what's your decision?” They said, “We decided that we need another meeting.” I said, “No, that's not how we operate. We had a meeting to decide, and I decided we're going to open school on September 3rd.” I had a lot of opposition from the 13 chancellors, but I pushed it through, and it was the right decision. And every one of those individuals that opposed me at the beginning came around and said it was the right decision Tommy, and I’m glad you had the courage to do it. We actually saved the university because it was really going in the wrong direction. And I am a firm believer that when you’re placed in a position of power and authority, you have to make decisions. And this one was a big decision of whether or not we were going to start school or not. A lot of professors, a lot of people didn’t want to. I knew it was best for the students, best for education, best for the university. And I pushed it through. You got to have a leader with courage and convictions and not afraid to make a decision.
Willy Walker: So, Governor, on that, I had Admiral William McRaven on the Walker Webcast about a year ago. And as you likely know, Admiral McRaven, who was an incredible leader and an incredible hero, went on to be the chancellor of the University of Texas (UT) system and struggled, I think, in leading the UT system, because rather than being in the hierarchical structure of the U.S. military, he had this sort of amorphous board of chancellors from across the UT system that he had trouble sort of corralling and keeping together. What was it that allowed you with those 13 other governors on the system, beyond having been a four-term tenure governor, which obviously helped. But what was it? What was the trick to keeping all that together, Governor?
Tommy Thompson: It was not so much a trick as being direct, being honest, and being forceful. And it was also the fact that we have a board of regents over all of us, and then the president of the university. And we have 13 campuses with chancellors. We have another 13 two-year campuses all under the direction of me or the president. And I came in as an acting capacity. Everybody knew when I was governor of the state of Wisconsin – I was very faithful, and very fair to the University of Wisconsin. I love Madison, love the university, and love what it was able to do. And I always tell people, you know, I wouldn't be here today with my accomplishments if I didn't have a great education, which I got at the University of Wisconsin. I wanted to give back, but I also knew that I had to lead, and everybody could not make the decision as to whether or not we were going to open up, what courses to offer, and so on. I had to make those decisions and I was not afraid to. When I made the decisions, I had enough aura, enough responsibility, enough power, to push it through. And actually, they came around and supported me enthusiastically. So, I didn't have the difficulty the admiral had with a lot of dispiritedness and a lot of individuals pulling every direction. They wanted a leader to make decisions, and that was that.
Willy Walker: And they got it!
Tommy Thompson: You know, today it might be different. You know, I'd go in there. They probably would not be so willing to follow and probably push back more. But the time was the pandemic. And they were afraid. Everybody was afraid. What's going to happen. And they liked a strong leader. And that's what I was.
Willy Walker: So final question on the university system in the University of Wisconsin, you're leaving your archives to the University Marquette and not the University of Wisconsin. Why to Marquette, not the University of Wisconsin?
Tommy Thompson: No special reason. You know, Marquette is a great university. And I left a lot of my papers there about the University of Wisconsin and the state of Wisconsin has also got duplicates. So, they both got all my papers and I'm willing to share and I'm going to give whatever I can to both the University of Wisconsin and Marquette. We're rewarded in the state for having a lot of great educational systems. And I'm very proud of that.
Willy Walker: So, you were elected the 42nd governor of Wisconsin and elected an unprecedented four times. If you look at how you governed in your first term versus how you governed in your fourth term – what changed in your leadership style?
Tommy Thompson: Oh, a lot. The first time, you know, I was coming out of the legislature. I've been in the legislature for 20 years, and I had first the problem of having both houses controlled by Democrats. It was a blue state when I got elected governor, I was the only, only Republican governor in 1986, to defeat a Democrat incumbent. And so, I was somewhat unique, and I campaigned hard. I won. And so, I had to overcome the fact that this was a Democrat state, and nobody thought that I could ever get reelected. And so, I was set up to fail. Everybody sort of believed that I was not going to be successful.
Willy Walker: Isn't it true that the press corps did a poll before the ‘86 election and not a single member of the press thought you were going to get elected?
Tommy Thompson: I was 39 to 0 and they all threw in ten or 15 bucks, probably ten bucks because they're relatively conservative, cheap in that regard. And so, I went around, and nobody thought that I had a chance because I was in a Democratic state, I was running against a popular Democrat governor. And they just did not realize how hard I was working and how upset the people of the state of Wisconsin were about the direction we're going.
So, they gave me a chance. The people of the state of Wisconsin gave me a chance. And I never forgot that. I believe when somebody gives you a chance, you have to repay that by hard work, by making sure you do the right things for all the people. And that's what I did as a freshman governor. But I had to overcome the problem that everybody thought I was going to fail, and I was only going to be a one term governor because it was a Democrat state. They thought it was an aberration that I got elected. When I got elected, it was very successful because I was able to bring Democrats in. I put the majority leader, who was the Democrat who was going to run against me in four years and made him a member of my cabinet, which was really unheard of. And I put Tim Cullen, one of the smartest things I did right at the beginning, caught the press completely by surprise, the people by surprise, the Democrats by surprise. I had a very high-ranking Democrat in my cabinet that helped me with welfare reform and get it passed. And so those are the things you learn. You have to be willing to take a gamble. I thought, you know, let's reach out. And I took away my future opponent, put him in the cabinet and he was extremely helpful to help me change Wisconsin for the better.
Willy Walker: How did you not get arrogant in the fourth term?
Tommy Thompson: Oh, it's easy. You know, the press is still very liberal in the state of Wisconsin. So, every time you did something, they were there to highlight it. And if you made a mistake, they would really highlight it. And so, the press was very good about keeping you humble, and the people were good about keeping me humble. And the fact is, you know, I'm not a very arrogant person. I love people. I grew up in the grocery store where you had to encourage people to come back and shop. You have to be nice and friendly. I was able to take that feeling of friendliness wherever I go and whatever I do. And as a result of that, I think people, you know, like me and I worked hard, I went all over the state, met thousands of people. And, you know, the joke is, if you haven’t shaken Tommy Thompson’s hand, you must not have lived in Wisconsin very long.
Willy Walker: So, Governor, you love the line-item veto? It was hugely helpful to you. Should all governors and the U.S. president have a line-item veto?
Tommy Thompson: Very few do.
Willy Walker: I know. Should they all?
Tommy Thompson: Yes, absolutely they should. It puts you on a par with the legislature. In my case, the Democrats control both houses, and they gave me a bunch of things that would have caused problems for the state of Wisconsin. I was able to use the item veto. It changed the direction of a lot of legislation, and not spend as much money by writing down the appropriations to a sensible amount. As a result of that, I had more vetoes in my budgets than any governor ever has. I had more vetoes on my first budget. I had to show the Democrats that I was serious. After the first budget, they knew I was serious. It was much easier then to work together. We developed a very good working relationship the second two years. The first two years were very, very rough, but it was the item veto that gave me the power to bring the Democrats together with me to do what was right for Wisconsin.
Willy Walker: So, I believe you exercised the line-item veto over 1,500 times, and it was never once overturned by the legislature?
Tommy Thompson: That is correct. Never once. I told the Republicans, the only way that we could be in a position of power is by you sustaining my vetoes. And they did. I had enough Republican votes. One time, I didn't have enough Republican votes and I got two Democrats to come along and vote for me to sustain my 100% success ratio with the item veto.
Willy Walker: So, you focused a lot on what you mentioned a moment ago, Governor, on welfare reform. You invested heavily in education and opportunity, and you also did a great deal to reform entitlements. Obviously, your leadership had a lot to do with it. But I guess the broader question I have for you is why have we, as a nation in so many states, been unsuccessful at entitlement reform?
Tommy Thompson: I don't think they have the courage. It's a very difficult position to take because what you're doing is you're taking away something that some people think they're entitled to and requiring people to work. In this day and age, nobody really wants to require somebody else to work and they feel the government owes them something. I never believed that. I always felt from my background and growing up relatively poor and having to work for everything, everybody should have the same opportunity. You know, I've put myself through college. Well, why not put yourself through college? People say, like, I can't go to college. Why not? I did. And I'm sure you did Willy, and there's nothing wrong with having a part time job, tending bar or bussing tables.
People have got to realize in America we have a system of checks and balances, but we also have a capitalistic society, which means you have to work. You have to be able to deliver. You have to produce. And that's the kind of mantra that I preach to the people of the state of Wisconsin. And they responded enthusiastically. And they finally gave me the support, and the legislature finally did. I don't think too many governors want to take on that message because it's much easier to give. You know, somebody asked you for something. Give them some of the taxpayers’ money. I took away. I said, “No, we can't afford it, but we're going to change this system and people are going to have to work. You're going to have to go to school. You don't go to school – you don't get your welfare check. If you don't work, you don't get a welfare check or don't try, you know. I used to call it tough love. People used to call me the Tough Love Governor. And I think it works. I think people need to work and be responsible for their actions. Whether it's taking out a loan for school, they have to pay it back. It should not be forgiven. Whether or not you should work in order to put yourself through school. What's wrong with having a part time job on the weekends or in the summer months and helping to defray some of the costs? You don't want a lot of loans? Get a job, reduce your course work or whatever, at least participate in the system.
Willy Walker: So, I've heard you reflect, Governor, back in 1996 that you feel like you should have run for president.
Tommy Thompson: Yes.
Willy Walker: The question I have for you is this: Having been in politics as long as you have been and having been both a consultant to others and giving consulting to other politicians – there seems to be a window that opens for national level politics. And if you don't hit at that moment, you will look back on it and say, oh, I wish I'd done it at that moment. What was it in ‘96 that made you not jump in?
Tommy Thompson: My people, we just won a successful reelection.
Willy Walker: By 62%, I think you got 62% of the vote on that third reelection campaign. Well over 60%.
Tommy Thompson: Yeah, well over 60%. I won every county except one county in the state. I even won Dane County, which is the bastion of liberalism. That's where the University of Wisconsin is in Madison. But I still won every county except one, and I only lost that by 22 votes, and would have I known that was that close, I would have spent the last day there and got that one more bit. But anyway, you know, you've got to run when the time is in your advantage. And I had just won successfully. I had just been able to be designated as the most successful governor in the country. I also had welfare reform. People were copying me all over the country. Federal government was copying me, and that was justified. I should have run then, but the people in my administration thought that it was time for somebody else to run and I should wait. And I complied with their wishes, even though I feel I let myself down. And I usually go against the curve. Usually, I'm one of those individuals that when everybody says no, I’m “So what? I'll try it anyway.” I should have run in ‘96. I'm sorry I didn't stand up and say, “I'm sorry, you don't feel like I should run, but I'm going to run.” The same way I did in ‘86 when they said that I didn't have a chance to run for governor. Nobody said I had a chance, including the press that, you know, 39 to nothing voted with their dollars that I didn't have a chance.
Willy Walker: They all ate a lot of crow on that over the next four terms. Governor, let's fast forward to going to D.C. You go in as secretary of HHS. Talk for a moment, Governor, about the difference between being governor of a state and being a cabinet secretary as it relates to either role responsibility, engagement, excitement as the incredible leader who controlled everything to being one of a Cabinet and of a large sort of bureaucracy. Just for a moment, for those of us who have no idea what it's like either to sit in a governor's seat or to go in and be a cabinet secretary, what's the real difference there?
Tommy Thompson: The real difference was when you're a governor, you wake up in the middle of the night, get an idea, you can put it into work at 7:00 the next morning when you go to work immediately. You got people working on something. Come back that afternoon. When your secretary of Health and Human Services you take the same idea you get during the night, you have 67,000 people in the department who all think they're smarter than you. You got to get some buy-in from them. If you get buy-in from them, you have to go over to the “super god” in our society. I didn't know there was a “super god.” It's the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and they turn you down every time. Three out of four times, they turn you down just to show you who the boss is. Then if you do get by OMB, it goes over to the super intelligentsia in the White House, the young Turks who have never had a job any place but are college interns or so on and so forth. And they don't think anything bright can come out of a secretary's mind, so they are all opposed to it. And if you get by all of those goes to the president of the United States, and if he buys into it, it's time for you to retire. Nothing gets done. Whereas as governor, you can move immediately and get it done. But I did love my job at the Department of Health and Human Service because we did get a lot done. But the bureaucracy is set up to prevent you from acting very rapidly and getting things done in Washington.
Willy Walker: Were you in D.C. on 9/11?
Tommy Thompson: I was on 9/11 and I was in fact the only person to get a plane in the air that evening. I had declared a health emergency at 10:00 that morning and we had to get 100,000 of medical supplies out of CDC up to New York. We were able to get 50,000 pounds of medical supplies from one of our medical depots to New York by 5:00 that afternoon. And I was very much involved.
Willy Walker: Couple of the areas that you focused on, governor as secretary of HHS: Strengthen U.S. preparedness for bioterrorism attacks, increase funding for NIH, expand health insurance coverage to lower income Americans (that's playing off of everything you did in the state of Wisconsin) and focused attention on health problems such as obesity and diabetes. Two decades later, have we really made any progress at the national level on those four initiatives that you focused on?
Tommy Thompson: Some, but not as much as I would like. You also forgot Part D, the pharmaceutical thing, which I was just quarterbacking for getting Part D for drugs in the Medicare proposal, which is still probably the greatest improvement from the beginning of Medicare, that drugs were covered. I don't think that much is being done because what happens in Washington, unless it’s an emergency, they forget about it. Like public health is something you can forget about. And we've built it up, you know, big time. When we had 9/11 because everybody was concerned about throwing money at it, we did. But then since then, it sort of went by the wayside and we didn't have the importance, the sex appeal that it did. Then the pandemic comes now they are throwing money back at public health. It would be nice if you were able to keep that public health system going strong and you'd be able to prevent the kind of ups and downs we have pandemics in. So that's a big problem. But Congress has a tendency to really react only to big things that are happening at that particular time, like right now, trying to come together with a budget to continue the government. That's an emergency. They've got to do that. That gets their attention. Public health, now that the pandemic is done, you're not going to find as many congresspeople and senators and presidents talking about public health.
Willy Walker: You raised the issues of the avian flu and the dangers of the avian flu extensively when you were secretary of HHS. Now that we look back on COVID, those warnings again almost two decades ago a) were prescient and b) too bad that we didn't kind of follow along with them. You also talked about the threat to our food supply and the fact that we're surprised that terrorists hadn't attacked our food supply. Have we done anything over the last two decades to protect the U.S. food supply against potential terrorist attack?
Tommy Thompson: No, Willy, we really haven't. In food supply and the amount of things that are coming in through our borders right now is a positive indication that things could happen. We have food and medicine from all over the world coming in. You know, the inventory that we got in order to manufacture food and drugs comes from all over and there's very little protection. They have not taken my advice and really set up a program to help look in the feather and be able to find any kinds of obstacles and compromises and so on that can make our food and drugs safer. We need to do that. The same thing happens in public health. You know, if they would have listened to me, they probably would have been much better prepared for the pandemic. But they weren't. They forgot about it; the same thing happens in food safety’ I'm very worried about it. It's something that happens and could happen. And we're not prepared for it.
Willy Walker: So, there's another thing that's of concern to you today, Governor, which is social media. And I think you joined the Council for Responsible social media and are focusing on that. As you think about the world we live in today, I mean, food is obviously sustenance every single day for all of us to continue to live. Social media is a complete option in all of our lives. And at the same time, it's having this, in many instances, a pernicious impact on American society. What do you hope to achieve by having joined the Council for Responsible social media?
Tommy Thompson: I'm trying to bring a degree of candor. Right now, in politics and in social media, nobody has to tell the truth. A lie spreads just as fast as the truth is, probably faster. And nobody checks on that. Nobody does any cross-checking to find out what you've said. What is out there is truthful and that really tears at the fabric of our democracy. When you're basing decisions based upon falsehoods. And right now, nobody has to tell the truth. Nobody has to be honest. When I was first running for governor, the press was there. And if you lie, they will really excoriate you. Right now, you're lying, and nobody ever checks what you say. Is that really true? And that's what's causing, I think, a tear down on the fabric of our democracy. It really bothers me. I'm trying to get ethics, integrity, and honesty back in the government. I don't know if it's even possible with social media, but at least I'm going to try.
Willy Walker: In your book, Governor, you talk about the divisiveness in politics in America back in 2012 when Barack Obama was running against Mitt Romney. And in comparison, to 2012, the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections, May 12 looks like a Boy Scout troop meeting. I mean, it looked like a walk in the park. One of the quotes that I've heard you say before is Ronald Reagan's quote: “It's amazing how much you can get done if nobody cares who gets credit for it.” How do we get back to that? You talked just a moment ago, Governor, about the fact that when you first got elected, you brought a Democrat into your administration. You've always been looking for bipartisan solutions. And there's feels, at least to me, that mayors and governors across the country have to act daily in a bipartisan way to run their states, to run their cities. And yet everyone we send to Washington goes with a blue or red stamp on them. And that's all they want to focus on is partisan politics. How do we break that? I It's beyond a trend today, it seems to be endemic in our politics.
Tommy Thompson: It is endemic, but we have to change that. Number one, we got to get the press back stronger. The press is so weak, and they've got to be honest. The press has got to be independent, and they have to make sure that people are held accountable for what they say. That's number one. Number two, you've got to get people to start believing and coming up with agendas, programs and what you're going to do. When I always ran, I laid out to the people of the state of Wisconsin what I was going to do and what I wanted to do. I had a plan. Nobody running for public office right now has a plan. I'm running because I'm against the blues. I'm running because I don't like Trump. I'm running because I don't like the Republicans. I'm running because the progressives are too progressive. Nobody's got a plan. How do you improve public health? How do you make our food safer? How do you make agriculture better? How do you make it so our cycle of inventory comes in so that we can get our manufacturing up and running? How do we do that? What are your plans, Mr. or Mrs. Candidate? What do you want to do? Nobody lays out what the hell they want to do. I think that's terrible. Why do you run? You don't have a plan. Get the hell out of the way and let somebody else who’s got a plan. and nobody really good wants to run because all they're going to get is torn down by the other side, lying about you, no matter what it is, whether it be partially true or not, they lie about you. So, you don't run, and other good people don't run. That's what we have. We have to get people back and we have to get the press independent enough that they are truthful and that they report truthfully what is happening.
Willy Walker: There are two things that I've heard you comment on that would seem to be along those lines, not political suicide, but things that very few people would go out and say, for instance, on the Affordable Care Act, which you don't agree with many of the things in the Affordable Care Act. And you also didn't agree with the way the Democrats pushed the Affordable Care Act through without any Republican support. And yet, at the same time, you said, “Just because they are Democratic ideas doesn't mean they are bad ideas.” But that statement alone, whether you're Republican or Democrat, to take something that is as controversial as the Affordable Care Act and make a statement like that. Many people say, oh, as a Republican, you'll never get elected.
The other thing that you focused on, Governor, is inmate reform. There are 23,000 inmates in the state of Wisconsin. You've come forward and said we need to do something to rehabilitate these people, to put them back into the economy, to give them real jobs, to give them a second chance. As I read that, my immediate mind went to Willie Horton and the furlough program that Governor Dukakis had put in place was used as this wedge issue in that campaign to make it so that George H.W. Bush won as president the United States, one of the big issues in that campaign.
So, if people are afraid to focus on, how do we rehabilitate 23,000 inmates in the state of Wisconsin, and because they're fearful that that type of an ad might come out against them, how do they gain the backbone that you're talking about?
Tommy Thompson: It takes a backbone, but it's got to be done. We're going nowhere in the direction we're going now. We have become so polarized, so partisan right now and nothing is getting done. We have huge problems in this country. Just take a look at the border. Nobody can do anything because nobody wants to talk to each other. Look at the border. Just the border alone is a huge problem. Now, that's not difficult. You can get down there. You can reach an agreement with Democrats and Republicans. Just because you're a Democrat doesn't mean you don't have good ideas or Republicans don't have good ideas. But let's start meshing them together. Let's give Republicans and Democrats the courage to come together and pass something. You'd be surprised how the people would respond. When I get up and speak about bipartisanship and about the need, I said, I'm a strong conservative Republican, but there are some good Democrat ideas. When I was governor, I stole them. I stole the Democrat idea with Republican ideas. We got bipartisan support and that's what we have to do in this country. You have to have an agenda, you have to have a plan, and you have to get both sides an opportunity to work on it. Right now, they don't even talk. They talk through the media. They talk through social media. And as a result of that, nothing is getting done.
Social Security is broke. Medicare is broke. The border is broke. And, you know, we got Russia in the Ukraine. We got China, we don't know what they're going to do to us next. And Iran. All of these are huge problems. We cannot afford to have the Republicans on one side and the Democrats on the other. These are problems that need to be solved for America. And they got to come together, and they got to start talking about it. And it takes leadership to do that. I don't know if we have the leadership in Washington to do it, but that's what I’d do. If I was there, I would sit down with the Democrat counterpart and I said, let's develop a bipartisan plan and let's push it through. You'd be amazed if you got it started, how that would snowball and get other people involved.
Willy Walker: What's your take, Governor, on, if you will, the future of the Republican Party, given what happened in the midterm elections? And, if you will, most of those candidates that former President Trump endorsed not doing well. Do you think that the Republican Party is still inextricably linked to former President Trump, or do you think that right now there is a lane, if you will, that didn't exist previously for other candidates to emerge?
Tommy Thompson: I go back to what you said earlier. There’s a time of sunlight when you can move. The governor of Florida, DeSantis has got a tremendous opportunity. If DeSantis goes down that path, declares himself a candidate. I think it's going to be an amazing ride, for him or some other outstanding governor that comes forth. There's a time to move and if it’s DeSantis’ time to move and stand up and be a counterforce. If there's not, the Republican Party is going to be inextricably linked to Donald Trump. And Donald Trump did some great things just as president, just if there were other things that he would have done he would probably still be president. But the truth of the matter is, you've got to move, and you've got to move now.
Willy Walker: What did your family say that convinced you not to run for governor for a fifth time?
Tommy Thompson: Oh, God. I wanted to run so badly, and I still do. I'm fairly confident that today I'm sitting today talking to you, I would be setting up my administration if I would have run.
Willy Walker: I would have asked you to come on the webcast anyway, Governor. So, you would have still given me the hour? I'm pretty sure. But anyway.
Tommy Thompson: I would love to get on your program. You're a tremendous interviewer. But, you know, my family has been with me through thick and thin. And every one of them were adamantly opposed. And I jokingly say, you know, it was either run or divorce, versus divorce and divorces are very expensive when you reach my age. So, I thought better, which was not true. But the truth of the matter is, my family, they just did not want me involved. They didn't want to go through it. So, I listened to that. But every day I wonder what would have happened if I would have run.
Willy Walker: It's got to be something that's very difficult for someone who's been as successful as you have been in both. Not only the leader that you've been for the state of Wisconsin, what you did in Washington, what you did subsequent to being in office and having that sense of if I could pull all that together to really make a difference. I mean, you're somebody who threw your hat in the ring. And at the end of the day, so many people don't even throw their hat in the ring to actually make a difference. You not only have done it, but you've done it so successfully. Do all those things haunt you, Governor, or do you just sit there and say, look, there were times, and I just made a decision. That was my decision. I live with it. Because as governor, I would assume, you made decision after decision after decision and created a very good frame of mind that said, I've made the decision. Hindsight's always 20/20 vision might have been exactly right, might have been potentially wrong. But I've got to move on because I've got to make so many decisions. Do you do that personally?
Tommy Thompson: I sure did. And Willy, what I really wanted to do is exactly what you asked me. I wanted to run and get elected, and I wanted to see if I could change the dynamics in politics in Wisconsin once again. I wanted to bring Democrats in, bring Republicans in. And I wanted to tell the national press, this is how you change Washington. You become a bi partisan governor during this time of peril. But I had this all planned out and I thought, if I had the chance, I could become extremely bipartisan and come up with some real positive ideas to help Wisconsin, but also help America and show the country that there is a different direction. And being so partisan, so parochial, but actually being bipartisan and getting things done, that's what I really wanted to do.
Willy Walker: Governor George W Bush, who became president worked very well with the state legislature in the state of Texas and arrived in Washington on January 20, 2001. I think with the similar attitude to what you just said, what is it that happens when a governor with those intentions arrives in D.C. and runs into that buzzsaw? My assumption, Governor, is that on that first cabinet meeting, there was some pretty decent bipartisan discussion and then quickly it started to turn. What is it about the reality of D.C. that makes it so that what I call the Buzzsaw of D.C. hits, whether it's a Republican or a Democrat who shows up saying, I want to act in that way. And then they get to the reality of what makes D.C., D.C.
Tommy Thompson: I think it's money, you know, the power of the purse. It's the special interest groups that all have a vested interest in keeping things the way they are. There's a huge number of organizations out there that don't want to see change. They want to maintain the status quo and will do everything they possibly can to do it. There are the partisans on both political sides – they want to keep it as partisan as possible because they think it's to their advantage to do it. There's the squad today that is way out on the left. There is a squad on the right. But there's a group of far right that do not want to work together. I mean, it's there, it's inherent, but it's going to have to take the leadership of either a majority leader or a president to say, I'm going to really defy the odds, and this is what I'm going to do. And Biden had that chance but has seen fit to go completely partisan. And I don't understand it. I was hoping for better out of President Biden, and I'm hoping that the next Republican president is going to be able to come in and have some of the ideas I have and say, let's just try being bipartisan. Let's start solving America's problems and see if we can solve them instead of just postponing them to future generations. That's all we're doing. Our national debt, our border, China, Iran, Social Security, Medicare, public health. All we're doing is just kicking the can. Nobody wants to sit down and say, what is the solution? You and I, we can bring together ten Republicans, ten Democrats and I tell you in an afternoon, we could find a solution.
Willy Walker: Yeah.
Tommy Thompson: We can find a solution that works, and we can put that up. Now all we need is the people like you and I would have the courage to vote for it. And we could fix the problem. It’s not rocket science. There are actual answers to the problem. If you came together and worked on them, as Ronald Reagan says: “Give people some credit.” You don’t have to have the credit. Give somebody else the credit for coming up with the idea. You’d be amazed how much we could get done.
Willy Walker: So, I have two final questions for you, Governor. One of the things that I’ve always been impressed with in your leadership style is that you’re always looking forward, not looking backwards. There are many leaders who do look backwards. They either rest on their laurels, their time harkening back to some time that used to be. And they use that for a power base to say to people, we don’t want to change. You’ve always been forward looking. How have you maintained that? What is it in your way of thinking and focusing on issues that makes you constantly forward looking rather than looking in the rearview mirror?
Tommy Thompson: A simple statement, Willy. How can you make progress if you always look backwards? How are you going to move forward if you don’t have a plan to move forward? And if you believe in the status quo, which so many people do, you’re going backwards. If you’re not looking over the edge, you’re taking up too much space.
Willy Walker: I love that quote. That is so good.
Tommy Thompson: I want you to look over the edge. I don’t want you to step over the line, but I want you to look over the line. Now, I want you to find a solution and you look forward when you say that’s a problem. You can look backwards to find out if there was something in the past that might help it. But looking forward, I will fix the problem. I got to get an answer to Social Security. There are millions of elderly people that depend upon Social Security to live. We need to solve the problem. Medicare is going to go broke in about 10-15 years. It’s going to go broke. People need Medicare. So, let's fix it. Let's not push it down. It gets more expensive every time we don’t decide to fix it. And that's what drives me. Problems need to be fixed. Potholes in the road need to be filled.
Willy Walker: Back to your dad being the commissioner and sitting around on Friday nights fixing potholes and building bridges. So, my final question to you, Governor is this: over the 4th of July weekend, I'm assuming that the Thompson family has some good food. I'm assuming there's a lot of water skiing there, might even be taking Grandpa's Corvette out for a spin. But there's something else that you require your family members to do on the 4th of July. Can you tell our listeners what you ask your family members to do and why you ask them to do it?
Tommy Thompson: At 12:00 on July 4th noon, my whole family is brought together, and I've written out the Declaration of Independence. And I give each person an assignment and I give that person the name of one of the signers. And that individual relative, son, daughter, grandchild has got to memorize that person and say something about that person, sign the declaration, read part of the declaration and explain to me what it means. And I've done this for the last 25 years. It's fantastic. I wish every family in America would do that.
Willy Walker: And on that, Governor, I want to thank you for your service to the state of Wisconsin as well as to our country. Thank you for taking the time to talk to me, and thanks for all your leadership on so many different things. It's just a real honor to have you on.
Tommy Thompson: I hope I didn't talk too much, but really; this was one of the nicest discussions and conversations I've ever had. Thank you.
Willy Walker: Well, thank you. It's great to see you and everyone who tuned in today. Thanks for joining us. We'll be back next week with Al Ratner and Peter Linneman to talk about The Great Age Reboot, living longer in America and what the implications are to not only commercial real estate but the overall economy as people live well into their eighties and nineties. So, I hope you'll tune in then. Thank you again, Governor Thompson.
Tommy Thompson: Don’t forget to mention John Thomas of Physicians Realty Trust, our great company.
Willy Walker: Very much so. I'm very thankful of him introducing the two of us. Thanks again, Governor. Have a great day.