You wouldn’t know it from his ill-fated presidential bid but former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson — the latest casualty of the White House sweepstakes — was once a formidable political figure and one of the most successful reform-minded Republicans of the 1990s. Before he became that fellow whose hearing aid malfunctioned during debates, Thompson was best known for cutting taxes, promoting school choice, and, above all, proving that welfare reform works.
In fact, conservatives once hoped Thompson would run for president, if only to save the party from listless, reform-averse pols like Bob Dole. But by the time he finally took the plunge, his moment had long passed. The issues he championed as governor of Wisconsin seemed less pressing to post-9/11 Republicans, and he never particularly distinguished himself as secretary of Health and Human Services. By the time the 2008 cycle rolled around, Republicans had moved on to a different Thompson and Tommy had to drop out after finishing behind Ron Paul in the Ames straw poll.
A sad case, but Tommy Thompson isn’t alone. The Republican party’s recent history is replete with standout conservative politicians who took the plunge too late.
Former Vice President Dan Quayle met a fate similar to Thompson’s. True, he would have been a tough sell to the broader electorate. But after four years of watching him take a beating from critics for his defense of family values, many conservatives allowed themselves to pine for a Quayle presidency. The longing was all the more understandable in the context of George H. W. Bush’s lip-reading, tax-hiking administration.
Quayle’s best chance to make a run for the White House was in 1996, when he was still one of the most visible Republicans in the country. But a bout of phlebitis delayed his presidential candidacy until 2000, by which time the GOP was ready for another Bush. Quayle pulled out of the race after finishing behind Alan Keyes in the Ames straw poll.
Perhaps the most heartbreaking case is Jack Kemp, the man David Frum once described as the James Blaine of the 20th century. Conservatives hoped Ronald Reagan would tap Kemp as a running mate in 1980, putting together an all-true-believer ticket. By 1984, Kemp was the right’s preferred successor to Reagan.
Yet when Kemp ran for president in 1988, he didn’t conserve morning in America. Instead he ended up falling behind Bush, Dole, — and Pat Robertson. Nevertheless, that didn’t cure many conservatives of their desire to see him atop the GOP ticket one day. His enervated performance as Bob Dole’s running mate in 1996 did, however.
Kemp did little to help the ’96 ticket but the defining moment came in the vice-presidential debate with Al Gore. Gore essentially maligned a majority of Republicans as racists, but generously exempted Kemp from the criticism. Rather than defend his party’s honor, Kemp replied, “Well, I thank you, Al.”
Sometimes the problem isn’t the race one of Reagan’s heirs skips but the race they lose. As mayor of Jersey City throughout much of the 1990s, Bret Schundler was a conservative rising star. A firm proponent of tax relief and privatization, Schundler was popular among minority voters and presided over crime reduction and economic growth in a troubled city.
In 2001, Schundler was the Republican candidate for governor of New Jersey. Unfortunately, he was unable to buck the Democratic trend in the Garden State — or the opposition of the GOP establishment, which divided the party. Schundler lost to Democrat Jim McGreevey by a decisive margin. Though McGreevey later resigned in disgrace, Schundler’s political career has yet to recover.
Conservatives had similarly high hopes for Ken Blackwell, who spent more than a decade in statewide office in Ohio, first as state treasurer and then as secretary of state. Blackwell stood out as an effective voice for small government in sharp contrast with a big spending, ineffectual, non-ideological Ohio Republican party. He was dissuaded from challenging Bob Taft for the GOP gubernatorial nomination in 1998.
Taft was elected governor and proved a disaster. After his two terms, the Republican brand in the Buckeye State — already battered by congressional scandals and the national party’s woes — was seriously tarnished. Blackwell ran for governor in 2006, defeating Jim Petro, a representative of the GOP’s moderate old guard, in the primary. But the party’s unpopularity and Blackwell’s own campaign missteps were too much to overcome.
In 1998, Blackwell might have been elected governor. Eight years later, he might have been better off letting Petro be the standard bearer for devalued Taft Republicanism. Instead he was defeated by a huge margin; recovery will be difficult.
There might be a lesson for the Tommy Thompsons of the future. In politics, as in Hollywood, timing is everything. And even a conservative superstar can lose his luster in time.
— W. James Antle III is associate editor of The American Spectator.