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Former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson On Bipartisanship And The Future Of The Republican Party

Former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson on the Walker Webcast.

In Tommy Thompson’s family, everybody water skis. In fact, the 81-year-old former governor of Wisconsin only recently stopped water skiing himself after sustaining an injury on the water. 

This is just one of the many ways in which Thompson, who was the longest-serving governor in Wisconsin’s history, is defying expectations as he continues to advocate for bipartisanship, fight for ethics and integrity in social media and look toward the future. 

Age has not weakened Thompson’s drive or his mission to improve the country’s political system. After spending four terms as the governor of Wisconsin, he was appointed by President George W. Bush as the Secretary of Health and Human Services. In 2020, he was named the interim president of the University of Wisconsin, a position he held until March 2022. Today, he is a member of the Council for Responsible Social Media project, which aims to address the negative mental, civic and public health impacts of social media. 

Thompson was the guest on this week’s Walker Webcast, where he spoke with Walker & Dunlop CEO Willy Walker about his storied political career, his efforts to make an impact on social media and the future of American politics. 

Thompson said there is a saying in Wisconsin that “If you haven’t shaken Tommy Thompson’s hand, you haven’t lived in Wisconsin long.” When he was elected governor in 1986, he was the only Republican governor in the country to beat a Democratic incumbent, which made people skeptical about his chances of success, he said. 

“They just did not realize how hard I was working, and how upset the people of Wisconsin were about the direction we were going, so [the voters] gave me a chance,” Thompson said. “And I never forgot that.” 

During his tenure as governor, Thompson was focused on entitlement reform, which he said is a difficult topic and not a popular one because it forces people to work harder. 

“People think the government owes them something, I never believed that,” he said. “From my background, growing up relatively poor and having to work for everything, everyone should have the same opportunity. I put myself through college, why not put yourself through college?”

Walker & Dunlop CEO Willy Walker on the Walker Webcast.

One of the first things Thompson did as governor was to reach across the aisle and make Democrat Tim Cullen a member of his Cabinet. This move should come as no surprise to people who know of Thompson, since he has long been a proponent of bipartisanship and has spoken favorably in the past about aspects of the Affordable Care Act, and even called for inmate reform, something that Walker pointed out is often a death knell for Republican candidates.

Thompson admitted that it takes a lot of backbone to speak up for things that may go against the beliefs of some in the party, but he said he believes that is the key to moving politics forward, as opposed to where the nation is now. 

“We’re going nowhere,” Thompson said. “We have become so polarized, so partisan, nothing is getting done.” 

He said Democrats and Republicans need to start “meshing” their ideas together, and he called for both parties to have the courage to come together to get things done. 

“You’d be surprised how the people would respond when I would get up and speak about the need for bipartisanship,” Thompson said. “I would say ‘I’m a strong conservative Republican, but there are some good Democrat ideas.'”

Right now, Democrats and Republicans do not even talk except through social media, he said. Social media is another major concern of Thompson’s. On the Council for Responsible Social Media, he is working to bring a “degree of candor” and “cross-checking” to platforms because right now “nobody has to tell the truth,” he said.   

“That really tears at the fabric of our democracy, when you’re basing decisions on falsehoods,” Thompson said. 

One of the key problems with American politics right now is that no one has a plan, Thompson said. Instead, they are too focused on running simply to defeat the other side, and that level of partisanship is getting in the way of formulating plans to deal with the issues that Thompson deems most pressing, including the border, public health, food safety and manufacturing. 

When it comes to the future of the Republican Party, Thompson said he believes Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has a tremendous opportunity to “move” right now and be a counterforce, or the party will be inextricably linked to former President Donald Trump. 

“Trump did some great things as president, if he had other things he had done he would probably still be president,” Thompson said. “But the truth of the matter is you have to move and you have to move now.” 

Next Wednesday, Walker will be speaking with Peter Linneman, leading economist and professor emeritus at The Wharton School of Business, and Albert Ratner, former co-CEO and co-chair of Forest City Enterprises. Register here

This article was produced in collaboration between Walker & Dunlop and Studio B. Bisnow news staff was not involved in the production of this content.

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