Patricia Ireland of NOW

(WOMENSENEWS)–National women’s rights advocates are openly opposed to Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson’s joining President-elect Bush’s cabinet as Secretary of Health and Human Services, worried that his anti-choice and anti-welfare agendas will spell disaster for young and vulnerable women nationwide.

Back in Wisconsin, the reaction was more muted. “The bottom line is, an appointment under George W. Bush could be much, much worse than Tommy Thompson,” says Paige Shipman, legislative director of Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin. “On the positive side, he’s shown a willingness to include contraception in the teen pregnancy prevention program he oversees,” she said.

That program, called Brighter Futures, includes “abstinence-based” education but it also includes contraception. Unlike most self-avowed pro-life politicians, Thompson has found some common ground with Planned Parenthood and worked seriously on the teen pregnancy issue, recognizing that preventing unintended pregnancies also prevents abortions.

The governor has run afoul of reproductive rights groups by supporting waiting periods and parental consent provisions that impede access to abortion. But according to those who work with him, he has not been the gung-ho pro-lifer that some national groups, both conservative and liberal, envision. “He’s signed many restrictive laws, but he hasn’t been proactive about anti-choice initiatives,” said Shipman of Wisconsin Planned Parenthood.

Wisconsin Republicans agree that Thompson might surprise people with his flexibility.

“Memo to groups outside Wisconsin: You’re not so smart,” says Brandon Scholz, a Republican strategist who headed former Congressman Scott Klug’s office and is now president of the Wisconsin Grocers Association. “If and when he ends up in Washington, on HHS, and some issue on abortion comes up and he makes some statement they don’t expect, they’re gonna look like idiots.”

Scholz calls Thompson a “rock-solid conservative” but adds: “As a conservative governor, he’s shown flexibility. On welfare reform, conservation issues, and education, you’d find things conservatives don’t like.” Mainly, those things include a willingness to listen to all sides and a commitment to spend money on the reforms he champions.

During the Republican convention last summer, Thompson was charged with putting Bush’s “uniter not a divider” philosophy into action as head of the platform committee that considered the rigid anti-abortion plank. While pro-choice Republicans were treated as traitors and shown the door during previous conventions, this time they at least got a hearing and were not vilified, thanks to Thompson and to changing and more pragmatic attitudes within the party.

Thompson at Least Listened to Pro-Choice Republicans in Philadelphia

In the final analysis, pro-choice Republicans still were shut out of policy-making. The platform committee refused to even add a line saying that the Republican Party included honorable women and men who could disagree about abortion rights and still be good Republicans.

Still, the climate improved.

All of the questions and the praise for Thompson’s listening abilities and flexibility leave open the question of what kind of Health and Human Services secretary he is likely to be.

Will he be a loose cannon, taking his own freewheeling approach, separate from the Bush administration, as he demonstrated during his nomination? Or when pressed, will he toe the line, giving a friendly gloss to right-wing policies?

“It really takes someone like (Missouri Senator and Attorney General nominee) John Ashcroft to make Thompson look like a moderate,” said NOW’s Patricia Ireland, noting both nominees’ conservatism. Still, Ireland acknowledged that Thompson has been more of a moderate than sometimes recognized on welfare reform, his trademark program.

He is widely credited with one of the nation’s most immediately successful welfare reform programs, Wisconsin Works–success being defined as getting people off rolls and finding them work.

Thompson Spent More Money on Welfare Reform, to Help Women, Kids

Often called the most radical welfare reform experiment in the nation, Thompson’s plan called for spending more money on reform than on the old welfare program, known as Aid to Families With Dependent Children. Money was spent on job training, child care, transportation and other services aimed at helping people get off the rolls for good.

“The (overall welfare reform) program is not good. But at least he was willing to say, ‘We’re going to have to put more money into the system, for transportation and child care and training, instead of just taking money out.'” Ireland said.

The jury is still out on the success of Wisconsin’s welfare reform. Do people get off welfare and stay off because they found steady work that pays reasonably well? Do they get off for a while, fall through the cracks and again need help they cannot get because of a five-year lifetime assistance cut-off?

At Health and Human Services, Thompson also will oversee Bush’s efforts to reform the last of the great federal entitlement programs, Medicare and Social Security. Besides being an enormous department dealing with vast technicalities, it could be a political minefield.

Thompson will likely be buffeted from the right and the more progressive elements in the political spectrum. The job will test his political, administrative and quite possibly his survival skills.

He may find that his welfare-reform credentials only get him so far. The scary truth about Wisconsin’s welfare reform is that it might just collapse like a house of cards when the economy takes a dip. And the economy is dipping and cooling now, meaning less money will be available for Thompson’s favored efforts to spend more to help women and children get off welfare.

Thompson’s Vaunted Welfare Reform Depended on Booming Economy

No one really knows what happened to the thousands of people who left the welfare rolls under the federal five-year lifetime limit for benefits. Thompson made it difficult to track outcomes by using his line-item veto to kill a law that would have required the state to keep track of ex-welfare recipients.

Early indications of the success of Wisconsin’s welfare reform were not so good. Analyses by the State Audit Bureau and the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee in the early 1990s showed that the Learnfare program, which required children of welfare mothers to maintain excellent school attendance in order to “earn” their famililes’ welfare checks was so poorly run that it cut many people off because of administrative errors.

The vaunted Wisconsin Employment and Job Training Program turned out graduates who were actually less likely to get jobs than control group members who never got any training at all. Bold new free-market initiatives look successful, initially, in a booming economy, according to the State Audit Bureau.

Thompson’s problem, and the Bush Administration’s, will be how to continue and improve welfare reform when money gets tight.

If the overhaul of Social Security runs into problems, and the Bush Administration looks for fall guys, there will be Thompson, out on the front lines, providing political cover to his boss. Even if things go well, consider the last Wisconsinite to take the Health and Human Services job–Donna Shalala. She supports Thompson and says she will help shepherd him through confirmation hearings.

After achieving recognition as chancellor of the University of Wisconsin, Shalala worked hard, moved up and won bipartisan accolades as secretary of Health and Human Services. Her reward for all those years of hard work? She’s taking a job running the University of Miami. Doesn’t seem like much of a promotion. And, thanks to divisive partisan politics, the Florida Legislature has promised to make sure the private university never receives a single penny of state money so long as it’s run by such a high-profile Democrat.

No wonder Thompson was so balky about his big move. Transportation looks easy. And it might be a helluva lot easier just to stay on as governor-for-life.

Ruth Conniff is Washington editor of the Progressive Magazine.