Tommy Thompson and the Conservative Revolution

As Wisconsin's economy expanded in the 1950s and 1960s, factories re-opened, cities flourished, and suburbs sprouted on land that had once been farming fields. After the demise of the Progressive Party in 1946, most of its members joined the Democratic Party. After Wisconsin Democrats reached their electoral peak in the 1970s, a major political shift began to take shape. As postwar economic prosperity gave way to sluggish economic growth and inflation, a new generation of conservative leaders with different ideas about the role and place of government in daily life rose to power.

The 1970s inflicted several blows to American confidence. The Watergate crisis coupled with the withdrawal from Vietnam in 1975 shattered people's trust in the presidency. The rise of the service sector, at the expense of industry and manufacturing, contributed to rising unemployment and economic recession throughout the Northeast and Midwest. To make matters worse, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) began showing its strength by banding together to limit oil sales to the U.S. and Europe, driving up the cost of oil and sending the U.S. economy into a tailspin.

As prices and wages rose, taxpayers who had funded two decades of liberal government programs began to revolt. Kennedy's New Frontier and Johnson's Great Society had created costly bureaucracies that seemed to have produced more red tape than solutions to problems. Against this backdrop of perceived American decline and rising prices, conservative politicians began dismantling expensive federal programs and removing government regulations on business. Nationally, Ronald Reagan tapped into this groundswell of discontent by calling for smaller government and increased accountability.

In Wisconsin, Tommy Thompson carried the banner of revolt by focusing on revitalizing the state's economy and reforming welfare. Elected to his first term as governor in 1986, Thompson went on to dominate state politics for 14 years, championing, and even leading the way, on many Reagan and Bush administration priorities.

Echoing President Reagan's criticisms of the nation's welfare program, Thompson sponsored changes to the state program in 1987 that increased the responsibilities of welfare recipients. The state's Learnfare program, for example, required welfare recipients to send their children to school. In 1995, the "Work Not Welfare" program required welfare recipients to work and placed time limits on their benefits.

In 1997, Wisconsin replaced its Aid to Families with Dependent Children program with Wisconsin Works, or W-2, which became a national model for welfare reform. Characterizing the program as "employment rather than welfare," Thompson's program encouraged people to break their welfare dependency by providing opportunities for individuals to find gainful employment through further education. W-2 provided families with money for both schooling and childcare, provided that recipients find work within five years. Under W-2, Wisconsin reduced its welfare caseload by 93%. Although W-2 succeeded in doing exactly what it intended, critics contended that recipients often ended up in service-sector jobs that did not pay enough to support a family.

In addition to welfare reform, in 1990, Thompson created the nation's first school choice program. School choice allowed low-income Milwaukee families to send their children to the public or private school of their choice. Thompson also introduced Wisconsin's Council on Model Academic Standards, a forerunner to today's "No Child Left Behind Act," which imposed high academic standards in language arts, math, science, and social studies on all students.

Thompson also worked to extend healthcare benefits to low-income and disabled people. His BadgerCare program provided health insurance to uninsured families, and had enrolled more than 77,000 people by 2000. Wisconsin's Pathways to Independence was the nation's first program to ensure the continuance of health benefits for disabled individuals who entered the workforce, providing easy access to a system of service and benefits counseling. Another health program, FamilyCare, allowed elderly and disabled citizens to receive care in their homes as long as possible.

Early in 2001, Thompson resigned the governorship to become Secretary of Health and Human Services for the Bush administration, and was succeeded by his Lieutenant Governor Scott McCallum. Although McCallum lost his campaign to Democrat James Doyle in 2002, Republicans remained in control of both houses of the state legislature.

[Sources: "Tommy G. Thompson" Office of the President (online at http://www.whitehouse.gov/government/thompson-bio.html); Wisconsin Department of Health and Family Services (online at http://www.dhfs.state.wi.us/)]


Original Documents and Other Primary Sources

Link to article: A parent's guide to model academic standards (1999)A parent's guide to model academic standards (1999)
Link to article: Governor Thompson delivers his final State of the State, 2001Governor Thompson delivers his final State of the State, 2001
Link to article: Governor Thompson introduces school choice, 1989Governor Thompson introduces school choice, 1989
Link to article: The Department of Public Instruction explains the purpose of academic standards (1999)The Department of Public Instruction explains the purpose of academic standards (1999)
Link to article: Governor Thompson introduces Model Academic Standards, 1997Governor Thompson introduces Model Academic Standards, 1997
Link to book: Governor Thompson introduces "the end of welfare" in 1996Governor Thompson introduces "the end of welfare" in 1996
Link to book: A report on W-2 programs seeks to improve education and training, 1998A report on W-2 programs seeks to improve education and training, 1998
Link to manuscript: Sen. William Proxmire uncovers wasteful government spending, 1975-1987Sen. William Proxmire uncovers wasteful government spending, 1975-1987
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