Cover Story

The trouble with Tommy

With the debate over cloning and stem-cell research gaining steam in Washington, many social conservatives fear that Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson isn't the right man to lead on health policy in the Bush administration

Issue: "The trouble with Tommy," May 4, 2002

WASHINGTON—Swimming pools traditionally open on Memorial Day, and this year the floodgates on cloning may open as well. Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) has promised to allow a vote in the Senate by then on a bill sponsored by Sens. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) and Mary Landrieu (D-La.) that would prohibit all cloning, including that of embryos in order to harvest stem cells for medical research.

President Bush has come down forcefully in opposition to such cloning and to Democrats like Sen. Daschle who support it. On April 10, he strongly endorsed the ban in an East Room event, winning applause from cloning opponents. But his introduction of Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson as "a man who is doing a fine job for America" yielded only polite clapping.

"We've been disappointed with Tommy Thompson from the beginning," says Connie Mackey, vice president for government relations at the Family Research Council. "He's been an advocate for [the] biotech [industry] since the day he got here, instead of taking the president's positions."

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While many social conservatives acknowledge Mr. Thompson's reputation for policy innovation-he led the 50 states in welfare reform and watched over Milwaukee's school-voucher programs as governor of Wisconsin-they question his commitment on life issues. And with life issues increasingly taking center stage, many wish the Bush cabinet had a more socially conservative point man on health policy.

In part, the dismay with Mr. Thompson reflects the evolving nature of the pro-life debate. The National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League gave him an "F" as a 2000 vice-presidential prospect. The National Organization for Women opposed him as a nominee to head HHS. He officially opposed abortion throughout his career (even though it was never an issue he pushed as governor). But with the rise of biotechnology, pro-family groups insist that the protection of life also requires opposition to human cloning and embryo-destroying stem-cell research.

It's on these emerging battlegrounds that social conservatives seek support from Mr. Thompson, the top health-policy official in the Bush administration. But as governor of Wisconsin for 14 years, Mr. Thompson pumped money into the University of Wisconsin faculty and physical plant, and took pride in its leading role in the controversial field of embryonic stem-cell research. He held a reception at the governor's mansion for University of Wisconsin researcher James Thomson, one of the pioneers in embryonic stem-cell research, and cited his work in the 1999 State of the State speech.

Last year, Mr. Thompson caused a stir during his first few months as HHS secretary when he said during a Senate hearing that he was "troubled" by restrictions on federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research. Republicans later that year blamed Mr. Thompson when the administration's internal stem-cell debate dragged out into the late summer, and Democrats grew warm and supportive of the secretary. "You are to be commended," Sen. Ted Kennedy told Mr. Thompson at a Sept. 5 hearing after President Bush's decision to allow limited stem-cell research on previously killed embryos.

It also doesn't help matters that Mr. Thompson frustrated many conservatives in the party during his tenure as chairman of the Republican platform committee in the 2000 presidential campaign. Oddly, Mr. Thompson-an early supporter of the Bush campaign-tried to draw the platform to the left in areas where TeamBush and conservatives were in agreement. He unsuccessfully fought to exclude praise for the public posting of the Ten Commandments, criticism of the gay lobby's agenda, and a defense of freedom of association for the Boy Scouts of America.

So when Mr. Thompson was nominated for HHS, conservative support (as well as liberal opposition) was milder than it was in the hard-fought struggle over Attorney General John Ashcroft's nomination. It wasn't just that Mr. Thompson's rarely mentioned Catholic background stood in stark contrast to Mr. Ashcroft's overt Assemblies of God faith. Democrats sensed that Mr. Thompson would be agreeable on stem-cell research and other vital issues.

The good news for Thompson critics is the work of the team around him, especially that of Deputy Secretary Claude Allen and Assistant Secretary Wade Horn, a former president of the National Fatherhood Initiative. An aide to a key congressman (WORLD gave him anonymity because public dissing of the HHS secretary would create severe job repercussions) explained that pro-lifers on Capitol Hill regularly go over Mr. Thompson's head to the White House or below him to his more supportive staff.

Other parts of HHS also have redeeming social value. "There are many good people at HHS, who are doing good work in redefining the regulations," says FRC's Connie Mackey. (With the Democratic majority in the Senate, interpreting regulations is a quicker route to conservative policy than legislation.) HHS, for example, in January made unborn children eligible for the State Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP), and conservatives enjoyed watching feminist groups characterizing the idea as a plot to undermine abortion rights and opposing more help for troubled pregnant women. Conservatives also appreciate the work of HHS in ensuring that abstinence programs do not end up being "abstinence-plus" liberal sex education.


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