The early reviews are in on the new George W. Bush administration. It has all the elements of the classic horror story: a predictable plot, familiar villains and an unshakable sense of déjà vu. On the following pages, we take a look at Bush's nominees and appointments, a diverse cast of characters in every way but ideology. Left to their own devices, this collection of unrepentant cold warriors, anti-choice extremists, Wise-Use desperados and corporate shills (as well as a couple of reasonable old-fashioned conservatives) could make for a harrowing next four years.

Can the forces of good thwart this evil plan? Well, as In These Times went to press, thousands of townspeople were taking their torches to Washington to protest Dubya's inauguration, making one thing clear: There will be no honeymoon!

Craig Aaron


Name a social policy experiment from the past two decades--welfare reform, school vouchers, "reinventing government," corporate "self-regulation," abortion waiting periods, exponential expansion of the prison-industrial complex or the funneling of public dollars to HMOs--and you will find that Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson was the first into the laboratory.

Thompson is often referred to as a "reformer." But that gives him far too much credit. He makes change for the sake of change--turning theories concocted by right-wing think tanks into public policy with little real concern for the impact the changes may have on people for whom existing programs are an essential lifeline.

"The trouble with the national media coverage of Thompson is that, for the most part, reporters simply accept the claims that he has reformed all these programs and made them better," says Ed Garvey, a veteran labor lawyer who was Thompson's Democratic challenger in 1998. "When you look beyond the spin, you realize that his 'reforms' are more about grabbing headlines than improving lives."

It should come as no surprise then that George W. Bush--a president with little understanding of and even less sympathy for government programs--would tap Thompson to direct the more than 300 programs and 60,000 employees of the Department of Health and Human Services, through which more than $400 billion in federal tax dollars flow annually.

Thompson is America's No. 1 public-policy tinkerer. A veteran of 35 years in elective office, the nation's longest-serving governor sees government in much the same way as a cut-rate mechanic does an old but serviceable automobile engine. To Thompson, the point of "reform" is not to provide better service to citizens; rather, it is to see if the wheels of government will run with cheaper parts--especially those "parts" recommended by the corporate bigs who pumped more than $5.5 million into his last campaign alone. The problem is that the engine seldom works as well after Thompson gets done with it as it did before he got started.

The governor earned most of his national reputation as a pioneering welfare "reformer," implementing a sweeping "end-welfare-as-we-know-it" scheme that became something of a model for similar restructuring of aid programs across the country. The man who holds the copyright on the term "compassionate conservatism," Thompson sold his scheme as a move to break the shackles of government programs and free poor families to join the middle classes. Deep into the experiment, however, Wisconsin actually has a higher child-poverty rate than it did in 1979--13.5 percent in 1998, as compared with 8.7 percent two decades earlier.

If there is a second "reform" for which Thompson is credited, it is state support of the development of school vouchers, which direct public money to private educational institutions. Milwaukee's school-choice initiative is one of the oldest in the country, yet it continues to yield more controversy than educational advancement for the low-income children it is supposed to aid. Indeed, according to a recent complaint filed with the state Department of Public Instruction by People for the American Way and the NAACP's Milwaukee chapter, more than one-third of the private schools using taxpayer money to enroll poor Milwaukee children were discriminating against prospective students by choosing some youngsters over others because of their religion, academic achievement or past schooling.

Most recently, Thompson has been in the forefront of efforts to funnel state money into HMOs as part of a plan to provide medical coverage for the uninsured. While the HMOs have been sucking up the taxpayer dollars, a funny thing has happened. Before Thompson's "reform" was launched, Wisconsin had the lowest percentage of uninsured citizens in the nation; now it has the 12th-lowest percentage. "If he does for America what he's done to Wisconsin," Garvey warns, "God help us."

John Nichols is editorial page editor of The Capital Times in Madison, Wisconsin. He is the author, with Robert W. McChesney, of It's the Media, Stupid! (Seven Stories Press).


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