MILWAUKEE, Wis. -- The person who is perhaps Tommy Thompson's greatest asset in his U.S. Senate bid is Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.). As the state's most prominent politician and the GOP's vice presidential nominee, Ryan brings Thompson increased attention and fundraising dollars. Yet at the same time, Ryan's controversial budget plan could serve as a liability for Thompson, who has both embraced and distanced himself from the congressman's ideas.
Even before Thompson won the GOP Senate primary and before Ryan was tapped to be Mitt Romney's running mate, he was actively trying to tie himself to Ryan and his economic proposals.
"I will pass Paul Ryan's budget plan in the Senate. It is the right plan at the right time for America," Thompson said on May 12 at the state GOP convention. In a radio ad he released in August, Thompson pledged to be "the 51st vote to repeal Obamacare and pass Paul Ryan's Pathway to Prosperity" plan.
And when Ryan returned to his home state shortly after getting the VP nod, he specifically gave a shout-out to Thompson, a former governor, praising "what we pioneered here in Wisconsin, Tommy Thompson, welfare reform, getting people off of welfare and back to working and lives of dignity and personal responsibility, on to a life of hitting their potential." Thompson sent his supporters an email touting this fact, giving him a leg up over the three other Republicans he faced in a primary at the time.
But lately, Thompson has attempted to distance himself from Ryan's budget plan, which would, among other provisions, fundamentally change Medicare by giving seniors a voucher with which to buy health insurance. The plan is controversial because it's expected to make seniors pay more out-of-pocket for their health care.
During an interview with the Wisconsin State Journal's editorial board last week, Thompson unveiled a new Medicare proposal in what appeared to be an attempt to distance himself from Ryan's plan.
Instead of setting up a new system of plans for seniors to choose from, Thompson would give seniors two choices: stay on Medicare or buy into the Federal Employees Health Benefit Program, which is essentially a private exchange that federal workers have access to.
According to a report commissioned by Kaiser Health News in September, FEHBP does a poorer job of holding costs down than does Medicare. FEHBP grew by an average of 7.1 percent per enrollee each year, compared to 5.8 percent for Medicare.
But Thompson insisted that his plan has been "projected" to "save money," arguing that the Congressional Budget Office looked at a plan that was similar to his.
"They have not looked at my plan," he said of the CBO, adding, "This is a plan by Paul Ryan, I’ve modified it. I think my plan is better … When I'm elected to the United States Senate, I have a chance to use the computers and have the access to CBO and I’ll be able to make the necessary things. I’m talking conceptually, about an idea out there that has been advanced by somebody else and I think it makes a lot of sense."
When pressed by the editorial board, Thompson hadn't seemed to have thought his plan through, admitting he didn't know if it would actually save the federal government any money and referring to FEHBP as the "Health Education Benefit Package." The lure of the idea, in short, is that it isn't exactly Ryan's plan, and it isn't Obamacare, and the two federal plans are quite popular. And according to Thompson, the status quo is not an option.
"So if you haven't scored it and you don't know how much it’s going to save, how do you know it's going to be a big advance?" asked one of the board members.
"Because Medicare is going broke and we have to do something about it. It's a plan," he said. "It's a plan that I believe more than likely will work."
Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), Thompson's opponent, attempted to tie him to Ryan in their most recent debate last week, saying, "The Paul Ryan plan that Tommy Thompson has campaigned on throughout this campaign is one that would give enormous tax breaks to the very wealthy [and] pay for it by increasing middle class taxes and cut the very investments that we're talking about in order to grow our economy."
"The truth of the matter is, you're absolutely wrong," responded Thompson. "I've got a tax bill that is different than Paul Ryan. You keep putting me in with Paul Ryan. The truth of the matter is, my bill doesn't reduce the taxes on the wealthy at all."
Thompson's latest Medicare plan came just days after Ryan came to Wisconsin to raise money for him. Ryan has referred to the former governor as his "greatest mentor."
During a get-out-the-vote campaign stop in Waukesha, Wis. on Saturday, Baldwin told The Huffington Post that she doubted Thompson would keep his promises on Medicare and cited his time as Health and Human Services Secretary under President George W. Bush as proof.
"When he started in the Bush administration, the Medicare trustees said that Medicare was solvent through 2029," she said. "When he left four years later, it was solvent through 2020. Nine years of solvency lost under his watch. Now, he's on the campaign trail, he accuses me of not having a plan -- when I just voted for the Affordable Care Act, which extends the solvency of Medicare by nearly a decade. And he brings forth a new plan in the last couple of weeks which, by early examination, seems like it would cost much more than traditional Medicare. You can put your own adjective on it, but I'm almost speechless."
Thompson campaign spokeswoman Lisa Boothe said Baldwin was "lying," adding, "[I]t is actually under her watch that Medicare is more quickly heading towards insolvency. Despite having spent 14 years in Congress, the process seems lost on Madison liberal Tammy Baldwin. It is actually Congress' job, including hers, to properly fund the Medicare program by making sure spending and resources are balanced for the program. As Secretary of Health and Human Services, Governor Thompson's only job related to Medicare was to administer the program as directed by law."
"Perhaps Tammy Baldwin should spend less time making things up and more time creating a plan to keep Medicare solvent," Boothe added.
According to a HuffPost Pollster average of the polls in the race, Baldwin is currently leading Thompson by 4.7 percentage points.
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Correction: This article originally said Thompson made his Medicare comments to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel editorial board; it was the Wisconsin State Journal board. We regret the error.