Tommy Thompson tries some bathroom humor
By Michael M. Bates
If you don't know who Tommy Thompson is, don't feel uninformed. He doesn't rate the media coverage of really important people like Paris Hilton. Like many others, Mr. Thompson is running for president. His background is not unimpressive. He served as Wisconsin's governor for an unprecedented four terms. He also ran, with a budget of over half a trillion dollars, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Gov. Thompson's race for the Republican nomination hasn't caught fire. Fundraising is a problem. Still, in a season where even unannounced candidates qualify as first-tier, his candidacy, theoretically at least, could yet gain traction.
The odds of that have diminished in recent days. It all began with the Republican presidential candidates' debate aired earlier this month on MSNBC. It's true that at this stage the only folks watching these events are hardcore political junkies. It's also true, though, that candidates in them can step on a landmine from which they may never recover. Gov. Thompson was asked this question: "If a private employer finds homosexuality immoral, should he be allowed to fire a gay worker?"
Mr. Thompson's reply was, "I think that is left up to the individual business. I really sincerely believe that that is an issue that business people have got to make their own determination as to whether or not they should be."
Double checking, the moderator said, "OK. So the answer's yes." The governor replied affirmatively.
It didn't take long for his handlers to realize this was not the most prudent thing to say in today's PC world. The governor retracted his statement in the "spin alley" after the debate. The following morning, he called into CNN from O'Hare Airport to admit, "I made a mistake. I misinterpreted the question. I thought that I answered it yes when I should have answered it no. I didn't hear, I didn't hear the question properly and I apologize. It's not my position. There should be no discrimination in the workplace and I have never believed that. And, in fact, Wisconsin has one of the first laws, which I supported."
By then, Tommy was in full damage control mode. He was retreating faster than the French army. A few days later, he campaigned in Iowa. Mr. Thompson now claimed he gave the wrong answer because his hearing aid pooped out during the debate, causing him to misunderstand the question.
A hearing aid malfunction was his story and he was still sticking to it. But then he introduced a new wrinkle. An Associated Press story quoted him: "I've been very sick. . . I was very sick the day of the debate. I had all of the problems with the flu and bronchitis that you have, including running to the bathroom. I was just hanging on. I could not wait until the debate got off so I could go to the bathroom."
What I find ironic is that Thompson is running away from a completely defensible position. There are few legitimate reasons to deny business owners the right of free association and the right to operate their businesses as they see fit. Yes, some people will discriminate. That's one of the prices of liberty.
If a business owner chooses to discriminate against gays or blacks or women or Irishmen, he may pay a price by having fewer skilled employees. He may pay a price by developing a reputation as a bigot. He may lose customers and ultimately his company.
Regardless of what happens, the paramount issue is one of property rights. Barring extraordinary circumstances, free people have a right to use their property as they see fit. It might offend our sensibilities. It might seem crude and uncaring, even immoral. It might cause us to disassociate ourselves from them.
Think how much better it would be if lawmakers, bureaucrats and judges simply stayed out of property owner decisions. If a bar owner wants to allow smoking, customers can decide if they want to patronize the place. That's also true if a coffee shop owner doesn't want women to breastfeed their infants in his establishment. Or if a restaurant owner chooses to include foie gras on the menu.
We don't need the heavy hand of government dictating how businesses are run. Free enterprise, based on private property rights, can do a more equitable and efficient job and Thompson was right to say so.
This incident is reminiscent of Mitt Romney's tar baby embarrassment last year. Using the term, as it typically is, to describe a situation from which it's virtually impossible to disentangle oneself, Mitt was jumped on by PC policepersons who make a career of being offended.
He apologized when no apology was in order. I don't like Republican candidates crawling on glass to placate the professionally annoyed. And Thompson's pathetic I had to go to the bathroom explanation sounds like something Bill Clinton could have contrived.
Tommy Thompson had it right the first time. If only he had the vision – and guts – to say so.
This Michael Bates column appeared in the May 17, 2007 Reporter Newspapers.
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