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By Dave Umhoefer September 21, 2012

Democratic group says Thompson admitted Washington, D.C. stint changed him for the worse

Democrats and their allies are working overtime to convince Wisconsin voters that former Gov. Tommy Thompson isn’t the man he used to be.

Three new ads use Thompson’s own words in building a case that the U.S. Senate candidate changed for the worse after leaving President George W. Bush’s cabinet and making millions in part by working on behalf of drug companies, financial firms and other interests.

One spot, by the political arm of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal workers uses a snippet of a Thompson quote -- "... Washington changed us …" -- to bookend allegations that he’s changed so much he now "supports massive tax cuts for corporations that outsource Wisconsin jobs."

Another spot, by Tammy Baldwin, the Democrat seeking the Senate seat, uses it in support of an allegation regarding Thompson and drug companies.

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The newest ad, by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, uses the same snippet to say Thompson "admitted" being a guy who flew off to D.C. and "hasn’t looked back."

The list of grievances in the DSCC ad is long. Amid generic images of corporate deal-making, the spot says Thompson "sold his influence and connections, becoming a partner in a powerful Washington lobbying firm, working for Wall Street and the big drug companies, making millions from the special interests at our expense."

It skips any mention of Thompson’s four-year stint running the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services before he went to work in 2005 as a legal partner at the Washington, D.C., lobbying firm of Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld.

The ad ends with the narrator saying, "Thompson even admitted…" before the screen cuts to Thompson remarking at a presidential debate during his 2008 run: "Washington changed us."

Narrator: "Yes it did."

Just what was Thompson owning up to in the quote?

Return with us to the June 5, 2007 CNN-sponsored presidential debate in Manchester, New Hampshire. John Lewicke, an electrical engineer, posed this long question to a candidate panel that included Thompson and current nominee Mitt Romney:

"In 2006, we saw the worst Republican defeat in living memory. If we do more of the same, why do we expect anything different? And I'd like to ask each of the candidates why their position is -- or how their position differs from the present administration's, so that we won't see a repeat of 2006 in 2008."

A transcript shows the candidates gave answers along two themes: Curb spending (unlike Bush) and show some vision. Few gave any details on spending cuts, other than to suggest banning pork-barrel projects. Ron Paul said the Iraq War costs were too high.

Enter Thompson, questioned by CNN’s Wolf Blitzer.

BLITZER: "The question is what - what's President Bush's biggest mistake over these past several years?"

THOMPSON: "Because we went to Washington to change Washington and Washington changed us. We didn't come up with new ideas. We got to transform health care. We got to wind -- we got to wind down the war in Iraq. We got to make sure that we really are conservatives. If we're going to spend money like - as foolishly and as stupidly as the Democrats, the voters are going to vote for the professional spending, the Democrat not the amateur spender, the Republican." (Laughter, applause.)

There was no commentary on Thompson’s private-sector jobs.

Rather, it seems clear Thompson’s "admission" concerned his regrets, however belated, over policy and budget matters during his days in the Bush cabinet.

But the DSCC uses the quote in the ad to give the false impression Thompson was standing in self-judgment over his work at the time for Akin Gump and others.

When asked about the quote, DSCC spokesman Matt Canter connected the dots this way:

Most observers, he argued, would say that the new Medicare prescription drug benefit created with Thompson’s support under Bush was a giveaway to the big pharmaceutical companies. Thompson’s debate remarks talked about the failure to transform health care. Therefore, Thompson’s "Washington changed us" was an admission that such deals with special interests were wrong, Canter said.

To be sure, there is a connection between Thompson’s cabinet experience and his subsequent private work. PolitiFact Wisconsin has noted that connection in earlier items -- and those items are cited as a source for many of the statements in the ad.

We noted the connection when we checked a claim by Thompson’s GOP primary rival Eric Hovde that Thompson is "a big corporate lobbyist" and has been "lobbying during the middle of the campaign."      

We rated that Half True, noting that Thompson is not a registered lobbyist under the strict definition but "has sold his influence and connections to firms to whom it would benefit on Capitol Hill, but did so in a way -- as a consultant -- to avoid having to register."

His link to these firms is clear, and his own disclosure reports show he has made millions in the private sector as a corporate consultant and advisor, executive, investor and speaker.

But we’re examining the claim that Thompson candidly "admitted" being "changed" by Washington into a corporate influence peddler.

Our rating

In claiming that Thompson "admitted" he had been changed by Washington and had sold out to make millions, the ad jumbles a snippet from a quote about the failings of himself and other GOP officials while running Washington with his actions after leaving government service.

The effect is to make it appear Thompson is condemning his own conduct and private-sector work.

We rate the claim False.

Our Sources

Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, campaign TV ad, Sept. 12, 2012

Interview with Matt Canter, DSCC spokesperson, Sept. 12, 2012

The American Presidency Project, New Hampshire GOP presidential debate, complete transcript, June 5, 2007

Partial transcript, New Hampshire debate

DSCC news release, Sept. 12, 2012

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Democratic group says Thompson admitted Washington, D.C. stint changed him for the worse

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