Why did Tommy Thompson bother to attend last week's Tea Party rally at the state Capitol? There he was, making a show of red-faced outrage, calling out Obama and Russ Feingold and telling the Tea Partiers, "I want to be part of your movement," only to wind down with an embarrassed apology that his wife and children won't let him run for the Senate.
Thompson gave quite a stem-winder for someone who is getting out of a race. Maybe he just needed to use all of the good lines he'd come up with attacking Feingold and linking him to Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi.
Maybe he wanted to feel the love one last time before he effectively got out of politics while reciting the entire text of the Irish Blessing cross-stitched on wall-hangings in Irish bars across the land: "May the road rise to meet you, may the wind be always at your back...." Or maybe he just stumbled out of Brocach and had to think of something quick as he made his way to the rally across the street.
You never know with Tommy.
One thing is certain, though. He is no Tea Party radical.
My favorite line in Thompson's valedictory speech was, "I never thought I'd see the day when socialized medicine would become the law in Wisconsin and the country."
Really, Tommy? Not even as governor, when you were putting the finishing touches on BadgerCare? Or last year, when you urged President Obama and Congress to pass the Senate version of health-care reform that is now law?
Several Tea Party groups around the state boycotted the Madison rally because Tommy was speaking, saying he represents the Establishment, not the Revolution. They have a point.
If there is one thing Tommy's appearance at the Tea Party rally shows, it is that mainstream, moderate Republicans have decided this movement is essential to their political futures - even if, like Tommy's, those futures are now a bit vague.
Actual announced candidates for office were not allowed to speak at the rally. So gubernatorial wannabes Mark Neumann and Scott Walker and Senate hopeful Terrence Wall had to content themselves with walking around the crowd shaking hands while their campaign workers handed out truckloads of buttons and fliers.
Message from the Republican politicians: We are all Tea Partiers now!
"I consider myself one of them, yes," Mark Neumann told me as he worked the crowd. The main thing that defines the Tea Party, according to Neumann, is that "they want to take government back from the career politicians."
That is probably why Neumann and the other candidates were not allowed to speak. But their very visible presence made it clear that the career politicians would very much like to crash the party.
And, in truth, the crowd didn't seem like the sort that would get a candidate in trouble if he were caught with its members on YouTube. It was, on the whole, a pretty mild-mannered group of older, white, middle-class Wisconsinites.
Sure, there were a few aggressive signs about Obama, plus "Free Markets Not Free Loaders," and "Ayn Rand Is Right." And there were the obligatory swipes from the podium at everything from politically correct school mascots, to the global warming "hoax," to dire warnings about socialism and state control.
Still, despite the play given some previous Tea Party events around the country, I didn't see much overt racism or nastiness. The College Republicans giggling next to me on the Capitol lawn were not so keen to take up the "Jesus" chant with "apostle" David King of the Milwaukee God Squad, who used his turn at the podium to compare Obama to Judas.
A good part of the Tea Party crowd was kin to Tommy Thompson's brand of non-ideological Republican politics. These folks may grumble about taxes on the barstool, but they are not about to burn anything down.
May the road rise to meet you....
On the other hand, a certain libertarian, anti-government sentiment has deep roots in Wisconsin. Oshkosh businessman Ron Johnson gave voice to it when he denounced the "lapdog mainstream media" for ignoring government intrusions on our civil liberties, including warrantless wiretapping and subpoenas for citizens' library records.
Hey, remember the Wisconsin senator who made an issue of that? He was the one who cast the lone vote in the Senate against the Patriot Act, on grounds that it shredded Americans' constitutional rights.
Forget millionaire developer Terrence Wall, who hopes to replace Thompson as the Republican Party's standard-bearer candidate for U.S. Senate.
The real Tea Party candidate is Russ Feingold.
Ruth Conniff is political editor of The Progressive.