Failure to scent tax-cut fever abroad in the land has quickly shoved aside Gov. James Thompson's presidential dreams and substituted a struggle for mere survival.
Most politicians still consider Thompson a sure winner over his under-financed, listlessly supported Democratic opponent, State Controller Michael Bakalis. A Republican poll shows otherwise. Kept top secret by the Thompson camp, it reveals Bakalis within striking distance; one insider reports the difference less than 5 percentage points. "When Jim read that poll,' a Republican politican told us, "he couldn't believe he had gone down so fast."
Believe it or not, it at least temporarily ended talk of the blond, 6-foot-6 charismatic governor as the savior of the Republican Party's moderate wing. Plans for Thompson to win friends and influence delegates by campaigning around the country this fall have been abandoned. Aides prevailed on Thompson not to attend the recent Governors' Conference in Boston, where his presidential prospects would have been a center of media attention.
Like California's Gov. Jerry Brown, Thompson missed the public's revulsion over high taxes; this summer he vetoed two tax-cut proposals. Unlike Brown, he bungled his recovery; the drive for a Thompson tax referendum has opened a snake pit of political goblins undercutting his reputation as a crusading federal prosecutor, which remains his basic political strength.
As 1978 began, Thompson seemed the sure winner for reelection and Bakalis a sacrificial lamb. Neither he nor his aides were interested in tax-cut measures introduced by State Rep. Don Totten, who ran Ronald Reagan's Illinois presidential campaign in 1976 and has promised to do so again in 1980.
When Totten visited Thompson to discuss a compromise version of his proposed constitutional amendment limiting state taxes, the governor turned thumbs down on any tax limitation. Thanks to Thompson's opposition, it died in the legislature. But the Democratic-controlled legislature did pass a Bakalis-backed tax rebate and a Totten bill to automatically lower taxes as inflation rises. Thompson vetoed both, though Republican politicians believe he should have used the item veto to get an amended version.
In following sound budgetary principles, Thompson was deaf to public anguish over rising tax burdens. Not until the hot breath of Proposition 13 reached the Midwest from California did the governor react. He personally drafted a proposition for the November ballot asking whether the public wanted unspecified tax limitation at an unspecified time. With some justice, Bakalis called it "Proposition Zero."
Now the political pitfalls faced by the outsider in office converged on Thompson. Republican party workers, ignored by him for 19 months, dragged their feet in collecting 589,000 signatures needed in a month to get the proposition on the ballot. Former governor Richard Ogilvie was among those ignored. While publicly denouncing Thompson's proposition, Ogilvie privately told Republican allies, "We've got to stop him." That was interpreted as opposition to Thompson's drive for the White House.
Worst of all, Thompson did not appreciate the probability of forgery in an 11th-hour petition drive in Illinois. Despite highly publicized irregularities, the proposition has been put on the balot, but court challenges and exposures persist. Fairly or not, it tarnishes Thompson's reputation as the U.S. attorney who put crooked politicians in jail - by Thompson's own assessment, still his political long suit.
Nor has Thompson fully adjusted to the politics of tax revolt. When they debated over statewide television in Carbondale Sept. 6, Bakalis closed by accusing the governor of "one of the great flip-flops of all time" in joining the tax limiters. Oddly, Thompson ignored the remark and closed by refuting Bakalis's charges that the state has not claimed sufficient federal welfare funds.
Earlier that day, Totten unveiled a new proposed constitutional amendment (intended for the 1980 ballot) limiting both state and local taxes. Thompson called to kid him about stealing his thunder on the Thompson proposition. "Turnabout is fair play," Totten replied. Thompson told reporters after the debate he might support Totten's new proposal - about three months too late.
Bakalis has told Totten he might endorse the new proposal, beating the governor to the punch. But Bakalis, too, is plagued by ambivalence on taxes. He is eager for backing from the well-financed teachers union, formidable foes of taxlimitation. After the Carbondale debate, he told newsmen he opposed any "tax freeze" because "it puts government in a straitjacket" but the next day told us the Totten limitation is not a "freeze."
Thompson's greatest asset may indeed be Bakalis, who sounds like a liberal of the 1960s denouncing Thompson for not stressing rehabilitation at state prisons. Thompson comes over as a commanding presence, overpowering a colorless foe. Yet, that conceivably may not be enough. Big Jim Thompson has given a demonstration of how to self-inflict political damage in confronting the tax revolt.