Monday, March 15, 2010

Unfriendly rivals

isconsin Political Fix
not just another blog
March 15, 2010

By Bill Kraus

The occasional column that Sally Quinn (Ben Bradlee’s wife) wrote for the Washington Post was mostly about politicians socializing after hours.

The column has been discontinued.

Politicians don’t do that anymore. This is due in part because most of them are commuters who go back to the state or district on weekends and probably spend whatever remains of their leisure time dialing for campaign dollars.

What has really happened though is that camaraderie has disappeared.

The days when the adversaries fought in public and socialized in private ended when adversaries became enemies, and what I have described as the “Arena Effect” no longer existed in politics the way it used to and still does in sports. The effect is based on the respect and empathy the participants in contests have for the effort they have gone through to get into the game.

They may have different philosophies, goals, objectives, but they could disagree without being disagreeable.

The decline of civility and sociability can be traced in Wisconsin to the time when two of the state’s most accomplished and smartest legislative leaders were ascendant.

Chuck Chvala was Senate Majority Leader and Scott Jensen was the reigning Speaker of the Assembly.

They preached and practiced a kind of disassociation.

Early in their ruling tenures a freshman representative and his fellow neophytes from both parties convened regular breakfasts with cabinet members and leaders of the administration to learn more about the way this government worked.

When he learned of this, Jensen told his members not to participate. Chvala did not object.

The theory, if there was one, seemed to be that it’s better not to get to know, or to be friendly with the people on the other side. This might somehow weaken your resolve to enact your agenda. From the outside though it looked less like agenda advancement than a pursuit of advantage pure and simple.

The collateral damage was that compromise which at one time was regarded as the real art of politics became a dirty word. Worse yet, the law of unintended (at least I hope it was unintended) consequences took hold, and disassociation became demonization.

It is hardly surprising that the rise of the “my way or no way” ideologues, the immutability of the status quo, a “when the solution is proposed, the problem goes away, and the solution becomes the problem” world where true believers, extremists, and yellow dogs prevail, became the political norm.

In a remarkable 1908 book titled The Process of Government, Arthur Bentley declared that there is no general interest, that politics is about special interests. Maybe it is. But the interests he saw at work clearly were not the kind of tribal Hatfield v. McCoy interests that are bringing our democracy to a screeching halt.

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Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Be more like NRA

isconsin Political Fix
not just another blog
March 9, 2010

By Bill Kraus

This should be the reformers year. At long last large numbers of people seem to be noticing that our legislatures do not seem to be working. They also seem to be coalescing and organizing to let it be known that some of them do not like what legislators are doing, more of them don’t like what the legislators are not doing, and all of them have noticed and really don’t like the fact that the legislators are not listening to them.

This latter has been the reformers lament ever since I got into this Sisyphean business 20 years ago. Reform measures are somewhere around 13th place on almost everyone’s priority list. Reformers are not marching on capitols. Reformers are mostly old lefties. Nice. Well intended. Hardly threatening.

Reformers want to be is as threatening as, say, the National Rifle Association. They aren’t.

Until this year.

Except the latter-day protesters who have noticed that the people who are representing them are a lot more interested in preserving the status quo, in paying attention to people and organizations who will raise and contribute the money they need to be re-elected to the jobs that they want to career out in, and, worse yet, that the people who represent them in most cases have picked them as constituents instead of vice versa.

The system is not working as the reformers have been telling them for all of my time in the reform business.

So why don’t the newly alerted and aware protesters simply join forces with the reformers, adopt the reform agendas, get the attention and action they deserve and want?

Why isn’t Common Cause more like the NRA?

Because the reformers operate in the ethereal precincts of policy not politics.

Step on the toes of the NRA and your mailbox fills up and your contributions box doesn’t.

So the rascals' movement is looking for more than the reform organizations offer.

Putting the tea parties aside for the moment, the recent action against the system and its incumbents comes in two main forms.

One is mostly positive. The Wisconsin Way coalition of diverse interest groups in Wisconsin that Jim Wood collected proposed changes in the way taxes are collected and spent. They want the legislators to quit posing for holy pictures and do something.

What Ed Koch, the 85-year-old former mayor of New York City, had in mind for the collection of interests he is putting together was a place for the “throw the rascals out” advocates to gather and target the miscreants in Albany.

Surely California’s discontent will breed variations on both of these change-agent ideas.

What occurs to me is that this might be the year that the long standing, long suffering reform groups finally get some respect. But only if they step up ther firepower.

The Common Causes, Leagues of Women Voters, Wisconsin Democracy Campaigns, and all their clones are reform and change agents who have members and programs which the protesters have got to love: dispassionate redistricting, election reform, contributor disclosure, even such ideas as term limits, part-time legislators are not off the table.

None of the newly awakened are going to ally with either party. They want bi-partisan action.

Why reinvent the wheel? Why not make the reformers as scary as the shooters already are?

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Sunday, March 7, 2010

Reform Event on Monday April 12th in Stevens Point

What Ever Happened to Good Government in Wisconsin?

*** And How Should We Fix It? ***

Monday, April 12, 2010

Dreyfus University Center, 2nd Floor (Laird North - Rm 230)
University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point
1015 Reserve Street, Stevens Point, WI

** Free and Open to the Public -- Light Refreshments will be Served **

Please come join in the discussion and learn more about:
  • Campaign Finance Reform in Wisconsin after the U.S. Supreme Court decision on Citizens United vs F.E.C.
  • Public Financing of Wisconsin Supreme Court and other state elections
  • The disclosure and regulation of interest-group “phony issue ads” and other “outside” spending
  • Redistricting Reform in Wisconsin – why it’s necessary and how should we do it?

State Senator Julie Lassa (D-Stevens Point)
State Representative Louis Molepske (D-Stevens Point)
Republican Strategist and CC/WI Co-Chair Bill Kraus
Executive Director Jay Heck of Common Cause in Wisconsin


Professor Dennis Riley - UW-Stevens Point Political Science Department

Presented by: Common Cause in Wisconsin
(Underwritten by The Joyce Foundation)

Co-Sponsors: UWSP Political Science Department, UWSP College Democrats, UWSP College Republicans, UWSP Gender and Sexuality Alliance, League of Women Voters of Stevens Point Area, League of Women Voters Wisconsin Education Fund, American Association of University Women - Wisconsin, The Coalition of Wisconsin Aging Groups, Wisconsin Alliance for Retired Americans

For more information: call Sandra Miller at (608) 658-2109


Monday, March 1, 2010

Playing it where it lays

isconsin Political Fix
not just another blog
March 1, 2010

By Bill Kraus

All the wailing by almost all the campaign reformers over the Supreme Court’s decision to remove all the bans on campaign spending by almost anyone has obscured a few realities, an objective of campaign finance reform, and a significant opportunity.

Instead of starting the endless and probably fruitless process of overturning the decision by amending the Constitution (does anyone remember the many-year failed attempt to add the relatively harmless ERA to the Constitution sone decades ago?), I suggest a reality check, a rededication to the real objective of all those campaign finance reform ideas that have mostly gone nowhere, and an aggressive exploitation of the very large opportunity that was part and parcel of the FEC v. Citizens United decision.

The reality is that the possibility that this court and probably its successors are going to welcome any kind of regulation of this kind of free speech is dim to non-existent.

This court expanded the freedom of speech to places it’s doubtful the founding fathers ever imagined. But to think that even justices who are more cognizant of the collateral damage that might ensue from this decision will turn against free speech run amok is to believe in fantasies.

A more reasonable idea is to restate the objectives of campaign finance reform. As much as we’d like to get the money and the hired guns out of campaigns, what we really should be focused on is something that is more achievable.


What we now have is an election system where the candidates have to abide by contribution limits and also must disclose the names of people who gave them money. All the non-candidate organizations that get to bash or support those candidates can spend as much as they want without revealing where they get their money. Millionaires who spend their own money are also unrestricted and, incongruously, if Herb Kohl is an example, kind of admired for doing so.

Not fair.

The free-market types will probably opt for taking the limits off for the candidates themselves to level the playing field inasmuch as it’s going to be pretty tough to convince a court that for over a century has said corporations are people and more recently that money is speech, that all the players have to abide by the candidates’ rules. This is a chance the reformers have to take.

My own priority would be to stay out of that thicket and go full speed ahead in the one direction that the Supreme Court has not only permitted but encouraged: disclosure.

No candidate can match a large corporation (or a tribe or a well-heeled union), but all candidates can and should be able to identify and counter-attack whoever is spending money against them.

What we need is a bill that names the funders of any and all campaign activity not just those who contribute to the candidates.

What we also need is an up-front disclosure that matches the candidates’, “My name is John Doe and I approve of this message,” with something like, “The following message was authorized and paid for by XYZ corporation.”

These are the cards that have been dealt. Let’s play them. There isn’t going to be a re-deal.

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twitter / wmkraus