Sunday, April 26, 2009

Government as if government mattered

A Wisconsin Political Fix
not just another blog
April 26, 2009

By Bill Kraus
It goes without saying that most of the participants in the recent tea party demonstrations can be found on the rolls of the Republican Party. The Republicans attract anarchists. The breeding ground of this “lower taxes; less government” faction in Wisconsin used to be the North Shore Republican Club of Milwaukee County and may still be. Although there are signs of infestations in some nearby counties.

The anarchists and the communists believe that in their disparate versions of the perfect worlds the government can be made to go away.

The communists seem to have spawned mostly autocracies, many of them tyrannical. This was not what Marx promised.

The anarchists’ high point in this country was the Ronald Reagan presidency. Reagan’s “the government is the problem not the solution” rhetoric was the kind of talk the anarchists had been hoping to hear.

The walk, however, didn’t match the rhetoric. The government grew during his presidency. Not as fast as the Democrats would have liked perhaps, but fast enough to disappoint his most ardent admirers and pretty much put the underlying myth that he was God’s gift to the cause to bed for good one would think. One would be wrong. The myth persists and even grows as memories fade.

The Reaganites to the contrary notwithstanding all of the revered Republican leaders have been government activists not dismantlers. Tommy Thompson, our own most recent activist Republican, put it succinctly in a recent interview when he asked, “If you don’t want to do something, why would you run for public office.”

Despite the distractions of the Civil War, Lincoln built the transcontinental railroad and established the land grant colleges.

Teddy Roosevelt is remembered more for national parks and public lands than anything else.

Dwight Eisenhower built the I-system.

And in Wisconsin Warren Knowles gets as much credit as Gaylord Nelson for saving the environment and acquiring land for public purposes. Lee Dreyfus counted the building of the veterinarian school as his high point, which he insisted on over the dead bodies of most of his advisers and the UW administration. He said, “It’s about research.” And it was when Jamie Thompson made his stem cell discoveries there.

And Tommy Thompson was almost manic in his activism. He built and built and built.

The government is here to stay, and the Republicans will get to run it as, if, when they demonstrate they can and will run it better than the other guys. The practitioners of electoral segmentation will say that the Republicans must attend to the anarchists or they will go away. The likelihood of that is zero. Not only will they not go away, they are harder to get rid of than teenage acne.

Their virtue is that they throw tea party protests instead of blowing people up like their more violent counterparts in other places.

The tea parties were a sideshow. The people want a government that works.

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Sunday, April 19, 2009

Behind the curtain

A Wisconsin Political Fix
not just another blog
April 19, 2009

By Bill Kraus

Dick Cheney would be most people’s nominee for the Bush Administration’s eminence grise.

Not so fast.

John Roach orchestrated a wonderful interview recently with Tommy Thompson for broadcast on the Big Ten Network. I know. I know. The viewers are going to think they clicked on the wrong channel when they get a non-jock program, but put that aside.

The John and Tommy show was first-class theater and journalism. John crafted excellent questions and Tommy delivered candid and articulate responses.

Two subjects in particular offered an interesting insight into the workings of the Bush White House.

Tommy, of course, was the entire left wing of the Bush administration once Christine Whitman got the bum’s rush early on.

He was a consistent advocate of more extensive federal involvement in anything having to do with stem cell research. He didn’t go into the entire history of this advocacy, which must have been extensive.

The one instance he talks about in the show was at a lunch in the White House with the president and Karl Rove. He didn’t claim any progress beyond keeping a bad situation from getting worse.

It is hardly surprising that Karl Rove was at the table when stem cells were on the menu or that there was no winner. Rove would be expected to be in any discussion of a subject where the interests of his beloved base were at risk.

The other Tommy tale that was more surprising was about Tommy’s proposal to put the computerization of medical records on a fast track.

Tommy told the president th at if he was given a high priority he could put the wheels under an initiative to program everyone’s health records in 18 months.

Another lunch in the White House. Same cast of characters. Rove liked this idea but wanted it to be positioned like a moonshot, something that would be done in ten year's time.

Tommy pointed out that putting the merits aside, a ten-year program would pass up all the political benefits.

The president called Tommy later that same afternoon and said, “You lost.”

The question is not why Karl Rove passed on this interesting idea. The question is why he was even in the room.

Do you get the impression that Bush was afraid of Rove and Rove was afraid of his precious voter base?

So do I.

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Sunday, April 12, 2009

Lessons learned and not learned

A Wisconsin Political Fix
not just another blog
April 12, 2009

By Bill Kraus

It was, for the most part, a day for the favorites and for favorite strategies, most but not all of which worked.

The Obama Example, which consists of spending a lot and going retail by putting large numbers of people on the streets, was followed and validated by those candidates who had the money and the organizations. Not a big news item. My own prejudice would be to credit the retail over the money particularly in low-turnout elections, but this doesn’t fit the conventional wisdom or make the hired guns rich and will be dismissed out of hand.

Until and unless there’s a campaign where money goes head-to-head with organization, which is a researcher’s dream and a campaign improbability, this disagreement will not be resolved.

The Feingold Example, on the other hand, had no takers that I saw. What Russ did was to tell the third parties to go away, with a “thanks but no thanks” to those who offered to run parallel campaigns designed to help him. Tony Evers's campaign, if any, was completely overshadowed by Mary Bell’s ads for WEAC. The other campaigns got less significant help, which makes their failure to set the good example of suggesting that political campaigns are supposed to be the property of the candidates even more disappointing.

Civility had a pretty good day. Attack ads did not. Attack ads were used mostly against popular incumbents and flirted with being inane and irrelevant, and any failure of this technique, which diminishes the trade and its practitioners, is worth applauding. The trade itself, too, had a pretty good day. The naysayers and attackers who follow the course set by the shouters who draw listeners to talk radio found that the voters were voting for people who spoke more softly and offered to deliver a government that worked. Could it be that campaigns are going to be more about what candidates hope to do than where their opponent messed up?

The organizations that insist on anonymity contributed more legwork than media buys to the campaigns of those they favored or opposed. A young man who came to my door asked me to answer some questions for a survey he was conducting. When I saw the length of the list of questions, I demurred, and asked what organization he represented and whether he wanted to leave me any literature. He said his organization was Advancing Wisconsin, a worthy idea, and he left me literature for three candidates who presumably would do that. He wouldn’t have passed the Feingold test.

The robocall--an emerging candidate for most annoying campaign technique--had a big day. My phone rang off the hook particularly as election day neared--with calls from all the candidates for major offices and from candidates for lesser local offices as well. Or were those recordings? And why not spend this money on radio spots or newspaper ads or calls from friends or something less patently phony and, as I said, annoying.

In sum, the 2009 elections offered the optimists among us some hope without entirely dismissing the pessimists’ fears. The pessimists will point out that the Democratic Party didn’t get, didn’t believe, or chose to ignore the poor record of attack ads when they decided to take a preemptive shot at Scott Walker’s presumed 2010 candidacy for governor a few days after the election.

Even the optimists have to continue to be dismayed by the candidates’ unwillingness to and uninterest in controlling their own campaign destinies by telling the outsiders to step aside, take a walk, go away. The parallel campaigns were mostly benign this spring. That is not their natural preference. They prefer the big stick.

Until and unless candidates disdain parallel campaigns, campaign hijacking, which can beset candidates of every persuasion, lingers and looms.

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Monday, April 6, 2009

How campaigns and television devolved together

A Wisconsin Political Fix
not just another blog
April 5, 2009

By Bill Kraus

In the beginning we didn’t know what to do with television advertising. The medium was new, the reach was questionable, and, worse yet, TV ads were thought to be, if you can believe this, sort of beneath the dignity of politicians.

Then George Henman (I think I have the name right), who created great print advertising for Nelson Rockefeller’s gubernatorial campaigns, legitimatized TV by telling us that we should think of our candidates as Buicks instead of as tubes of toothpaste. And TV ads for candidates were off to the races.

The stuff we were doing in Wisconsin was still pretty amateurish until the Doyle Dane Bernbach ad agency produced ads for Lyndon Johnson’s 1964 campaign against Barry Goldwater. The famous nuclear countdown ad (which ran only once) was what everyone remembers, but the series included ridiculing Goldwater’s social security ideas and his wish to cut off the northeastern states and set them adrift in the Atlantic Ocean.

These ads were not why Johnson won, but they may have turned a flood into a tsunami, and they surely set a new quality standard for political ads which made the making of the ads a lot more expensive.

No more talking heads. Now the candidate commercials had to look as good as those Coca Cola and and Miller Beer were producing.

I dodged this bullet in Warren Knowles's 1966 campaign for governor by hiring the documentary geniuses the Maysles brothers to do cinema verite commercials. They followed the governor around for a week with a camera, showing who Knowles was and what he did as governor.

The good thing about these commercials was they mostly informed, were wholly positive, and they were cheap. Others used the technique in other places, but the cinema verite phase fell out of favor for many reasons, one of which was that it was pretty obvious that they were a lot more cinema than verite.

As campaign consultants came into politics in waves, campaigns got more expensive, more glitzy, and more one-dimensional. The consultants' advice was to spend everything you’ve got on TV, and if there’s anything left over spend that on TV, too.

Inevitably the ads got more aggressive. Candidates talked less about their virtues and more about their opponents' faults, which, of course, led to counterattacks and defensiveness.

A more disturbing trend was the drift to irrelevance, a kind of orchestrated deception.

This political advertising addressed issues that the polls said were important to the voters whether whoever won the office being sought had anything to do with those issues or not.

The appalling thing was these kinds of ads--which are designed to evoke not inform--worked, and political consultants, who are the biggest imitators since football coaches, expanded their use exponentially.

What was not apparent is that irrelevant political advertising is based on several unflattering assumptions: The voters are uninformed, respond to emotional appeals, are uncritical, uninterested, even stupid.

Are you mad yet?

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