Monday, September 28, 2009

A campaign finance reform refresher course

isconsin Political Fix
not just another blog
September 27, 2009

By Bill Kraus

Okay, class, let’s go over this again. I know it’s easy to forget. But it’s important.

The main objective of all the campaign reform ideas is to set spending limits.

These should be high enough so candidates, particularly less well known and new candidates, will be able to raise enough money to become well enough known to attract enough votes to run competitive races.

The basic reform proposal is an incentive for candidates to accept a spending limit. If a candidate agrees to abide by the spending limit the government will wholly or partially fund his or her campaign.

The dangers of agreeing to a spending limit are not inconsequential in an era where money is perceived as crucial to political success.

The first is that one of the candidates may be wealthy or well funded enough to not agree to limit spending. The reforms handle this by agreeing to add more public money to offset what the so-called “millionaires” spend.

Anyone agreeing to a spending limit is also exposed to the risks that come from third parties that decide to participate in the campaign.

Some third-party participants are overt. They run separate, parallel campaigns with unlimited amounts of money which they raise from unidentified sources to outspend the spending-limited candidate.

Other third-party campaigns are more subtle. They spend their money in favor of or against an issue or idea and ask voters to “contact” not “vote for or against” the candidate who doesn’t share their opinion on this issue or idea.

The comprehensive reform measures provide public funds to offset the spending in the campaign by both kinds of third parties.

The theory and hope is that because additional public money will be available to spending-limited candidates, the millionaires and third parties will decide that it is not in their interest to participate, because by doing so they will actually be putting money into the campaigns of candidates they dislike.

The reform legislation is complex. The idea is simple. One incentive. Three disincentives.

Class dismissed.

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Monday, September 21, 2009

Appoint, counterpoint

isconsin Political Fix
not just another blog
September 20, 2009

By Bill Kraus

The rules for judges running for election fill several arcane pages and boil down to three simple directives:

1.Judges cannot take money for judicial favors.
2.Judges cannot lie.
3.Judges cannot promise to rule one way or another on any subject.

A lot of discussion about applying these simple rules focused on whether the ad Justice Gabelman ran was a lie or not. The devil is in the interpretation.


The objective is to have judges who are disinterested and fair. Recent trends, however, would make this impossible dream even more so. Two cases have been decided at the highest level which indicate that judges can have a partisan bias and can run on it, which seems to come very close to breaking rule 3 above.

Another case has said that the remedy for partisanship and predictability is recusal. The application of this ruling is widely believed to lead to judicial paralysis. Most experts agree that the best a supplicant is going to get is judicial aspiration to open-mindedness leading to fairness.


Should judges be elected or appointed?

Those in favor of appointment contend that this is what we have already in most cases in Wisconsin. Although 5 of the present 7 justices on the Supreme Court won open seats, over time the odds that a Justice will get the job by appointment first are very high. So, they say, why not change the Constitution and face up to reality.

They also say that this mixed system flirts with cronyism which may suborn mediocrity. An appointive system where the governor must select from a list of candidates selected and vetted by dispassionate, experienced, public spirited people who want only the best for the Wisconsin judiciary guards against those kinds of missteps.

Those who favor election over appointment offer two arguments. The first is that in a state like Wisconsin where we elect coroners and people to statewide offices which have no responsibilities there is no chance to pass the necessary constitutional change to get to an appointive system. Get real, they say.

The more persuasive argument is that despite recent nastiness, low voter turnouts, and high campaign costs it is important that judges engage with the people, walk the streets, campaign. An ivory tower judiciary can develop an insularity, a distance that blinds its members to collateral damage and produces such absurdities as “money is speech” and “corporations are people.”

A middle ground was not suggested, but there is a way to get one of the virtues of an appointive option for the elected system. It is possible to enact the selection of candidates procedure by statute which would be part of the appointive system and not have to change the constitution. Governors would be required to pick a candidate from a pool created by the aforementioned dispassionate, experienced, public spirited committee members. We would elect first time justices to open seats. Those appointed to fill unfinished terms would have to go through the rigorous hoops that an appointive system would prescribe if we had an appointive system.

And, of course, we can make the elective system itself better and more civil and less expensive by offering full public funding and spending limits, by maintaining the Judicial Commission standards, and by enacting monetary disincentives which would seriously discourage third-party campaigns and phony issue ads.

Maybe Caesar’s wife isn’t dead after all.

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Sunday, September 13, 2009

Citizen politicians

isconsin Political Fix
not just another blog
September 13, 2009

By Bill Kraus

Several decades ago the Republican Party leaders came mostly from business and the professionals who represented businesses. And to a significant extent, although I am less familiar with their history, the Democratic citizen pols came from labor unions or their allies.

The corporations and the unions were not the district and county chairs and campaign managers, but their people were.

The desirable side effect of this activity was that these political operatives knew the issues, the people, the ideas, the system.

Sometime in the last 40 years or so, business leaders decided to outsource political action instead of participate in it.

The mercenaries took over and the results have been rewarding for them and disastrous for the rest of us.

The mercenaries treated politics as a marketing problem and solved it by segmenting the market and escalating the rhetoric.

The candidates became creatures of the extremist groups and whoever had enough money to finance increasingly costly media-driven campaigns.

Worse yet, the business activists went back to the office or the plant and turned political activity over to friendly associations or simply abandoned it altogether.

Politics may still have been in their budgets, but it no longer was on their schedules. Inevitably, business and its needs took second place to what the mercenaries decided they needed to win elections: lots of money, the full participation of the zealots, and campaigns that played to the so-called base, whose interests were social not economic.

So we come to the place where business people are largely disengaged as well as not particularly well informed on anything that doesn’t have a direct impact on their particular businesses.

We come to a place where it takes someone like Thomas Friedman to point out that business needs the burden of health insurance off their backs, needs an immigration policy that makes the best brains in the world, because there are no business leaders who are citizen politicians to make these assertions off a prominent platform.

Business leaders can’t buy their way back into the game. They have to suit up and start playing again the way they did in the 1960s. They have to take politics back from the mercenaries so that the hired guns are working for the citizen pols instead of vice versa.

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Monday, September 7, 2009

The economy's known unknowns

isconsin Political Fix
not just another blog
September 7, 2009

By Bill Kraus


Cars: It seems we don’t need a new car after all. Styles don’t change. New models' improvements are minimal. The one we own was built to last. We’ll keep it.

Houses: The McMansion era may be history. Those who own them would move to something smaller and less bucolic in a New York minute if they could sell the one they own. But there’s a big inventory of unsold monsters that has to be whittled down first.

Anything that’s fashion driven: Sort of the antipathy of anything we need.

Art: A lot of art sales are driven by housing, which is going nowhere. Most of the rest is discretionary.

Sports: We love our Packers and Badgers so they’re safe, but other fans are less smitten. There are going to be TV blackouts where NFL games aren’t sold out. Golf tournaments are looking in vain for sponsors. Golf courses are looking in vain for players.

Advertising-driven media: We all know that newspapers are either dead or dying. If part of health care reform is a ban on advertising prescription drugs to incipient hypochondriacs, TV will follow suit. How many network shows can lite beer carry after all?

Charities, do-good, and trade organizations: All hurting. Some more than others. People with weak cash flows and their own structural deficits to worry about are understandably reluctant to borrow money to give away. Even dutiful tithers are tithing against a smaller base number.


It’s hard to think of many things that are booming. Maybe mattresses. A country that was characterized by zero savings has suddenly started putting money away (in mattresses?) at a ferocious pace. This may be propelled by a fear of rainy days ahead. Since it’s already raining, the move to the mattresses is hardly misguided.


What about politics? If the health care proposal is an indicator, the forces of the status quo are still digging deep when threatened with change.

What has yet to be determined is whether this kind of generosity will extend to candidates for major offices like governor and Congress. It is possible that, like charities and other organizations, these candidates may be asked to get by with less. Since the spending on these races in this century has been somewhere between excessive and outrageous, it is not unreasonable to expect a return to what we used to regard as normal here.

Maybe a tougher test will be the multi-million dollar races for legislative seats that will determine majorities in the statehouse.

I wouldn’t be surprised if the big and small political contributors may have started to wonder if they have done anything beyond making a few mercenaries and some TV station owners rich and whether this is a particularly good idea.

There is even a possibility that the people who are assaulted and demeaned by TV-dominated negative political campaigns might respond to a poor boy campaign if any candidate had the guts to try one. It’s even possible that many candidates will have no choice.

The recession as an unintended but welcome campaign finance reformer? What an idea!

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