Sunday, October 25, 2009

Partial for nonpartisanship

isconsin Political Fix
not just another blog
October 25, 2009

By Bill Kraus

In my positions of more or less importance in over 30 political campaigns of more or less importance I have learned many things. One of the most important is that judicial campaigns are and should be different from campaigns for partisan offices.

Both campaigns are about the candidates, their character and their credentials.

Partisan campaigns are also about positions and promises and proposals as well.

Judicial campaigns are not and should not be.

The only issue in judicial campaigns should be solely about the candidates’ ability to at the very least aspire to dispassion, disinterest, open-mindedness on the people and the questions that are in the courtroom.

The answer I want to hear from a judicial candidate who is asked how he or she would rule on any matter brought before the court is, “I don’t know, and I won’t know until I see the facts and read the law.”

I know the press hates this. The special interests hate it even more.

Too bad.

Another major difference between these campaigns is that the judicial candidates are elected in “nonpartisan” elections and strive to be perceived as having achieved that state or a close approximation.

If not all, certainly a great majority of candidates for judicial office come with a political history. Those who have been appointed were picked by a partisan politician for political reasons. Even those who run for open seats bring, with rare exceptions, some political baggage with them. Some bring steamer trunks.

Nonpartisanship is elusive but bipartisanship or departisanizating is possible.

Historically judicial candidates have asked partisans from both parties to serve in their campaigns as antidotes to accusations of partisanship. Former Democratic governor Pat Lucey and former Republican Governor Lee Dreyfus served as campaign co-chairs for a long series of worthy Supreme Court candidates who expected nothing more from them than the de-toxification that their presence implied. The desirable side effect of putting these names on the campaign letterheads is that it affected the candidates behavior and the kinds of campaigns they ran.

This remedy disappeared for a couple of recent Supreme Court campaigns. It can and should be reapplied. It works.

The need for money to run for office is a bone in the throat of candidates’ attempts to establish that they will be even-handed, fair, and not beholden to those who fund their increasingly expensive campaigns.

Most judicial campaign contributions come from lawyers. A bad idea. Lately, money from interest groups or activists with an issue or an agenda has been flowing into judicial elections. An even worse idea.

There is a way to fund these campaigns without giving the impression that the candidates are in the pockets of someone who practices before them or who wants a specific ruling on an issue that might be adjudicated.

It’s called public money. It’s what the Impartial Justice Bill is all about.

It is a small price to pay for an unfettered, unbiased, independent judiciary.

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Sunday, October 18, 2009

Don't I know it

isconsin Political Fix
not just another blog
October 18, 2009

By Bill Kraus

Always something to be wary about. The charge is that I, as a reformer, think it’s still 1978. The fact is that a lot of the trouble that I see with politics and political campaigning is that I know it isn’t 1978.

In 1978 the the two statewide papers and regional counterparts were politically powerful. Reporters validated candidacies. Editors accepted those validations by what they put in the papers and where they put the coverage of campaigns and candidates. Editorial endorsements from the two statewide papers (one of which has been merged out of existence, the other of which has become a regional) were always important and often crucial to political success.

This absence is irreversible as, alas, is the decline of local papers everywhere.

We thought the parties were still important in 1978 until we discovered that the GOP which used to almost fully fund all statewide races and filled the coffers of legislative races as well had a bank account of $5,000. The important money flow had shifted to candidates or to independent expenditures.

This is reformable only in theory. The fact that the beneficiaries of the present system would have to do the reforming makes revival of parties to their pre-Watergate powers somewhere between unlikely and impossible.

The special interests have always been with us, but the powerful ones in 1978 were labor and business, whose agendas were more broad than specific. What they got for their money and votes was a friendly bias not a vote on a specific issue or idea. The special interests have become more numerous, more zealous and more focused. Their issues are things like abortion, gay marriage, guns. They run litmus tests. They want promises on votes on their issues.

This genie seems to be out of the bottle and its continued existence as a major force in political campaigns is assured by a Supreme Court that rightly worships the 1st amendment and less rightly is blind to collateral damage.

Talk radio, which is show business but poses as faux journalism, was not as widespread or as virulent in 1978 and hadn’t gotten to the point where it terrified increasingly pusillanimous candidates.

The only hope of change here is that those practitioners of the trade who have already gone too far will go even farther and their audiences will shrink and their advertisers will disappear.

And the most important change of all is that in 1978 the parties were managed by citizen politicians who provided from their ranks other citizen politicians to run the campaigns themselves. They hired advertising agencies, pollsters, organizers, professional advisers.

They are all gone. The citizens write checks and lend their names to letterheads. Campaign management is a business which has become very profitable as these professional campaign managers have shifted the emphasis to money and media, polling and focus groups, to marketing.

Politics by money and mercenary will persist until and unless the citizen pols decide the game is worth the candle and put in the time and effort to take over again. This will happen only if we decide to starve the beast. The motivations of the missing citizens were no better than mixed, but it can be said that they were not in it for the money, which the mercenaries are by definition.

So 1978 was not perfect. And 2009 is a train wreck.

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Monday, October 12, 2009

Taking care of Business

isconsin Political Fix
not just another blog
October 12, 2009

By Bill Kraus

The business community is paying the price of outsourcing politics everywhere, and nowhere more importantly than in the faltering effort to get the escalating cost of health care under control and off their backs.

It is widely known and accepted that health care in this country costs twice as much as it does anywhere else in the industrialized world. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce conned American business into making this benefit a cost of doing business in the late 1940s to protect us all from socialism. This is not the only reason we are having trouble competing in the Tom Friedman’s flat world, but it is surely not an inconsequential one.

Although the insurance business has a seat at the health care payment table in other places, it is unlikely that any reforms elsewhere would revolve around not hurting the prospects of the local insurance business.

As former Wisconsin governor Pat Lucey suggested recently, “What’s wrong with simply extending the medicare system?” What would seem to be wrong with it is that the insurance business wouldn’t like it.

Because of this focus on the insurance part of the health care equation, a lot of items of a lot more importance don’t make the short agenda.

For example, there are reliable people telling us that our health care system is at least 30 percent inefficient, maybe 50 percent.

People who track this sort of minutia say that there is no medical justification for 50 percent of the MRIs taken in this country. The contention that this can be attributed to defensive medicine, to protecting doctors against frivolous malpractice suits, is disputed by pretty solid evidence that a better explanation is that excessive MRIs are a money machine for those who invest in them.

This brings up another subject that isn’t well known or very high on the health care discussion agenda: over-utilization driven by over-capacity. It’s reminiscent of the line in the old baseball fantasy movie, “If you build it, they will come.”

The per-capita medical costs in Miami are 10 times higher than those in La Crosse for sure and probably a lot of other places as well. The proportion of older citizens in Miami is assuredly higher, but 10 times higher? Not likely. The fact that there are so many medical facilities, places, and practitioners in Miami and other high-cost places have a lot to do with these kinds of disparities in our present system.

A closer-to-home example is that health care costs in Milwaukee are significantly higher than those in Madison. Over capacity is a factor. And so is competition, which is significant in Madison unlike Milwaukee, a market where there is a dominant provider.

And then there are the lobbyists. A man named Robert Kraig, who analyzes these things, estimates that the cost of lobbying on the health care legislation in Washington is running $4 million a day by the people who are protecting the present system from within. Add to this an estimated daily expenditure of more than $600,00 by the insurance industry, and you have the reason the status quo is a solid four-touchdown favorite in this country.

Oh, yes, lobbying costs are part of what we pay for in this country for our health care.

Feeling left out? Me too.

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Sunday, October 4, 2009


isconsin Political Fix
not just another blog
October 4, 2009

By Bill Kraus

Bill Safire died last week. He is remembered for many things by many people. My favorite and fondest recollection is based on a column he wrote on Election Day in the fall of 1978.

He wrote, “The wrong-headed rejection of political labels--the glorification of non-participation--is at the root of the rise of single issue voting which bids fair to make this year’s election more of a battle between local extremist groups than a referendum on the nation’s case of hardening of the arteries.”

This remarkable foresight was based on the fact that he saw the collateral damage that the congressional response to the Watergate excesses and the Supreme Court’s dictum which said in effect, “Money is speech and has the same freedoms and protections under the 1st amendment to the Constitution” would do to the election process in this country.

What it would do, of course, is bureaucratize us.

The surest sign of bureaucratization is that we become more concerned with the process than with the problem. We become prisoners of the status quo.

Nowhere is this phenomenon more evident than in the raging debate in Washington and in the country at large about health care.

The problem is that health care in this country costs twice as much as it does in the countries our businesses must compete with in what has become a global marketplace without, incidentally, producing better health, longevity, or anything else on the indices we use to evaluate the outcomes.

Is anybody talking about that?

It doesn’t seem so.

Instead we are rallying around the system, the process. Saving the insurance companies, the doctors, the hospitals, the drug companies who would seem to be the fiscal beneficiaries of the problem no one is talking about.

The hardening of the nation’s arteries that Safire predicted 31 years ago is now in full flower.

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