Sunday, May 23, 2010

The roads ahead for campaign reform

isconsin Political Fix
not just another blog
May 23, 2010

By Bill Kraus

It turns out that most people think our campaign system is broken, and suspect our system of representative government is no better than seriously flawed.

The reformers have been hammering away for so long that most people also know what is wrong and why.

They are ready to move on to solutions, and they wonder why none are forthcoming.

It is not for lack of proposals and ideas.

The main thrust of reform initiatives has historically been a search for constitutional ways to impose spending limits and regulations on participation.

The Supreme Court, in its questionable wisdom, has pretty much closed down all the good ideas in those areas.

There are still some things that can and could be done, however.

I am not sure they are reforms or nostalgia masquerading as reforms, but I do know that they resonate with a pretty thoroughly disgusted electorate.

Term limits come immediately to mind. They would be an attack on the careerism that has crept into legislatures and is well established in local governments.

Redistricting seems to be too esoteric to get the kind of support that term limits draws. The case that dispassionate, disinterested redistricting has greatly increased the number of competitive races where it has been put in place has been made but not heard. How many Wisconsin voters know that incumbents in only 10 percent of the state’s legislative districts are worth challenging, that legislators are picking them instead of vice versa? Not many, if the low level of enthusiasm for this simple, cost-free idea is any measure.

The idea of part-time legislators and county boards and city councils is another attack on careerism and invincible incumbencies that is not as draconian as term limits, but has considerable support.

There are some interesting if tricky ways to redirect the flow of campaign contributions which would decrease the power of the aforementioned invincible incumbents and their legislative leaders, but let’s stick to the big three for the moment.

All would be popular. None are likely to be enacted.

The incumbents who would have to vote for them regard all three as an attack on a system that got them where they are and is most likely to keep them there.

There are two ways to overcome this resistance to reform. The most radical is something called initiative and referendum. If we had this process in Wisconsin, the unhappy voters would have a way to vote for the three proposals without going through the recalcitrant legislators.

The trouble with this is that Wisconsin would have to adopt a system that is currently destroying the governability of California for sure and other states that have turned legislation into popularity contests which make hired guns and TV stations rich and a make mess of representative government.

Another route to enactment would be a grassroots uprising that goes beyond parades and protests and has enough followers to get legislators elected who will vote for these ideas.

This is more effective. Also harder. A few interests have enough clout to pretty much get their way on narrower issues (gun control comes immediately to mind). So it can be done.

Will it? I don’t hear the drumbeat yet. Neither do any candidates for high and low office in Wisconsin.

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Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Heavy losses

isconsin Political Fix
not just another blog
May 18, 2010

By Bill Kraus

The state lost two political stalwarts this month. Paul Hassett died. Dave Obey retired.

Some people may think that they had nothing in common. Paul was a lifelong Republican. Dave a Democrat. That is how they differed. Despite the fact that they were adversaries; they were not enemies. They respected the trade and its participants.

The quintessential Paul Hassett story is about his 1960 encounter with Jack and Jackie Kennedy. The Hassett family's recollections of that day in the winter of that election year differ in some details, but all agree that Paul, who was the Dunn County chair of the Republican Party stepped in to help Jack campaign in this Hubert Humphrey-friendly territory when he made a campaign stop in Menominee. Kennedy was snubbed by the area Democrats, and Paul volunteered to show him around the area and to introduce him to the movers and shakers there. Neither of them cared that there was a Nixon bumper sticker on Paul’s car, which was their main means of transportation.

Would Dave Obey have done the same for a forlorn Republican in his hometown? I don’t discount the possibility.

Obey's memoir of 40 years in Congress includes his choice for the best president he served under during that time: Gerald Ford.

There is, or was, something I call the Arena Effect operating in politics most of the time these two standard bearers were active. The comparison is to athletic competitors. At the end of fiercely contested battles on the field, the combatants, who had in the most physical games been trying to take each other’s heads off, come together in the middle of the field in a show of mutual respect for the game itself and all of the participants.

Competitive camaraderie.

They do not disdain the spectators who support them, but their real admiration is for their peers who have gone through what they have gone through to get into the arena and have paid the price of competing at a high level in a demanding contest.

The fact that Dave Obey was, is, and always will be much more irascible than Paul ever was is irrelevant to my main point. They had different personalities, different styles, we all do. The important things about them both is they were honest with their friends and foes and they both knew that the other was taking a different route, perhaps, but was trying to do what he believed to be the right thing for the country and its inhabitants. They wanted their ideas to prevail but they were not afraid to talk to each other.

They represented the best in politics.

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Monday, May 10, 2010

Taking advice

isconsin Political Fix
not just another blog
May 10, 2010

By Bill Kraus

The main message that former Justice Sandra Day O’Connor delivered to the attendees at the recent annual meeting of the Wisconsin State Bar Association was that judicial independence is under attack.

One of the principal reasons for this, she believes, is judicial elections.

Her recommended antidote to this corruption of the judicial system is to replace judicial elections with judicial appointments.

It should be pointed out that she was not recommending the federal appointment system which is partisan-tilted and patronage-driven, but one that is designed to reward merit.

This, however, as the justice’s fellow panelists all pointed out, is Wisconsin. Wisconsin does not just favor elections as a way of choosing public servants. Wisconsin is addicted to elections as a way of choosing public servants. In Wisconsin we elect coroners. We elect people to two constitutional offices that have no function.

This preference is not likely to change.

But we have, kind of quietly and serendipitously, stumbled into modifications of the elective system that may not guarantee that judicial independence will be protected, but comes pretty close.

We start with the Wisconsin tradition of de-toxifying partisanship. With a couple of notable exceptions, which one hopes were evanescent, candidates in judicial races have chosen to put a well known Republican and a well known Democrat in prominent positions in their campaign organizations.

This has two desirable effects. It shows the electorate that the candidate aspires to the independence and open mindedness that we want from the judiciary, and it tempers the campaigns themselves. The attack/demonization tactics that are so evident in partisan politics are pretty much defanged by the mere presence of bi-partisans in the campaign organization.

This is a tradition not a mandate, of course, but it has come to be expected, and because of recent excesses it may become mandated by popular acclaim once again.

Additionally, the last legislative session produced an Impartial Justice Bill which fully funds the campaigns of Supreme Court justices on the condition that the candidates accept spending limits. The funding is not overly generous, but it need not be because of the third thing we do in Wisconsin.

We hold our judicial elections in the winter and spring and separate them from the partisan, big-spending free-for-alls in the fall. The turnouts are abysmally low. Bad. This makes a word-of-mouth shoe leather campaign winnable. Good. Enough media to lay out the beauty contest credentials and then a heavy city-to-city, lawyer-to-lawyer, conscientious-voter-to-voter campaign becomes workable because the turnout is low.

Justice O’Connor may or may not have been convinced that our way is the best way, but I do think we have made the elected part of our process a how-to example of preserving judicial independence while preserving the citizens’ right to elect.

As we know, most judges get the job initially by appointment not election. Justice O’Connor’s ideas on how to get the best and the brightest via appointment can and should be adopted in Wisconsin as well. I have already weighed in on how we can do this here. We should. The remarkable former justice would be pleased. As would I.

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