Monday, January 31, 2011

Dancing around the problem

By Bill Kraus

When he was majority leader of the state Senate, Bill Bablitch referred to the long slow prelims to the state budget as “the dance,” as in, “The dance has begun.”

Before getting to the nitty gritty, some stuff has to be cleared away.

Campaign promises are the first to go. The new administration has done a lot of that.

The train is either gone or postponed. The GOP paranoia about voter fraud is being addressed. The “open for business” slogan has gone beyond talk to small, symbolic, more-or-less important actions. Cathy Stepp has taken over DNR and will test the reality of what may be an anti-business illusion there. The proponents of Health Service Accounts got the nod they wanted.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Take back the campaigns

By Bill Kraus

In the fall of 1970 the Wisconsin Republicans were having the kind of year the Wisconsin Democrats had in 2010.

Pat Lucey was beating Jack Olson for governor. Bill Proxmire was pummeling John Erickson for the U.S. Senate, and things weren’t going all that well in the statehouse for the GOP either.

It didn’t cost an arm and a leg to win a major office back then. Proxmire, as a matter of fact, raised and spent no money, which confirmed his electoral invulnerability and the virtue of campaigning almost full time to achieve that status. The Erickson campaign spent something like $150,000 to persuade something like 34 percent of the voters to vote for John. Pat Lucey and Jack Olson spent somewhat more, but money wasn’t the issue in that campaign.

The big difference in those campaigns other than the modest spending levels was who was running them and who was not and what they were about. The now famous Roger Ailes was working in the Olson campaign. He was working for the estimable John MacIver, a volunteer campaign chairman. There were professionals working in the Erickson campaign as well, but that campaign too was being run by citizen volunteers.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Fixing the fix

By Bill Kraus

All the talk about the 2010 elections is about the referendum on the Obama/Democrats response to the great recession, about the length of the coattail on the Obama popularity if any (coattail or popularity), and how these things will play out in legislative elections everywhere.

No one is talking about the fact that the legislatures elected in 2010 will be responsible for the mandated legislative redistricting that will follow the 2010 census.

Don’t kid yourself. There is a great deal of talk about this. But it is among the insiders who nest in the D.C. beltway and the Madison capitol square.

The alleged purpose of redistricting is to even out the size of the Assembly, Senate and House districts, and achieve some kind of popular homogeneity within them while getting as many competitive races as possible.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Pulpit fiction II

By Bill Kraus

The people who seem to be most concerned about the revelations spewing out of WikiLeaks are the same people who promised transparency, full disclosure, intense efforts to communicate with all the people.

Everyone in public life accepts the need to know concept in public communications. What WikiLeaks reveals is that need to know rarely means that everyone needs to know everything. A covert few think it means that no one needs to know anything. Most officeholders are located somewhere on the spectrum between those two extremes.

My own bias is toward full disclosure.

Public officials are by definition doing the public’s business. The logic of not telling the public what is being done in the performance of the job eludes me.

A few things become very clear very quickly to anyone who takes a place in the fish bowl that is the public sector.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Pulpit fiction

isconsin Political Fix
not just another blog
January 9, 2011

By Bill Kraus

Thirty years ago there was no Facebook, Twitter, internet. Blogs and bloggers and blogging were not even words.

There was, however, a communication system for elected officials. It was run by journalists who were more ubiquitous than beloved. Most of them worked for newspapers. Two Wisconsin papers were distributed statewide. No other medium made any claim or serious effort except public broadcasting to go beyond its own local or regional markets and audiences. The Madison papers, for example, have always behaved as if the Columbia County line just above the city of Portage was the northernmost boundary of Wisconsin.

A governor who wanted to communicate with his entire constituency had only to open the doors to his office and spout. He had the bully pulpit. The pews were full--of reporters.

Those pews are much less full now. There are no statewide newspapers. The only reporters trying to reach a statewide audience work for the Associated Press and public radio. The former deliver news to their local and regional client papers and broadcasters and are in the position of a teacher who sends notes home with third-grade students. Delivery to the intended audience is somewhere south of sporadic.

This nice, orderly, controlled system where news was reported, validated, and made available to anyone who was interested in anything or everything going on in the state capital and had the price of a subscription is mostly gone.

Today there are many, many communications systems. Websites, blogs, social networks are sending mostly opinions out in firehose quantities. The illusion is that this is some kind of communicators’ heaven. On closer examination it’s more of a nightmare. Putting aside the fact that a significant part of the population does not have the devices needed to access any of these new channels of communications, there is no assurance that those who are connected to the internet are consuming what the public officials are delivering.

News consumption was always voluntary. But the delivery system, while short of being universal, probably got to everyone who really wanted to know and delivered a glancing blow of information to the rest, which was better than nothing.

If you regard the broad news distribution of 30 years ago as a pasture, then the new user driven media is a series of silos.

The governor who got the attention of all the creatures in the pasture now has to go to all the silos in hopes of being admitted. The silos which used to be geographically challenging are now also subject challenging. How many hits is the “governor’s office” website, Facebook page, Twitter feed likely to get? Not as many as those about the Green Bay Packers or any other run-of-the-mill celebrity in any field of choice. Not even as many as the “talk radio” entertainers who clutter the public airwaves.

The other problem with the silo system is the silos are filled more with opinions than with the kinds of facts that we call news when they are reported by journalists.

At a cosmic level we seem to have gone from a system where there were too many reporters chasing too few stories and their sources to a world where there are too many stories not being reported because there are two few reporters chasing them.

All this technology is a gift to all of us blabbermouths looking for an audience and for ways to be heard. Not so much for leaders who are trying to explain to their followers what they are doing and why and why, particularly, it is good for the followers.

What the leaders seem to be left with is a bully pulpit facing empty pews. Not so bully after all.

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Sunday, January 2, 2011

What we have here is a failure to communicate

By Bill Kraus

Taxes have been a free-standing issue in our politics ever since George Bush 1 made his famous “read my lips” pronouncement in 1988.

Ever since then the political dialogue has disconnected the hated taxes from what they should be used for and at what spending level.

Listening to talk about taxes gives the impression that they are something onerous assessed by politicians for their own unspecified reasons or amusement.

To a very large extent this stupid non-dialogue is rooted in the failure of elected incumbents to communicate simply and lucidly about what the money is for (always debatable) and whether the spending level for what it is for is (a.) proper and (b.) affordable (really debatable).