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.

The campaign rhetoric was contentious. The candidates’ communications were about who they were, where they came from, and what they would do if elected.

The candidates did not spend time or money talking about their opponents or their opponents' perceived shortcomings.

There was no demonizing.

All candidates sought endorsements from people and organizations with lots of members and good reputations. The social issues were not in evidence. Neither side thought that things like the 2nd amendment, rights to choose, sexual preferences, were partisan issues.

In the next 40 years, the citizen volunteer cadre of campaign managers disappeared or died. Campaigns are now managed by people in the campaign management business.

Endorsement strategies have morphed into base building wedges where the appeals to segments of voters are focused on highly charged emotional ideas and issues wherever possible.

Politics is still about lists, and retail door-to-door organizational activity has not disappeared but has diminished in importance. Television advertising was in use in 1970. It was not the end all be all that a state party chairman described it as in 2010 when he said it was 95 percent of his party’s top of the ticket campaigns.

No one asked a potential candidate what has now become the first and foremost question: How much money have you got?

The attitude of the founding fathers on the place of religion in politics--no place--was still honored. Candidates and their campaigns were guided by the tacit rule to “keep your faith life and your love life to yourself.”

I miss a lot of the things that were part of our political life, but I am not delusional enough to think that they are ever going to come back.

There is an exception.

All those citizen activists who used to run parties and campaigns and do more than simply put their names on letterheads and donate money need not necessarily be permanently consigned to the scrap heap.

If the people in the campaign business were re-consigned to their former subordinate position in the power structure, if the citizens, who are not in the hit-and-run business, who have to live in the communities their candidates represent and are answerable to their fellow citizens for the character of the campaigns they manage, took back the reins on political activity, we just might reverse the deleterious moves to segmentation and demonization.

But we have to do it.

Do we really want better politics and politicians? It ain’t easy, but it’s not rocket science. It can be done.

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