Monday, April 25, 2011

Questions, answers

By Bill Kraus

When something goes wrong in computerland, the complaint one files is rarely answered by a human being or is specifically responsive to the question asked. Instead it is referred to an FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) website which almost always fails to have a solution to the problem posed.

I can only hope this political FAQ is not similarly faulty.

Q: Why are campaigns in the U.S. almost endless while in other places, like England, they are very short?
A: Because our campaigns are date-specific. Theirs are not. Theirs are triggered by unpredictable events or by occasionally whimsical party leaders. Since they don’t know when the election is coming there is no logical time to start campaigning without looking foolish.

Q: Why don’t we have free TV time on what are essentially public airwaves to replace the mind numbing-deluge of 30-second commercials that dominate the campaign communication system?
A: The incumbents who would have to put this idea into place have been convinced by the professionals who run the big campaigns that 30-second commercials are the yellow brick road of campaigning. The TV stations that rely on political advertising for their profits support this line of reasoning. The Supreme Court which views anything that might limit anyone’s right to a megaphone for the free speech we all revere would probably side with the professionals and the TV stations if it ever came to it.

Q: Why don’t we require the kind of source disclosure that is a standard part of the candidates’ advertising of everyone who runs ads during campaigns so viewers know who they are?
A: There are several organizations that produce this kind of advertising that get their money for these campaigns from people and organizations that are publicity shy. Business people worry about being boycotted. Some other organizations, notably Right To Life, tell the legislators who are the beneficiaries of their support and who would have to enact disclosure laws that their donors would go away if their names had to be disclosed. Without donors, no ads, no support.

Q: Why are the public unions under attack?
A: Public unions have long been the 500-pound gorillas in the room (“Correction,” one former Democratic officeholder says. “They are a 900 pound gorilla.”). When it comes to campaign financing they are said to own many legislators and terrify the rest. They also have nothing to fear from disclosure. Everyone knows where their money comes from. This is the only way to turn them into 90-pound weaklings.

Q: Why are there so few qualified, ambitious candidates for higher office coming out of the state Legislature and other public bodies that once were viewed as breeding grounds for high quality, highly motivated political leaders?
A: The empty pipeline phenomenon has several causes: The main one is that the relatively weak political parties no longer recruit, slate and fund candidates. The legislative leaders do. They are more interested in more passive, still electable, members of their caucuses than rambunctious, ambitious, potential challengers to their leadership and authority. The cost of campaigns, the abusiveness of talk radio and other demonizers, and a campaign season of political dinners and rubber chicken are all cited but subjective reasons as well.

Q: Why has partisanship risen and civility and legislators’ camaraderie diminished to the disappearing point?
A: See the answer to the role of the legislative leaders above. In this new paradigm, the leaders prefer enemies to hate not adversaries to debate.

Q: Why don’t we have a part-time Legislature?
A: This idea would have to be legislated by the current incumbents who are increasingly content to make these jobs a career for life and couldn't survive economically on the kind of pay a part timer would draw.

Q: What about term limits?
A: See the answer to the preceding question.

Q: Why don’t we have initiative and referendum possibilities to force these kinds of changes on a reluctant, too comfortable, too partisan Legislature?
A: Take a look at California.

Q: How about a third-party movement?
A: Take a look at Israel.

Q: Are we stuck with this status quo?
A: Not necessarily. A movement to bring impartial redistricting to Wisconsin which would be a small dent in the power that has devolved on the legislative leaders is underway. The dramatic rise of social media as an organizing and communication tool is going to stir the waters, although the law of unintended consequences looms. And if the tea party movement proves to be more than a one-dog pony which doesn’t go beyond tax anarchy, that unpredictable group which arrived promising “change” could rattle a few cages too.

Follow Bill Kraus on:
twitter / wmkraus

Bill Kraus is the Co-Chair of Common Cause in Wisconsin's State Governing Board

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