Sunday, December 30, 2012

The bigger picture


By Bill Kraus

Thanks to the Watergate reform defanging of the parties, and the assertiveness of factions everywhere, legislative leaders are now markedly more powerful and markedly more beset than their titles suggest. They are slating, funding and managing campaigns, and herding the cats that make up their feuding caucuses when movements like the tea party unload a not-entirely-welcome caucus within the caucus.

Their mission used to be to get a working, manageable majority so they could fashion things like budgets and legislation, generally, that came from the executive offices or their own members.

What they had to do was craft things that were neither profligate nor penurious and receive the accolades and re-elections which followed from the large majority of voters who want a government that works.

They now have to rise above selecting and electing a bunch of lemmings who will quietly do their bidding. They have to make sure the pipeline is full of people who are more ambitious and rambunctious who have the potential to rise to higher office, even including their own.

They also have to pay attention to maintaining a working representative democracy and to protect it from assaults from every direction, the rapacious, scary and affluent interests particularly.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Making a list


By Bill Kraus

1. A move to fix the recall provision so this expensive, divisive, extreme procedure no longer takes the place of the next election where bad ideas and their proponents can and should get their just rewards.

2. A place on the short agenda for dispassionate redistricting after the 2020 census so more of us get to cast a meaningful vote for state and federal legislators in November.

3. A competent manager, preferably one with Republican credentials, to put wheels under the new health care act. FDR found John Winant to make the almost equally confounding social security law work 80 years ago.

4. A Legislature composed of people whose objective is to give us a government that works instead of an arena for watching competing ideologies duke it out.

5. An end to six elections per year.

6. A place on the permanent short agenda for the place and kinds of guns in our country.

Monday, December 17, 2012

The passage of power: revisited


By Bill Kraus

Who thought that last week’s blog post on how parties lost their mojo and the power to slate and fund legislative campaigns moved, however erratically, to the now much more powerful legislative leaders would be followed by the loss of political power by yet another 800-pound gorilla, the National Rifle Association?

The massacre in Connecticut, the law of unintended consequences, and a widespread cry of “Stop! Enough already!” has combined to put a spotlight on what decades of bullying of legislatures everywhere by the vocal leaders and members of that organization have unintentionally but inevitably led to in this country.

By an odd coincidence, a federal court in Chicago had called the people of Illinois to task for not doing what 49 other states had done by failing to allow concealed carry of handguns. What side of the looking glass are we on here? This seemed to me to complete the circle of guns first, foremost, always, and everywhere.

I have always thought that it was sensible, logical, and civilized to confine the possession of weapons the only purpose of which is to kill people to those who police and defend us.

The paranoids at the NRA thought otherwise, and they have unaccountably won the day almost everywhere almost all the time.

So far.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Redoing redistricting


By Bill Kraus

Legislative leaders have never been unimportant to the workings of this democracy. Nor have they had the kind of roller coaster ride like they’ve been on the last four decades.

Years of stability came to an end with the Watergate reforms of the early 1970s which ended the dominant role of the political parties, political bosses (remember them?) and precinct politics (if you haven’t read it, go to the library and pick up the slim volume Plunkett of Tammany Hall) in picking the legislators the leaders were to lead.

What those reforms were intended to do was correct the fundraising abuses by the Republican Party in Nixon’s 1972 campaign. When the law of unintended consequences intruded, those reforms drastically diminished the dominant role the parties and their bosses had in raising money which ended their equally important role in recruiting and slating candidates and in the management of campaigns for those they dubbed and funded.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Five myths we can do without


By Bill Kraus

The Lee Dreyfus dictum--never underestimate the peoples’ intelligence or overestimate their information--while true, doesn’t specifically warn against the Mythology Problem Delusion. I suppose it is an offshoot of the Information Problem. If one doesn’t know better, one is susceptible to myths, old wives tales, conspiracy theories, and worse.

Five myths come to mind.

Government can and should be run like a business.

Business works as well as it does in no small measure because it is organized on the totalitarian model. Like a dictatorship. Okay, a benign dictatorship. But nonetheless if the boss likes an idea, that idea is likely to prevail. Government is organized on the democratic model where all the participants have more or less equal power and can use that power to advance their own ideas, adopt the ideas of others, or block any and all ideas. The excellent new movie about and called Lincoln is a basic lesson in how democracy works if, as, and when it works. As a wise mother and political activist puts it, “Getting what you want in politics is accomplished by a combination of threats and bribes, not unlike the techniques employed in raising children.”

The other not insignificant difference between governing and managing is that government is conducted in public. As I told a company CEO onetime who was spouting the government-can-be-run-like-a-business nonsense, “Let me know if you plan to invite the press to your board of directors meetings, and we’ll talk.”

Monday, November 26, 2012

What kind of fools are we?


By Bill Kraus

One of Lee Dreyfus’s favorite aphorisms was to never underestimate the people’s intelligence or overestimate their information.

Important point. A strong, transparent, ubiquitous communication system makes a democracy work. It’s important products are an informed citizenry and an accountable aristocracy.

Neither appears to be thriving.

The governing class, even in this communication-rich country, has rarely communicated at what I consider a high level. The least effusive public corporation reports on its activities (thanks to the Securities and Exchange Commission rules), and these resports describe what companies do and how they raise and spend their money much more clearly and completely than governments do.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Finding God


By Bill Kraus

In an August primary, we elected 90 percent of the candidates for the state Legislature and the entire congressional delegation.

That left the 10 percent of the seriously contested state legislative races, the U.S. Senate contest, and Obama vs. Romney to be decided in November.

This election configuration has been crafted over the years by a long series of legislative incumbents who worship the god Gerry Mander.

They did this by obeying the constitutional mandate to reconfigure all the legislative districts in the wake of the every 10-year census.

When one party has been in total control, this is done to favor their incumbents and make sure they survive the next 10 years’ elections. When we have split government, this is done by mutual agreement. You show me your favorites and I’ll show you mine.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Obligitory post-election ruminations


By Bill Kraus

The voters continue to do surprising--and surprisingly thoughtful--things.

The election system continues to be in the hands of professionals who worship the gods of marketing who, in turn, read from the segmentation bible.

Everybody, with the exception of the aforementioned professionals, the operators of robo call machines, and the TV broadcasters, is appalled by the amount of money collected and spent.

A few wonder if the billionaires who supplied a lot of this cash via various channels have noticed that the money didn’t buy much. I wonder if these people who were smart enough to accumulate all that money are smart enough to not throw it away on questionable causes and candidates. The professionals will encourage them to keep spending and advise against unilateral disarmament of course, and will point to a few instances where money did matter. Tommy’s campaign, which was kind of a train wreck from beginning to end, can be said to have derailed when the money turned a deaf ear to his pleas to restock the till after he blew his wad to win the primary. The money told him, “You’re a popular ex-governor and cabinet officer who will win in a walk; we’re sending our funds to candidates who need it more.”

Women candidates had a very good year.

Gay rights did as well.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Small signs of a big problem


By Bill Kraus

1. In 2008, candidate Obama turns down $100 million in public financing for his campaign because he can’t live with that as a spending limit. Nobody complains. The do-good reform organizations which are the main proponents of public financing are surprisingly quiet.

2. In 2010 there is an open seat for governor in Wisconsin. None of the 132 incumbent legislators run for it.

3. Speakers Boehner and Fitzgerald, despite their large majorities, are unable to round up enough votes to support a tax/spend deal with the president (Boehner) or a job creating bill for the governor (Fitzgerald).

4. A politically active citizen asks what can be done to stifle a state legislator whose views are at odds with his and his party’s. He is told that he can run a candidate against his nemesis. “I don’t know how to do that,” he says.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Myths and fantasies


By Bill Kraus

Election season produces myths and fantasies aplenty. There is a bumper crop this year.

Attack ads work best:

They work best for the people who produce and promulgate them and convince candidates that they work best. And they are indisputably suited for soundbite politics. But to claim they work best there would have to be competing positive, position ads to compare them with. There aren’t any. Some long-suffering reporter in Colorado Springs watched 1,500 political ads this year. Five of them were positive.

The internet is today's news source:

The internet is a wonder. The internet is a library. Newspapers are in the library and on the internet. Newspapers are convenient, disposable, and aggressively comprehensive. The internet is inconvenient and aggressively specialized and segmented. Big difference.

Monday, October 22, 2012

North and down


By Bill Kraus

The call came from Bob in Stevens Point. The offer was an hour on Glenn’s public radio show produced in Wausau followed by good seats at the Tammy Tommy debate near the studio.

There’s a show on public radio not produced in Madison or Milwaukee? There is. It’s called Route 51, and it is broadcast on those stations located in the mostly unoccupied upper third of the state. I assume I am not the only resident of insular, insulated southern Wisconsin who didn’t know this.

I went and joined Bob and Glenn in the studio along with Christine who was there to make sure the famous public broadcasting balance was intact.

Bob said the show would be a lounge act for the debate to follow. It was more than that. We touched all the usual bases, discredited a few of the myths--that CEO are vicious, rich tyrants who tell their employees how to vote and that the votes in Wisconsin are seriously distorted by busloads of illegals brought in from Illinois--and, we thought, elevated the political conversation from the “you are; am not; are too” level of the media discourse.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

A wish list

By Bill Kraus

This is a combination of what I hear from others, what I wish, what I wish I heard from everyone. All followed, alas, by the reasons these wishes are not going to come true.

Shorter Election Season
: In England, campaigns run 60 days. English elections are called, not scheduled. It would be foolish to campaign for an uncalled election.

More Civil, Less Costly Elections: Extreme partisans have always favored belligerent campaigns. The moderates who ran the parties when the parties were running and funding the campaigns always marginalized the extreme partisans and pitched those campaigns to the independent, persuadeables whose votes determined the winners. That group is now marginalized in favor of the new conventional wisdom that it is more important to motivate the committed than to win over a shrinking group of undecideds. Bellicosity prevails.

Less Superficial Rhetoric: This is a protest against sound bites, 30-second commercials, sloganeering, demonizing ad homenism. The new target is the “low information, low attention” market and this market wants simple answers to complex questions and are put off by the pedantic complexities of, say, the once staple full page ads in the no longer important newspapers.

More Truth, Fewer Specious Assertions: The truth is often elusive and questionable. Exaggeration works better particularly in a segmented, fragmented world where “I read it in the paper” is a bygone mantra, and no commonly accepted go-to medium has replaced it for the mass audience.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Some kind of justice

By Bill Kraus

An interesting compromise between those who support an elected judiciary and those who prefer an appointed one was casually and quietly trashed during the radical winter of 2011.

What was given the brush off was something called the Impartial Justice Act.

It was enacted at the request of all the sitting members of the Supreme Court who had witnessed or suffered the precipitous decline in the seriousness and civility of several recent Supreme Court campaigns.

What the act would have done was fully fund those campaigns if the participants accepted public money in exchange for not raising their own campaign warchests.

This act was intended to end the unseemly process of (mostly) lawyers paying for the campaigns of the judges they would appear before.

The justices got half of what they wanted when the Legislature enacted the law, but they didn’t get what they considered enough money to run respectable statewide campaigns as a part of the deal. They evidently considered this uncalled for penuriousness a fixable and a small, hopefully temporary, price to pay for the greater good of not being thought of as beholden to questionable fundraising practices.

Monday, October 1, 2012

All kinds of dumb

By Bill Kraus

The rocky road to political civility has many detours, potholes, and even switchbacks. It may end up being inaccessible. But the voters, who told us that they disliked no fault recalls more than they disliked the governor, may find an unexpected, creative route to civility as well.

The first obstacle is deafness. The Supreme Court which opened the floodgates to third-party campaigners and their money have not noticed the collateral damage to the integrity of campaigns and campaigners and the unfairness of the playing field which their decisions have tilted toward unregulated, undisclosed attack advertising.

The second obstacle is incumbents whose lives are made miserable and expensive by the presence of those third parties and by the unfulfillable need to raise enough money to counter the damage done to them and their campaigns but not miserable enough for them to take advantage of the one remaining weapon they have to defend themselves: full disclosure of who these third parties are and where they get their money to do the awful things they do to the trade and its participants.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Why we're in the ditch

By Bill Kraus

The rocky road to political civility has many detours, potholes, and even switchbacks. It may end up being inaccessible. But the voters, who told us that they disliked no fault recalls more than they disliked the governor, may find an unexpected, creative route to civility as well.

The first obstacle is deafness. The Supreme Court which opened the floodgates to third-party campaigners and their money have not noticed the collateral damage to the integrity of campaigns and campaigners and the unfairness of the playing field which their decisions have tilted toward unregulated, undisclosed attack advertising.

The second obstacle is incumbents whose lives are made miserable and expensive by the presence of those third parties and by the unfulfillable need to raise enough money to counter the damage done to them and their campaigns but not miserable enough for them to take advantage of the one remaining weapon they have to defend themselves: full disclosure of who these third parties are and where they get their money to do the awful things they do to the trade and its participants.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Advice to the lovelorn

By Bill Kraus

Twenty years ago the Senate Democrats asked me to tell them why they were not beloved. I told them. They haven’t invited me back, nor have they acted on what I told them.

Recently, a mostly public labor union group asked me the same question. I accepted their invitation. I never learn. I told them I thought they lost the sympathy that accompanied the Republican overreach on collective bargaining by resorting to the kind of bullying in the recall process that had spurred the Republican overreach.

The face of public labor unions is the 500-pound gorilla that buys power with money and votes to crush their enemies and intimidate their friends. Actually, one of the beneficiaries of their largesse once told me, “You have it wrong. They are not the 500-pound gorilla. It’s more like a 600-pound gorilla.”

Other contributors to this discussion suggested that the public unions’ world has changed and the face of these organizations must change as well. Instead of the hard-line, aggressive, no holds barred leaders and staffs, the unions should put their main assets, the teachers and public employees, out front.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Loving the abuse

By Bill Kraus

Traditionally the party conventions were the high point of pandering to the partisans. The idea was to pump them up enough so they’d go home and do the grunt work of getting out the vote. The vote of the partisans they left behind.

The candidates then gave a wink and a nod to the partisan-pleasing platform and reshaped the rest of the campaign in ways that would attract a majority of the undecideds, the independents, and the casuals.

This part of the campaign had to be constructed in ways that didn’t de-energize the aforementioned partisans, that made solid proposals that would attract the attentive, policy hungry independents and that might tantalize the casuals who are politically uninterested, uninformed, unconnected and are susceptible to side issues and slogans about things like jobs, health care, costs, and personality defects and attributes.

This tradition is still intact, but just barely.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

The next press

By Bill Kraus

Even though the business model for the traditional newspaper business no longer works, we are told we needn’t worry because the internet delivery system will soon be universal.

More and more newspapers are delivering more and more often and even exclusively via the internet, which is fine but not good enough.

The internet is like a library. It is a social center. It has all the knowledge in the world at hand. It has newspapers. It has everything a library has, and it has it on steroids.

The internet is a scholarly medium, newspapers are a sciolistic one.

Like a professor lecturing in a classroom, newspapers are a quaint, ancient way to transmit knowledge and information. Both are widely criticized. Neither has been surpassed. The other mass media are time and content limited. Only newspapers are designed in ways that inadvertently widen the readers’ worlds.

The jock who starts with the sports section can stumble over the story in the society section about Bill Veeck’s widow and her friend whose husband covered baseball when Veeck integrated the American League. The social butterfly is exposed to a story about the remarkable Mary Fisher who taught a Republican Convention about AIDS.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Voters must take time to fact check about nation's debt crisis

By Cal Potter

Now that we are in the midst of a political campaign season, we are faced with a blizzard of accusations, many lacking any factual base. Such is the case with the causal factors for the nation’s debt.

When President Clinton left office, this nation had a balanced budget. And had the succeeding Bush administration not cut taxes on the wealthy, entered us into two unfunded wars and the nation not been cast into the deepest recession since the Great Depression, the fact is this nation today would have no debt at all.

Not only did the recession begin during the later Bush era, but the expensive bailout measures also began during that previous administration. Economists tell us the Democrat and Republican supported bailouts prevented this nation from falling into a full-fledged depression, as well as saved and returned to health, the American car industry.

So, the political rhetoric accusing President Obama, the inheritor of political and economic mismanagement, including that of our Wall Street stock and bank private sector decision-makers, is either deliberate fraud on the part of the accusers, or an example of gross ignorance of happenings over the past 12 years.

As we cannot avoid the billions of right-wing corporate and affluent individual media dollars to be spent in the weeks ahead to character assassinate an intelligent and honorable president, voters should at least take time to fact check accusations. There are a number of very reputable political fact-check sources on the Web. An educated electorate, who know the facts, is an essential ingredient in a truly functional democracy. Without that condition, special interest individuals and groups will successfully manipulate the system to serve their own selfish interests and financial gain, at the expense of the majority of average Americans.

Calvin Potter is a member of Common Cause in Wisconsin's State Governing Board and a former Democratic State Representative (1975-1991) and State Senator (1991-1998) from Sheboygan Falls.

Monday, August 27, 2012

13% is no solution

By Bill Kraus

This is being written almost two weeks after the Wisconsin primary election.

I have contacted every imaginable media source and have checked the website of the Government Accountability Board (GAB) in an attempt to find out what the statewide voter turnout was for that election.

No one seems to know. The not-so-current posting by GAB tells us the primary election will be held on August 14.

A helpful soul who seems to be in charge of the public television made several inquiries and come up blank.

I concede that it is a small thing--like an unrepaired broken window--but it seems to me to be symptomatic of larger problems that beset us: the localization of news and the partisanization of elections.

My interest was aroused when the guests on Joy Cardin’s talk show on the Friday after the primary agreed that the turnout was around 13 percent. Neither cited a source, but both seemed confident that they had it right. If they did, the next obvious question is why doesn't anyone in the news business consider this extremely low turnout newsworthy enough to deserve a story or more, like a lament.

Is this yet another symptom of what has happened to the information flow in our reporter-deprived democracy?

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Desperately seeking civility

By Bill Kraus

Everywhere I turn I hear a plea for civility in politics generally and in political campaigns particularly.

There is even an organization in Oshkosh called the Oshkosh Civility Project devoted to civility. Another is forming in Madison. There may be more.

In government and in campaigns the ad hominem attacks continue unabated nonetheless.

The reason is that incivility is a symptom not a cause of what the pleaders are unhappy about.

The cause is that politics is increasingly the province of yellow-dog partisans.

Yellow dogs want the kind of red-meat demonization that is now endemic and has been for so long.

The campaigns and pronouncements are devoted to currying the support of the rabid yellow-dog voters who have long since decided who and what they favor.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Election overload

By Bill Kraus

It is my fervent hope that 2012 will go down in the record books as the year of the most elections, that we will never again approach this year’s six elections in 10 months.

It all started out so innocently. A February primary to chose the two finalists for the Supreme Court election in April eliminated one contender. The incumbent, predictably, won by a large margin over the successful challenger and was expected to do so again in the finals in April.

Then all hell broke loose.

Recalls everywhere and anywhere. A Supreme Court race that was more about who liked the governor more and who liked him not at all instead of about the two candidates who were on the ballot and their virtues if any.

Recall frenzy took over and election fatigue began to set in as we had our first-ever general elections in May and June.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Diversity in politics

By Bill Kraus

I was invited to a post-football-game party by then-UW President Fred Harvey Harrington more than 50 years ago. Others in attendance included professors, administrators, legislators, students, citizens from far and wide. It was the most diverse, best party I had ever attended.

When he was chancellor of UW-Stevens Point, Lee Dreyfus threw the same kind of parties in that smaller town where diversity was more common but not complete. The chief of police was there. The editor of the local paper. The president of the paper mill. Students. Teachers. Athletes. Politicians.

We carried this kind of mixing and matching into our own lives when I married a woman whose friends were mostly from the arts while mine were mostly from politics with a dose of journalists. They got along great. They were different in almost every way except their lives were driven by a common entrepreneurship. Artists were only as good as their last production, reporters as their last story, politicians as their last election.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Voters without choices

By Bill Kraus

There are 16 state senate elections scheduled this year. Five of them have only one candidate and are already settled. In another 6 races there is an unopposed Democrat and an unopposed Republican. That leaves 5 where it may be worth voting for one of the candidates in the party of your choice in hopes of having that candidate on the ballot in November with a qualifier. Due to artful gerrymandering over the decades only one of these 5 districts is considered competitive enough so either a Republican or Democrat has a chance of winning in November.

There's more action in the Assembly, but not much. All 99 representatives will be elected. Except for the 15 who are elected because they have no opposition in either the August primary or the November general election. Another 45 seats are not really contested in August because there is only one candidate from each party in the field. All 90 of them will be on the November ballot. There are, finally, 39 districts where there are multiple candidates for a place on either the Democratic or Republican fall ballot, maybe both. This number is illusory as well. After the primary if candidates from both parties contend or survive, only one of them will have a realistic chance of winning in 17 of these districts thanks again to decade of gerrymandering deals by both parties.

All of you who thought the redistricting battle was just fun and games among the politicians might want to reassess that conclusion.

There are going to be, at the most, 18 meaningful races for state legislative seats in November out of a possible 115.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Flim flams then and now

By Bill Kraus

It’s flim flam time again on the campaign trail. This year the subject of the flim flam is jobs.

In 1968 the flim flam was Vietnam. Everybody talked about it. Nobody knew what to do to end it, or if they did, they weren’t willing to toss that ball into the campaign rhetoric ring.

In 1960 the flim flam was the missile gap. A subject that was never mentioned again once the election was over. Flim flams have a way of doing that if they are all rhetoric. The missile gap was.

Jimmy Carter’s flim flam was something called zero base budgeting. Nobody else knew what he was talking about, and it turned out he may not have either, because no budget of his had the characteristics of this money saving flim flam. If you erase the slate clean and make everyone budget ab initio as if there had been no budgets before this one, the savings we were told would be enormous. If, of course, the budget creators ever finished putting this monstrosity together which was unlikely.

This year’s flim flam is jobs.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Recalling lessons from history

By Bill Kraus

The current edition of the State of Wisconsin Blue Book features an excellent essay by John Buenker describing the accomplishments of the 1911 state Legislature and then-Governor Francis McGovern. What they did was enact almost the entire Robert La Follette agenda. They did this despite the fact that the Legislature, which was composed of Socialists, Social Democrats, Democrats, Progressive Republicans, and stalwart Republicans appeared to be almost as dysfunctional as today’s.

The populist La Follette not surprisingly had recommended initiative, referendum, and no-fault recall additions to the state Constitution. All passed. All were subsequently rejected when submitted to popular votes in 1914.

Ten years later no-fault recall was resubmitted, passed, and approved. The motivation at the time was purely political. The progressive Republicans feared that the stalwart Republicans would reverse what had been done in 1911 once Fighting Bob was gone.

The recall deterrent either worked or was unnecessary.

Monday, July 9, 2012

The political games must stop

By Cal Potter

Now that the recall elections are over, there is a collective sense of relief as we are no longer faced with a barrage of phone calls, media political ads, and the spending of tens of millions of dollars from special interests on political propaganda, mostly insulting our intelligence.

Our post-election hope is that we move forward, and seriously and cooperatively attend to the many problems facing our state and nation.

Democrats need to accept that Gov. Walker won the election, and Republicans accept that, with the loss in the Racine area State Senate race, Democrats now control that House by a one-vote margin.

Thus far it is not evident that the Senate change is being recognized by political partisans on the losing side. First we had a recount after an over 800-vote margin of victory. Now we hear from those same partisan operatives they may use the courts alleging voter fraud, aimed solely at further delaying the change in majority.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Hard to heal

By Bill Kraus

A week ago I urged candidates to tell us to quit making vague promises and start talking turkey about what they will do about the big problems of debt and dependency if they are elected.

A friend reminded me about the distance between diagnosis and cure by asking “and your solutions?”

Like Republicans historically, I am simply baffled by people who pass up opportunities and choose to behave in ways that doom them to lives of squalor and dependence or worse. This, incidentally, leads to the main difference between me and the historical Democrats. The Democrats think that it is their (our) fault that people pass up opportunities and choose destructive lifestyles. So they propose a lot of programs and spend a lot of money to assuage their guilt by using the blunt implements available to government to do something about this.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Merchandising discontent

By Bill Kraus

There is widespread unhappiness about jobs, or the lack thereof. This will be exploited to the extent possible mostly by those in the minority and those challenging incumbents. Perhaps someday someone will ask those doing the exploiting what jobs they would create for who doing what? When they do, they will learn that beyond the skilled trades, taking in each other’s laundry, amusing ourselves to death, and shuffling money, nobody really knows what the IT revolution economy will offer in the way of jobs.

On that day, underlying concerns will rise to the top of the short campaign agendas: debt and resentment.

Debt is probably there already. The widespread recognition that we have never had a pay-as-you-go war, police action, or military intrusion, and that perhaps war is not good for the economy, is taking hold of the public consciousness.

Monday, June 25, 2012

From incongruity to incompatibility

By Bill Kraus

In 1914, when the La Follette movement was at full strength, the voters rejected his attempt to limit the powers of those elected as representatives by adopting initiative and referendum and no-fault recalls.

This was before California showed the world that populism enhances instead of diminishing the power of the special interests La Follette opposed, especially special interests with money.


Ten years later the La Follette movement was well established, but La Follette’s life was over. The La Follette adherents decided to revive the no-fault recall to deter the opponents of the man and his ideas from reversing what La Follette, with the considerable help of Governor Francis McGovern, had wrought. They added the previously rejected no-fault recall provision to the Constitution to do this. Whether this was unnecessary or worked as intended is hard to determine.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Shallow pool

By Bill Kraus

The candidates’ lot is not a happy one.

Put yourself in the role of someone considering running for political office or trying to recruit someone of substance to do so.

For openers, any candidate must be told that a substantial amount of time and effort will have to be devoted to raising the money needed to finance these evermore expensive campaigns. The parties that used to do this--and that, in the process, insulated candidates from the quid pro quos that often accompany the money--disappeared in the wake of the Watergate reforms.

Campaigning itself is no kiss for Christmas either; plant gates, grabbing hands of people heading to work half-asleep and attentive or heading home tired and inattentive; doing doors; if you’re important enough, drawing the bilious scorn of the talk radio “entertainers” who are in the business of selling ad time.

There’s no telling what your opponent and those who support your opponent are going to say publicly about you, your forebears, your life, but it isn’t going to be pleasant.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Lights on and nobody home

By Bill Kraus

How can it be that we live in a low-information society? We have the remnants of the once dominant newspapers, we have TV news, we have radio, and, best of all, we have the incredible internet.

What we don’t have is a unifying, widely-accepted public communication medium.

To put it as colloquially and simply as possible, we don’t have page 5 of the Milwaukee Sentinel. We don’t even have the Milwaukee Sentinel. The communication mantra when we did was that everyone in government read the morning paper, and whatever was on page one or the state news page 5 determined what everyone’s day would be like.

The operative word was “everyone,” including most of the citizenry.

There was TV news with its “if it bleeds, it leads” emphasis and its time constraints.

Radio was all over the place. From the often overlong on public radio, to the breathlessly short on commercial radio, spiced by the talk radio screamers who admit under questioning that they are really in the entertainment business.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Desperately seeking Dewey

By Bill Kraus

I cast my first vote for president in 1948. I voted for Thomas Dewey. He lost. Since he lost to Harry Truman who later became an almost iconic figure in American history I didn’t talk much about my first vote. A little embarrassed.

Then I read a book about the contributions that presidential losers have made to the betterment of the country across the years. Henry Clay was definitely the top of the “should have beens” but was undermined by bad timing.

Stephen Douglas, who knew, devoted most of his energy to stopping the secessionists and saving the Democratic party after losing to Lincoln in 1860.

Even the flamboyant bible thumper William Jennings Bryan gets credit for many of the developments he never got into office to enact but his successors from both parties acceded to.

My biggest surprise, however, was Thomas Dewey.

I don’t know who I credited with the kind of Republicanism I tried to practice, but it sure wasn’t Dewey. It should have been.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Popular ideas that go nowhere

By Bill Kraus

This list of ideas does not include anything that has to do with limiting the flow of money into political campaigns or the unpopular things (endless campaigns, 30 second messages, robo calls, etc) that are purchased with that money. The U.S. Supreme Court has consistently ruled that money is a form of speech and is protected by the 1st Amendment to the Constitution no matter how unpopular the speech may be.

Information about the sources of free speech/money is, surprisingly, almost encouraged by the same Supreme Court. Don’t ask me to explain this mild anomaly. I can’t and they don’t.

This kind of disclosure is widely applauded. It is even legislated in the case of donations to candidates themselves. Proposals to go beyond that, however, founder. The only logical explanation for this (and, be forewarned, the regulation of campaign spending is not an area where logic prevails or even exists) is that the organizations that are collecting this outside money have convinced the people who have the power to expose the contributors of this outside money that their contributors do not want anyone to know who they are, and will, what’s more, stop contributing if exposure is mandated. These incumbents have done the math and concluded that it is more important to have this money in the game even though they have no guarantee that it will be spent disproportionately on their behalf. I think their math is questionable. They don’t. They have the power to quash full disclosure legislation. I don’t.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The latest degeneration

By Bill Kraus

Despite widespread agreement on the deleterious effects of money in politics, we have a long history of not doing much about all the things we complain about.

The mostly shameful Republican primary is behind us.

Unfortunately it has left a trail of personalization of political campaigns that shows no signs of going away.

The high-tempo partisans have always advocated smash mouth campaigns. When their favorites lose, they attribute the loss to what in a normal world would be regarded as reasonableness.

The reigning wisdom is attack, attack, attack.

This tells us something about those who are shaping campaigns these days and what those shapers think of the discernment of those whose votes they seek.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Triumvirate of campaign deform

By Bill Kraus

Despite widespread agreement on the deleterious effects of money in politics, we have a long history of not doing much about all the things we complain about.

Almost all attempts, from the worthy to the fantasized, have been thwarted by three formidable forces:

1.) Recalcitrant Republicans who think their minority position means that only disproportionatley large amounts of money will achieve electoral success. To put it bluntly an even playing field is not likely to be on their wish list.

2.) Duplicitous Democrats who lament their self- perceived inability to raise as much money as their Republican opponents and support regulation of campaign spending until they achieve a working majority despite this handicap. Their appetite for reform depends entirely on whether or not they have that majority.

3.) The U.S. Supreme Court whose rulings for three centuries have firmly rejected regulation of and limits on political spending.

I know, I know, Republicans once supported the disclosure of political contributors and the Supreme Court even encouraged legislation that would do this, and many on the left continue to believe in and invent ways to bring small contributors with their minimal money into play in a big way. But the fact is that we are about to have a billion dollar presidential campaign.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

What all that money buys

By Bill Kraus

In light of the recent and predicted excessive spending on politics it is easy to focus on and complain about how much is being spent and on what. There are some undesirable side effects of this extravagance, though, that don’t get sufficient attention.

Some are obvious.

This embarrassment of political riches suborns:

Is there anyone who doesn’t think multi-digit donations are buying something? Access for sure. Ego food as well. It is surprising how many with money think that power is more important and will lavish their wealth on anyone who will put them into proximity to power. The money is not necessarily buying something untoward, but it could be, and it is, for sure, buying something.

Paranoia. There is a widespread belief by candidates and incumbents that money is the direct, and maybe the only route to power. This belief is both fostered and exploited by the economic beneficiaries of the unseemly spending on political advertising: the professional campaigners who are being paid to spend the money and the media, mostly television stations, that fill the airwaves with the commercials the professionals have produced.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

This is what power looks like

By Bill Kraus

Power is finite. To put it simply, if I have it, you don’t, or, as is more often the case, vice versa.

Every once in a while we get sharp reminders about who has it.

A recent story in the NY Times about a gathering of police chiefs in Washington is illustrative.

"[Milwaukee] Chief Flynn recounted pleading with a state senator to include a provision on Wisconsin's concealed weapons law that would ban habitual criminal offenders from obtaining permits. The senator, he said, told him, 'Here's the phone number of the National Rifle Association lobbyist in Washington DC. If it's OK with him, it will be OK with us.' The provision was not included."

This immediately calls to mind the indisputable fact that the paranoids who run the National Rifle Association have power.

They can coerce elected officials almost everywhere into protecting everyone’s right to own firearms of any description up to and including those whose only possible purpose is to kill people. They also have convinced the pushover elected officials that public safety will be enhanced only when everyone who owns a concealable weapon can “pack it” to revert to the vernacular if they wish, except in Illinois of all places.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The future--if there is one--of representative government

By Bill Kraus

The success of the concept of representative government depends heavily on the intelligence, integrity, and similar attributes, of the representatives themselves.

For many years the political parties recruited, slated, and helped elect most of these representatives.

After the well intended Watergate reforms foundered on the law of unintended consequences by diverting the money flow that is the mother's milk of politics, a short-lived era of entrepreneurial candidacies finished off the parties' roles of recruiting and slating those who wanted to represent us. The money went directly to these candidates instead of to the insulating parties which the legendary Ody Fish called a "kinder mistress."

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The big disconnect

By Bill Kraus

The disconnect between what voters say they want in campaigns and what campaigners deliver, instead, is astonishing:

Voters want less spending on campaigns, less or no robo calls, a shorter campaign season, and candidates who are--to be crude--not for sale; not so beholden to the money that makes all of the other things that voters want less of possible.

Campaign managers say that money is, always was, the mother’s milk of politics, that the amount needed has inflated dramatically as the media has become more expensive, volunteers have been replaced by hired hands, and money is needed to counter third-party spending in campaigns.

Voters want fewer TV commercials.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Disclosure laws give legislators a break

By Bill Kraus

I know, I know. We should have term limits. We should cut their pay so we could guarantee that every legislator had to have a job in the real world. We should give them single-digit approval ratings.

What we should really do is give them a break.

The candidates for the Legislature are told how much money that any supporter can give them for their campaigns and that they must report the names, addresses, and occupations of all of the supporters who give them money.

When they get around to spending this money on advertising they to tell the audiences a.) why the voters should vote for them or, as is more likely in this lamentable era when attack ads are favored, b.) why the voters should not vote for whoever is running against them. These ads must be accompanied by disclaimers. The disclaimer on TV ads must say who they are and that they approve the message in the ad.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Questions in the aftermath of Walker's tsunami

By Bill Kraus

The Walker tsunami opened with a bang. He (and the two-house majority) had promised to get rid of something nobody understood--the structural deficit--and to balance the budget, which everyone understood.

They did that. They did it largely with proceeds from the only cookie jar in the kitchen: education. The other cookie jars, medicaid and corrections, were sealed shut by the feds and fear respectively.

The rest of the early agenda was mostly about getting even, settling scores.

The public employee unions were the bane of Republican candidates and organizations. They had been successfully outspending and outworking anyone who stood in their way for years. The Walker tsunami put an end to that by limiting their bargaining authority and shutting down dues check off, otherwise known as their money machine.

They put an end to public campaign funding--often referred to as “welfare for politicians”--in all its manifestations, including the judicial one.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

A letter to Wisconsin snow birds and expatriates

By Bill Kraus

Everyone knows about the recalls. What everyone doesn’t know, and what people who haven't been around lately might not know, is that they really aren’t recalls. They are what golfers call “mulligans” and what non-golfers know as “do overs.” In Wisconsin, if enough people are dissatisfied with any incumbent who has been in office for at least a year, they can circulate petitions seeking a new election, and if they get the requisite number of signatures, an election will be called.

No justification is necessary. This is not an impeachment. This is not a recall. This is a petition for a new election for any and all candidates who want to run including the person who thought he or she was elected for a fixed term.

The recall petition for the governor and lieutenant governor are the most prominent. The reason so many people signed it (more than 900,000) had to do with fixing the structural deficit the Democrats left behind and crafting a balanced budget for the next biennium.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Desperately seeking solutions

By Bill Kraus

Facing the prospect of telling a class of college students about the state of electoral politics focuses the mind.

Everyone has a long list of the things that have gone wrong.

Everyone also has fingers to point in multiple directions at a long list of culprits who are responsible for the current state of dysfunction.

The students themselves know that the three 'P's--Polarization, Partisanship, even Populism--are wreaking havoc with the representative government we all think the founding fathers envisioned. That the system is broken.

What they expect to hear is how to fix it. I have a simple answer for them: I don’t know how.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Myths, phobias and fantasies

By Bill Kraus

Life in the public sector is complicated and made more so by a long series of myths that too many believe, phobias that too many suffer from, and fantasies that too many chase.

Among the most prominent are:

Government can and should be run like a business. There are a lot of reasons it can’t and won’t be. The most important are that business is a totalitarian organization and government is not. The second most important is that the business of government is conducted in public. Public companies in the private sector think they are. They are not. They will be as, if and when the press sits in on their board meetings.

There is a market solution for everything which is better than a regulatory solution for anything. Really? Regulation is unwelcome everywhere. Events of the recent past are all the evidence needed to convince most that an unrestrained free market with all its virtues can do a lot of damage. An officious regulatory bureaucracy can as well. Regulation of anything--including voting--is and should be both fluid and subject to change in search of the elusive middle ground between too much and too little.

Monday, March 5, 2012


By Bill Kraus

Representative government is an endangered species.

Many states--most of which are in the western and mountain time zones and are relative newcomers to what is now the United States--have long ago expressed their distrust in the idea of fully empowering the representatives they elect by incorporating the populist idea of initiative and referendum in their constitutions.

Other signs that states have misgivings about the idea are the enactment of term limits for representatives and/or by keeping the pay for them so low that only the super rich or super abstemious could keep body and soul together on their legislative stipends. These measures militate against lifelong and fulltime representation.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Shut out again

By Sandra Miller

Did you hear that?

It was certainly loud and most definitely clear, that disturbingly familiar sound of yet another door slamming shut on the people of Wisconsin.

On Monday, our State Supreme Court voted 4-3 to move their conferences on administrative matters behind closed doors, hidden from public scrutiny or input.

So why should we care about this decision by the Court? After all, it’s only discussions on “administrative matters” we’re talking about here... can’t be anything more than minor procedural stuff.

Probably just a waste of our time and attention, right?

Uh.... Wrong.

These administrative policies help determine how our state’s highest court operates. Slated for one of these now closed-door conferences is a proposal by Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson. The topic?

“Civility and Public Trust and Confidence.”

Yes. Really.

Monday, February 27, 2012

A world undone

By Bill Kraus

This title of a wonderful book on WWI has come home to roost.

I listened to a UW political scientist tell a Milwaukee audience in the early fall of 2010 that there would be a Republican tsunami in November of 2010 that would turn out even unbeatable Democrats in Washington and Wisconsin.

The reasons he gave were widespread fear, uneasiness, disappointment with the way the world was going, and an unusually strong urge for major changes, new ideas, straight talk.

After his predicted results came true and the radicalization that followed the tsunami was carried out by the winners, another UW political scientist told this same audience that the independents and uncommitted voters who gave the Republicans their stunning victories a few short months before were now appalled at what they had wrought. The next election, he predicted, would swing the pendulum fully back the other way.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

TV or not TV

By Bill Kraus

As we lurch into another multiple election season--there will be at least 4, maybe 5 in Wisconsin this year--one thing is sure. We will be bombarded by TV commercials extolling the virtues and deploring the sins of the several candidates for the several offices in play.

There will be personal contacts, there will be radio commercials, there will be direct mail, there will be phone calls, some by live human beings, there will be billboards, there may even be a few newspaper ads, but TV will be the main medium of information and persuasion.

How did it come to this?


I have been a witness to, a victim of, even a perpetrator in the whole TV era and saga.

My first campaign experience was in 1952, the year that television became a presence everywhere in Wisconsin.

Sunday, February 12, 2012


By Bill Kraus

The first time I realized there were activities that were beyond regulation was when the songwriters tried to stop the development of technology that would make it possible for listeners to tape songs off the radio for their own private purposes. It couldn’t be done.

More recently this same issue has come up vis a vis the also universal and uncontrollable internet. This isn’t settled yet, but it is pretty clear that technology has probably put the things that can be done on the internet beyond regulation as well.

Is the flow of money into political campaigns in the same category?

Could be.

Some 20 years ago Tim Cullen testified before a Legislative Council committee headed by Senator Dave Helbach and Representative Peter Bock that was trying to contain political fundraising and spending otherwise known as Campaign Finance Reform.

Tim used the analogy of a balloon. “There is a certain amount of money that is going to flow into political campaigns,” he said. “If you visualize it as being contained in a balloon, what regulation can attempt is to squeeze one end of the balloon down. What will happen is the money in the balloon will pop up elsewhere.”