Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Help wanted


By Bill Kraus

Due to the unhappy, unexpected, too early demise of Common Cause’s national president Bob Edgar, there is a job opening in Washington D.C. that may be of interest.

Common Cause was founded many decades ago by a Democratic president’s cabinet member who happened to be a Republican. He, like everyone who has ever served in any government anywhere, was acutely aware of the fact that these governments are mostly of, by, and for the interest groups large and small, worthy and less so, powerful and not, to whom those we elect are too often beholden.

When he formed Common Cause, he said that the only interest not actively represented in this special interest free-for-all was the general interest, the people; those who want a government that works for all more than an advantage for any or many of the special interests that may or may not be advantageous for the nation. He figured Common Cause would correct this oversight.

Over the years Common Cause has become an institution with its own history and image in Washington and in several, but much less than many, states.

It differs from other interest organizations in several ways which anyone who is thinking about applying for its top job must consider.

First the good news. Under Bob Edgar’s leadership the organization itself has been rebuilt. It has enough money to run at a viable speed. It has a responsible, reputable board, an excellent staff, and an impossible assignment. Maybe that isn’t really good news, but it needs to be mentioned.

So its leader has to be good at the things Bob excelled at, and has to face a few immutable facts. The people whose hands are on the levers of power are mostly annoyed by Common Cause. Nobody likes a nagger. Common Cause nags.

At its best Common Cause nags about things that others ignore or don’t know exist. Things that make our fragile democracy work. The process itself. This makes Common Cause essential. And ineffective.

On the Common Cause shortlist are things like openness and transparency, the extraordinary influence of money in elections, the distortions that assault the elective process like gerrymandering and voting rights and rules.

If any candidate ran on these ideas and issues, he or she probably lost, which is why no candidate who won did.

There is no good government caucus in any legislature that I know of, certainly not in Washington or Madison.

What Edgar knew he had to do next, having cleared the debris from the train wreck he inherited when he took the Common Cause job, was get the process issues on the short agenda of those in power.

What his successor will have to deal with is a very large membership which is composed mostly of old lefties. They dutifully pay their dues. They just as dutifully do not go much beyond doing that. They do not join the organization to be part of a movement. They join the organization so its staff will do the grunt work of pushing, persuading, threatening and promising what they do not want to do or are no longer able to do.

The other thing Bob’s successor will have to do, and which Bob was in the very early stages of starting to do, is deal with the image that everyone else in and out of power has of the organization.

To put it bluntly Common Cause is regarded as a lapdog of the left. This accounts for the aversion the right has for the organization’s work no matter how worthy. The unhappy other side of the power coin is that when the left wins the majority and stands up to exercise it the lapdog falls to the floor.

The work of Common Cause, which is widely admired, draws little wind from the recalcitrant Republicans and the duplicitous Democrats who alternatively have the power to do what Common Cause and the unorganized people say they want.

If you want the job or want to nominate someone who wants the job, make sure he or she knows how to keep the money flowing to keep the organization afloat and can take the giant step of de-partisanizing its image so it can become a first step toward putting the people, and their general interest, back into the game.

This, after all, is why Common Cause exists.

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