May 19, 2013
The Toxicity Index
By Bill Kraus
The toxicity level in the state capitol has never been low, but its recent rise may be unprecedented.
It started on its upward course during the bellicose years when the two tough, smart, uncompromising leaders Scott Jensen in the Assembly and Chuck Chvala in the Senate ordered an end to the casual camaraderie that had characterized those two bodies for years.
The public show in both houses had been somewhere between bitter and vitriolic, but the after hours was where the deals were made and the rhetoric toned down. The watering holes were off the record and populated by seemingly irreconcilable partisans from both sides. Breaking bread together was common, neither encouraged nor frowned upon.
The respect for the trade and its practitioners was evident despite the disputatious nature of the institutions.
In the winter of 2011 and the recall rants that followed camaraderie was out the window and the toxicity level went ballistic. The issues that were the worthy subjects of debate and disagreement became personal. “He said, she said,” escalated to, “If he [or she] is for it, I’m against it.”
Compromise and civility were history. Ideological purity and rigidity reigned.
The toxicity level reached 100.
One respected veteran of the legislative wars predicted, “It will take 30 years to get over this.”
I asked the journalists Patrick Marley and Jason Stein, who had reported on the wars of 2011 at the time and revisited and updated them in their admirable book, where they thought the toxic index was. They thought it was still high, but dropping ever so slightly.
A good sign.
A better sign is the informal survey taken by a newly elected member of the Assembly who said that a good third of the group that came in in 2012 said their constituents had been vocal and firm about their desire to see if not peace a lower level of conflict in that chamber.
Organized sociability was common in the last third of the last century where a series of governors brought presumed enemies together at the executive residence for drinks and dinner along with citizens, administrators, academics, and others who didn’t belong to the same clubs or hang out at the same taverns in their home venues either.
These soirees have been more rarely used in the new millennium and hardly ever as an antidote to the rising toxicity downtown.
And Washington is reputably as bad or worse. A new member of Congress has said that there has been one social occasion since November when an event in DC brought the partisans under the same roof. A long series of Wisconsin governors would have told the president, if asked, that he might have followed their example and hosted more than a few of those kinds of occasions himself.
What we need is a sociologist to creative a Toxicity Index along with the criteria used to measure the intensity of the affliction. The questions should go beyond attendance at official occasions. Co-sponsorship of legislation would be a factor. Hanging out together in the off hours at places where guns are figuratively left at the door, and all who enter are welcome and comfortable. Talking to, instead of at, each other. Even freeing whatever free spirits there are in today’s legislators from caucus control.
It’s not against the rules for cabinet secretaries to invite legislators out for or to their homes for dinner.
Driving to work together. How many deals were cut by the carpoolers from central Wisconsin on the way to and from Madison in the not-so-distant past?
Does that 10 percent approval rating bother anybody? Outsiders are asking why they should respect people who don’t respect their trade or each other. It’s a legitimate question.
May 12, 2013
What's so great about being governor anyway?
By Bill Kraus
The question the reporter asked was whether being on the list of presidential prospects would damage the governor’s chances for re-election to that office.
He had an easy answer: of course not. He was right. Those who love him would be proud of his national prominence. Those who hate him want him to go away. Period.
It’s the wrong question.
The harder question is whether his run for re-election in Wisconsin will help or hurt his status as someone with national potential and prospects.
It very well could.
He could lose in 2014. The demise of WEAC, one of the 500-pound gorillas, notwithstanding, the Democrats are not likely to nominate another reluctant or wounded contender, and out of the wreckage of the ill-considered and mostly failed recall adventure they still have those one million names and email addresses.
He could win narrowly when he needs to win overwhelmingly.
He is, after all, pretty much a one trick pony. Putting aside the fact that he fixed an unfixable budget, the thing that got him a place on the national stage was showing how to kill the public sector unions by shutting off their money flow.
This was done without blinking in the face of a major protest which makes it even a larger propellant to national reknown. It has brought him adoring audiences everywhere, a sure route to money if he cares about money, and a place on the early GOP shortlist.
He may not be another Calvin Coolidge, who rode breaking the Boston police strike to the vice presidency, but he’s definitely a potential latter day reincarnation of that phenomenon.
Unless he has unfired ammunition in the other barrel of his two-barrel shotgun, like school choice, he could use the first two years of what would be his second term to ride his pony to every corner of the country in search of votes, money, and admiration.
Would this be a better, more productive use of his time than slugging it out with a fractious Legislature across the whole public agenda--including and especially school choice--in hopes of enhancing his already prominent reputation and stature?
Is he thinking about moving to the national stage?
He’s writing a book.
His electoral record is an amazing combination of good timing and unremitting good luck. He took out a flawed county executive in a solidly Democratic County. His natural enemies underrated his popularity and overrated their candidate to give him a second term there. He rode a Republican tsunami against a reluctant opponent to the governor’s office. A wise and wary collection of independents and Democrats who thought recall was a worse idea than his retention gave him a victory in that misguided election. All of this adds up to an assertion or illusion of unbeatability.
And, best of all, he knows about grabbing brass rings as they whistle by, and hasn’t missed one yet.
Is he likely to let this one pass?
I wouldn’t bet on it.
May 4, 2013
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.
April 21, 2013
Ellis, out on an island
By Bill Kraus
Not so very long ago Senator Mike Ellis developed and recommended a campaign financing plan that would have contributed a significant amount of public money to anyone who agreed to spending limits. The plan also was structured to protect those who took the public money and agreed to the spending limits from spending by unregulated third parties and organizations.
The comfortable incumbents who would have had to agree to this plan said in effect if not in fact “why would I vote for something that gives public money to people who want to run against me, and that takes away the advantage I have in raising campaign money due to my incumbency?”
The response should have been, “Because this is your last, best chance to be delivered from dialing for dollars and for avoiding hijacked campaigns and being thought beholden to interests rather than to the people who vote for you.”
The response instead was, “Because it’s the right thing to do.”
The Ellis proposal was not enacted.
Since then the Supreme Court in its insular wisdom has made what Ellis regarded as a bad situation infinitely worse, and any and all hopes of putting a lid on campaign spending by candidates and the now-ubiquitous third parties who clutter campaigns with their money and messages became infinitely dimmer.
Spending is now out of sight with no serious prospect of any kind of limitations or reforms. Congress gets an approval rating of 10 percent from voters who assume and accept that most members are bought and paid for. Jesse Unruh’s famous dictum, “If you can’t eat their food, drink their booze, take their money, and vote against them, you don’t belong in this business,” is no longer in effect.
A different set of comfortable incumbents is now being given yet another “right thing” to do by enacting a redistricting system that takes these same incumbents who want to use this process to make most legislative elections non-competitive and guarantee the majority party of the moment a 10-year advantage at least out of the mapmaking business.
This idea seems to be about as welcome as Ellis’s was back in the last millennium. The comfortable incumbents who would have to agree to this idea are repeating what they said about the Ellis idea: “Why would I vote for something that gives a challenger a better chance of defeating me?”
The response this time goes beyond, “because it’s the right thing to do,” to, “because a district that is safe from a challenge by a candidate from the other party is not as safe as you think it is.”
Senator Dale Schultz has the unwelcome chance to be the poster boy for the dark side of biased redistricting.
The 90 percent of the legislators on the right and the left are not going to be seriously challenged by candidates in the November general elections. The trouble will come from the farther right and the farther left, and it will come in the August primary elections.
What a shift of the important election in the incumbent-safe districts does is makes the primary election really primary in every sense of that word. These are low-turnout elections and those who vote in primaries are disproportionately the yellow dog super partisans.
The obvious trouble with this scenario is that the citizens who are the decisive voters in statewide elections are more likely to be citizens firsts, partisans second. This means that the power under the dome is bifurcated as deadlock between the governor, who is elected statewide in Novembers, and the Legislature, which is elected in August, play to their quite different constituencies.
Since gerrymandering makes a huge majority of legislative seats safe for one party or the other and the primaries are where legislators are picked, the unavoidable outcome is a government by a minority and a greatly diminished executive office at all levels where this situation exists. The law of unintended consequences raises its ugly head again as the current districting system turns into a design for deadlock.
The incumbents who blew the chance to contain the money are gone. Let’s hope the incumbents who will decide who will have a chance to give voters a better chance to pick their representatives rather than vice versa don’t blow their chance to do the right thing this year.