March 24, 2007
Back to the future
By Bill Kraus
As long as candidates believe they need money to win political office they will do whatever needs to be done to get the money they believe they need. And, thanks to the advice they get from the campaign management industry and its co-conspirators the TV station owners, candidates believe they need lots of money.
Scolding, regulating, threatening, all of those things and more are not going to change these beliefs.
Losing would. But that depends on voters being turned off by excessive spending or some kind of scandal. There is scant evidence that large numbers of voters are paying enough attention or care to notice that their votes are being bought. And even scandals don’t seem to have the effect they once did.
Perhaps a better route to getting candidates out of the begging business (which they must hate) and to avoid becoming a victim of scandals themselves would be to show them how to win without flirting with fiscal and/or moral bankruptcy.
The trick is to design a TV-less campaign.
What TV does, at its best, is get widespread name identification at the very least, and a thumbnail characterization of what the candidate will do if elected.
Billboards are both better and cheaper than TV at name identification.
People are better and cheaper and much more targeted than TV at characterization and explanation.
Politics used to be labor intensive. Friends and neighbors went door to door, made calls, sent postcards, carried the campaigns' messages and had the extra added benefit of endorsing both the candidates and the messages in the bargain.
It’s hard work putting a campaign organization together, but it is a campaign system that comes without strings. The only promise candidates have to make is to not disappoint all those people who did all that work to get them elected.
Better than being beholden to the factions and the money?
And it has the desirable side effect of bringing large numbers of people back into politics and to regaining its reputation as an honorable trade practiced by superior people.
March 16, 2007
Whatever happened to competence?
By Bill Kraus
One of the questions that a candidates aren't asked during presidential campaigns is whether they know how to run the place. Or, the maybe even more important one, will the people they bring to office with them be competent administrators.
It probably isn’t asked because it is assumed that the president of the United States has the pick of the litter. The talent pool is big and—er—talented.
The super partisans will want to shrink the pool by insisting on a kind of loyalty test. Until Ronald Reagan’s recruiters were told not to hire anyone who had supported Gerald Ford at the 1976 convention, competence was, if not the only, certainly the most important criterion for public service. There has been far less bi-partisanship or even a-partisanship ever since.
Even with that kind of shortsighted limitation there should be a surplus of qualified candidates for all of those “pleasure of the President” offices.
But in the light of the butchering of the Katrina mess by “Brownie” and his boss at Homeland Security, and the mismanagement by the motley collection who are supposedly running the Veterans’ Affairs hospitals, and worse yet, the performance of several people in high places who value ideological purity over performance, it seems to be worth asking who the candidates are likely to bring with them if they win. With all of the time and resources journalists spend investigating scandals, maybe the could instead spend a little more time investigating candidates' records of recruiting well and performing competently if there’s a job on their resumes where competence mattered.
Policy and strategy are the major questions, of course, but we ignore the ability to execute both or either at our peril.
March 7, 2007
Not Wisconsin's war
By John Smart
There is a lot of discussion these days (mostly by those myriad "talking heads" on television) about who was against Bush's war from the beginning and who voted for the authorization. Barack Obama was against the war (but then again, he was in the Illinois Senate then and the question didn't come up there). John Edwards voted for it, and has apologized for it at great length. Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden voted for it too, and they say that they certainly wouldn't have had they not been lied to by the Bushies.
We are delighted to remind everyone that our Senator Russ Feingold was not taken in by the administration's lies. It is well to also remember that my congressman, Dave Obey, wasn't either. Dave voted for the Afghanistan incursion, but not Iraq.
Aren't we fortunate? Wisconsin has sent people to Washington like Fighting Bob La Follette, Gaylord Nelson, Bill Proxmire, Henry Reuss, Russ Feingold and Dave Obey. Must be something in the water.
March 3, 2007
The reformers' dilemma
By Bill Kraus
Not whether, but which.
A conservative count of the ways the campaign system needs reforming comes up with 13 ideas. As anyone who has been involved in governing knows, a short agenda that is longer than three items is doomed from the get go.
Not only is something beyond that too cluttered and unfocused, it will bring into play too many defenders of the status quo to handle.
The status quo, I hardly need to remind you, is not an accident. Somebody important put it there and will defend any attempts to change it to something approaching “the death” as in “over my dead body.”
The ideas on the reform table range from full public financing to full disclosure of contributions and contributors and pass through such worthies as term limits, part-time legislatures, disinterested redistricting, limited campaign seasons, revived political parties, even free (or, better yet, banned) television commercials.
Clearly, priorities are needed.
The Wisconsin legislative season opened with a change in the way elections and ethics are regulated and overseen. Spring training.
The scenario for the serious reform season that is being bandied about is two items long, one of which is sort of a monster all-encompassing one.
The first is transparency. This has important bipartisan friends. The laissez faire Republicans, who don’t like regulation of anything including campaign spending, have consistently said “Let everybody play, but make everybody who plays be listed in the program.” In politic-speak this is called transparency. It does not risk running afoul of the First Amendment/free speech zealots and it has the virtue of leveling the reporting playing field at the very least.
It is not universally popular, however, and it will not escape the challenge of those who contend that exposing the identity of the speaker inhibits free speech. Anonymity, they contend, is important to prevent retribution.
Let’s assume the courts disagree and say, in effect if not in fact, “You can say whatever you want, but you’ve got to stand up when you say it.”
Then we can go on to scenario number two, which is to get a limit on campaign spending through a combination of incentives and disincentives all of which add up to reducing the fiscal barriers to candidate entry and letting the candidates duke it out on a level spending playing field without having to fend off economic rabbit punches from the crowd in the stands, so to speak.
This runs into the “welfare for politicians” argument. To work, it also has to scare off the so-called campaign hijackers: interest groups that run independent campaigns for and against candidates and the ideologues who run campaign advertisements which support or oppose candidates.
Whether either of these proposals can make it through the minefield laid out by the invincible incumbents who got to be both incumbents and invincible through a campaign system, which these proposals would change in major and dramatic ways, is no better than an even bet.
But if more is attempted it is almost certain that nothing will have any chance of succeeding.
March 2, 2007
Happy birthday, Peace Corps
By John Smart
On March 1, 1961, President John F. Kennedy signed Executive Order #10924, which created the Peace Corps. He also asked congress for permanent funding for the new agency, and set some parameters for how it would operate. This new idea captured the imagination of thousands, and letters started pouring in to the White House from young people who wished to volunteer to go to foreign lands to help people who needed help.
The Peace Corps is unique in the foreign policy establishment in that it is not a part of the Department of State or any other agency. The Peace Corps Director reports directly to the president and the Peace Corps' budget is a separate entity. It was made clear from the beginning that Peace Corps volunteers must never be perceived as being instruments of the nation's geopolitical international effort. Its purpose is purely altruistic.
Of course, this altruism is what makes the Peace Corps the single most effective instrument of foreign policy the United States has to offer. Many thousands of people around the world have learned about America from Peace Corps volunteers, and what they've learned is positive.
Peace Corps volunteers are not spies, although they were and are sometimes mistakenly assumed to be. I served in the Peace Corps in Uzbekistan, in the former Soviet Union, and the people were certainly very suspicious. They'd been taught for so long that Americans were dangerous that I had to counter that impression with actions.
Peace Corps has three main charges: First, to help people who need help, to use American know-how to improve the lives of people everywhere. Second, to let the people of the world see our best side, to get to know Americans and counter any negativity out there about our goals and purposes. And third, to return to the United States and educate our fellow citizens about the rest of the world.
We are a dangerously parochial nation, with too little knowledge of international matters. Listening to returned Peace Corps volunteers, who have a unique view based on their experiences, is mind-expanding.
I enjoy speaking in schools about the Peace Corps and the importance of learning about the big world out there beyond the boundaries of our own neighborhoods. A recent Park Falls graduate, of whom I am very proud, just left for Zambia to serve in the Peace Corps, and I flatter myself that perhaps something I said may have helped inspire her to do so. And there are several others from Park Falls, currently studying in universities, who are thinking of applying after graduation. It is a great joy to me!
So, please join me in wishing a happy birthday to the Peace Corps. Let's hope that it continues to flourish and represent the best of America in a changing world.