March 28, 2008
Even worse than PACs
By Bill Kraus
The late, great UW Political Science Professor Leon Epstein chided me for my non-stop criticism of Political Action Committees. I regarded these creatures as complicit in the destruction of political parties, and as representative of the tribalization of American politics.
He, not unlike the U.S. Supreme Court, felt that PACs were legitimate beneficiaries of the free speech guarantees of the First Amendment to the Constitution. He also pointed out that “you know who they are.”
We never got that far, but I would guess that he and I as well probably thought that the PACs' campaign rhetoric would be restrained because it reflects on their members and contributors. That hope is currently being shattered by the “contributions” to the campaign dialogue being proffered by the state’s manufacturers and teachers. Their members do not appear to be distancing themselves from their organizations or inhibiting them.
The most obvious disadvantage of the presence of these two organizations in campaigns was that, because they came with a lot of money, they had the ability to push the candidates’ and their issues and agendas aside…to hijack the campaigns.
This was offset by the fact that because they were identifiable, a counter-attack could be mounted. If the candidate under assault from a named PAC or organization couldn’t find a member of the organization who would publicly defect from the position being taken, then the question of whether one should vote for someone who is likely to be a puppet for an organization, no matter how worthy, could be raised.
What we didn’t anticipate was the major role that the anonymous organizations would play in political campaigns. We know who these organizations like or dislike. What we don’t know is who they are or where they get their money.
A line from Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid is appropriate: Who are these guys?
We know they are not Bill Christofferson whose name is associated with The Greater Wisconsin Committee or R.J. Johnson of The Club For Growth, to take two prominent examples.
Next to a flawed opponent, a campaign manager’s greatest wish is to have an enemy who can be built into a straw man.
The candidates themselves reveal the names of their supporters and contributors. This kind of endorsement is considered a plus. To a lesser extent, and somewhat less enthusiastically and more implicitly, so do the manufacturers and the teachers and the realtors and the trial lawyers.
They are, in a way, fair game.
The new 800-pound gorillas have apple pie and motherhood names and lots of money but are otherwise invisible.
This seems to me to go beyond being undesirable to being unfair as well.
There are a lot of reasons I wish that Leon Epstein was still with us. The opportunity to ask him if this extension of the PAC phenomenon troubles him as much as it troubles me is one of them.
I think it would.
March 26, 2008
In search of Journal Sentinel repair
By Ms. Forward
The Senate Democrats passed a plan to "repair" the state's budget short fall last night, but intrepid Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporter Steve Walters doesn't seem to like it. His objective, unbiased, news article is loaded with terms like "pushed through," "partisan," and "cost business."
What was the Senate's crime? Asking Big Business to share some of the load.
The plan calls for combined reporting, a measure that would make it more difficult for huge companies like Wal-Mart to avoid taxes in Wisconsin, where they reap huge profits. For example, combined reporting would prevent Wal-Mart from avoiding state income tax because it would neutralize the tax impact the state suffers when Wal-Mart stores pay rent to themselves and claim it as a business expense. That's right, Wisconsin's Wal-Marts pay outrageous rent prices, but it is all paid to the parent company in Arkansas. The rent is so high that it makes it look like the stores' expenses outpace their income. Clever.
The Senate plan also calls for the hospital tax that every living human on earth favors--including those who run the hospitals--except Wisconsin's Assembly Republicans and perhaps Steve Walters.
March 24, 2008
By Christa Westerberg
Last week, we hit the five-year anniversary for the war in Iraq. Remember where you were when the war started? I do--driving in a rental car to a conference in Oregon. My car companions and I listened to President Bush's press conference announcing the start of formal hostilities on the radio. We couldn't believe the war had actually begun (wasn't there still time for those battleships in the Gulf to turn around and go home?), but also couldn't believe the softball questions the President was getting from the press corps.
And today, the AP reports we have reached another horrible milestone: 4,000 U.S. troops dead. Would the outcome have been the same if the press had done its job in reporting on the justification for the war? Or de-bunking the link between Saddam Hussien and Osama bin Laden? Hard to say, but NPR's "On the Media" did a fascinating show this weekend analyzing the media coverage in the five years since the war started.
It's worth a listen--for example, remember "embedded journalists?" NPR asks whether the "embed experiement" worked. I won't give away the answer, but suffice it to say, it is not a resounding "Yes!" from the media's perspective.
Where is the media now? Absent, says a recent Project for Excellence in Journalism survey. The war only got 3 percent of TV, newspaper, and internet stories in the first ten weeks of 2008, as opposed to 23 percent for the same period in 2007. And on the cable news networks, the war was covered 24 percent of the time last year, compared to a miniscule 1 percent--yes, 1 percent--this year.
But hey, this frees us up to discuss Hillary Clinton's hair and Barack Obama's dog walker for the next five months. You know, the really important stuff.
Socialism for the rich
By Ms. Forward
The late, great I.F. Stone used to say that the United States' biggest problem was its systems of socialism for the rich and dog-eat-dog capitalism for the rest of us. He would have rather seen it the other way around.
With Stone's words in mind, the New York Times editorial titled, "Socialized Compensation" caught Ms. Forward's eye. The piece focuses on the $30 billion federal bailout of Bear Stearns's stockholders and executives and juxtaposes it against the profound inaction taking place around mortgage crises gripping homeowners throughout the land.
Never have we heard an explanation for why it helps poor people to suffer interminably without assistance from the government or why the rules should be different for wealthy people or large corporations. Nor have we ever seen a side-by-side comparison of the costs of abandoning the poor vs. the would-be costs of letting big companies figure out their own problems. There are vague sentiments about "domino effects" for other firms like Bear Stearns, etc., but aren't there similar effects for poor individuals? Indeed, the downward spiral of living in poor neighborhoods exclusively among poor people who have neither the financial resources nor life experience to help each other has been well documented.
In the NYT editorialists' words, "The ongoing bailout of the financial system by the Federal Reserve underscores the extent to which financial barons socialize the costs of private bets gone bad. Not a week goes by that the Fed doesn’t inaugurate a new way to provide liquidity — meaning money — to the financial system."
The last point bears (Bears?) repeating: The help the government lends to Big Business is constant, year-round, daily, and not limited to the odd bailout here and there. These well publicized, "urgent" bailouts are just business as usual. No wonder, then, that beneficiaries like Bear Stearns receive the assistance with such an air of entitlement.
March 23, 2008
The Kettl tradition
By Ms. Forward
UW-Madison Political Science professor John Coleman seems to want to expand the absurdity of academic defenses of the campaign finance status quo in his Milwaukee Journal Sentinel op-ed piece today. In so doing, he carries on a rich tradition of sycophancy best embodied by former UW professor Don Kettl but by no means limited to him.
The Journal Sentinel op-ed headline writers summarized Coleman's "arguments" with the subhead, "Outside ads, messy as they are, give voters substance." It was a noble attempt to give Coleman's meandering column some kind of definition, but the headline really didn't tell the story. Ms. Forward thinks the point of Coleman's column was, "The 2007 election that brought us Annette Ziegler wasn't really so bad so let's leave things as they are."
As proof that the election went the way it was supposed to go, Coleman tells us that Republicans voted for Ziegler and Democrats voted for Clifford. In his way of looking at things, that means voters ultimately understood the difference between the two candidates, and that therefore the election must have been educational. Why is Ms. Forward not comforted by this news? Because, and it is impossible that the professor does not know this, all elections are now about turnout, and just because the parties scared the right people into voting the right way does not mean that everyone's TV ads are not making all of us stupider.
Ken Goldstein is another UW Political Science prof who wades in the waters of constructing academic apologies for the current way of doing business. Goldstein has made a big point of showing that negative TV campaign ads contain more "substance" than positive TV ads. Coleman recycles Goldstein's arguments in his Journal Sentinel column without referring to the research. The argument is basically that, sure, a tough-on-crime ad might be dishonest, misleading, and irrelavent, but at least crime is an issue. Most positive ads are of the "rose garden" variety, where the candidate poses with various poll-tested images and speaks in platitudes. Aren't phony issues better than phony rose gardens?
These are the choices? Mike McCabe's Journal Sentinel op-ed piece, opposite Coleman's, essentially makes the point that private money ruins the entire system, during and especially after the election. Lousy, privately owned elections beget lousy, privately owned elected officials who rule and govern in their masters' interests. No matter how many lame defenses you toss up to justify one part of the equation or another, attacking the source of the problem is the only thing that makes any sense.
Toward the end of his piece, Coleman inserts the non sequitur, "Perhaps it is true that doing away with judicial elections is a good idea." And Ms. Forward starts to think that she finally understands why the good professor is writing this piece. Is it a poorly executed attempt to defend the system of electing Supreme Court justices, whatever its imperfections, against recent calls to appoint justices? GarveyBlog and others have opined against this rather undemocratic notion. But no, Coleman's very next sentence is, "The jury is still out on that issue in Wisconsin." Damn.
Coleman's piece doesn't really address any issue except perhaps the one about how the funding and privatization threats to the UW System might be encouraging it to become more subservient to the incumbents that feed it.
Much is made of the university's lack of lobbying clout and its increasingly poor returns in state budget negotiations. Is offering the "services" of the likes of Kettl, Goldstein and Coleman a way of trying to level the playing field by showing elected officials that they and the university are on the same team? Granting incumbents and the status quo they love the sheen of academic legitimacy and the promise of unlimited access to non-threatening research and analysis?
Ms. Forward hopes not, but it is hard to find another way to explain Coleman's column.
March 18, 2008
I like David Paterson, too
By John Smart
As a former New Yorker I have to tell you that I actually had tears in my eyes as I watched the swearing-in of David Paterson, who succeeded Eliot Spitzer on Monday as Governor of New York.
I lived in New York City during the 1960s, and it was the only time in my life that I voted Republican! That always rattles people who've known me since and who can't imagine such a thing. But there were office-holders in New York at that time like Nelson Rockefeller, Jacob Javits and John V. Lindsay, liberal Republicans of a breed that no longer exists, and they were terrific representatives of the people. I was proud to vote for them. Of course, Lindsay later switched parties, and I'm certain that Javits and Rockefeller would have too had they lived long enough to see what happened to the Republican Party.
New York has just gone through a very public spectacle with the disgrace of its former governor. It is in need of a revival. And I think it's going to get one. David Paterson is most impressive.
I don't know much about Governor Paterson, but I do remember his father, Basil, very well. When I lived in New York City, Basil Paterson represented Harlem in the State Senate, in the same seat that his son eventually held. The father was a part of the "Harlem Club" along with Charley Rangel, David Dinkins, Percy Sutton and others. He later served as Secretary of State of New York, and had a distinguished career.
It was clear from Governor Paterson's speech, and the response to it, that he has the experience, the enthusiasm and, most importantly, the support to accomplish great things for New York and the nation.
It was no accident that he mentioned the disastrous state of the national economy -- New York has a major position in that economy, after all. He spoke of the "fire sale" of Bear-Stearns to J.P. Morgan after the Federal Reserve's bailout, and he assured everyone that this crisis will be weathered.
His leadership may well have much to do with that, and many people are wishing him well. I'm feeling good about it.
March 15, 2008
The layered look
By Bill Kraus
It was all Gaul that was divided into four parts. In Wisconsin it is all competitive political campaigns that are divided, but into three parts.
This has been going on in partisan races for several years, where all the expensive legislative battles are fought over something like the 10 percent of the races that are competitive, and since these races tend to decide legislative majorities, everyone with an interest in the outcome can be expected to participate with whatever weapons they have. This is usually and mostly money spent on television ads.
The current race for the Wisconsin Supreme Court is a textbook example of the genre.
The primary level is the candidates’ campaigns. These are closely regulated, particularly on the input side. Contributions are limited in amount. Contributors are identified. Reports are filed on both money raised and spent.
The secondary level consists of independent campaigns mounted by third-party organizations. These are usually mostly advertising based but can go beyond that. There are two rules of engagement that those who mount these campaigns must follow. They cannot be connected in any way to the candidates’ campaigns. They cannot use the phrases “vote for” or “vote against.”
Independent campaigns almost always come from sources whose motives are pretty easy to identify. In the current Supreme Court race, Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce has mounted the most visible independent campaign. Their agenda is to put a lid on jury awards and to protect their concept of business interests. The trial lawyers, who have a different agenda, have not weighed in yet with their own campaign, but are expected to.
Neither organization is required to reveal who is giving them the money for these campaigns. Nor are there any limits on how much their donors contribute.
The third layer is composed of organizations with motherhood and apple pie names which do not reveal motives. What the advertising these anonymous contributors buy does reveal is who they are for or against. In the current campaign we know that the Greater Wisconsin Committee and One Wisconsin Now favor Justice Butler over Judge Gableman and that The Coalition for American Families, the Federalist Society, and The Club For Growth do not.
Who gives them the money to mount their campaigns is neither regulated nor exposed. This is reminiscent (at an economic level) of the hoods and sheets that the members of the Ku Klux Klan used to protect their identities at another time in American history.
The obvious first reaction to this three-level structure is that it is unfair. The rules that the candidate organizations must abide by are much tougher. These other players have access to much more money and are potentially uninhibited on claims made and attacks mounted.
In the current Supreme Court race, the two candidates’ campaigns have been outspent and outshouted and have asked the third parties to shut down and shut up. A request that the authors of the most offensive and deceptive campaign communications have ignored or rebuffed.
The obvious remedy, the most apparent way to put the candidates in charge of their campaigns and campaign communications, is to make anyone who participates to play by the same rules.
This brings the courts which have overtly or tacitly created this situation into play.
If they can be persuaded to even the playing field, recent decisions suggest that instead of regulating the third parties they would be inclined to unregulate the candidates instead of regulating the 3rd parties.
They like the free-for-all.
What they do not seem to see or care about is that the fatal flaw of the free-for-all is that it favors money over people.
The political parties and the retail, people-driven campaigns they once mounted are gone. The volunteer citizen politicians who ran the parties and the candidates’ campaigns are also missing in action.
We have a mercenary driven system, which features segmentation over unification and attack advertising, in which the people are too often spectators instead of participants.
This is the democracy we’re spending lives and money to export to the third world?
March 8, 2008
By Bill Kraus
My assumption is that John McCain’s trip back from the political dead was on the backs of moderate Republicans and that breed of independents who will vote Republican given an acceptable candidate.
Without being organized to do so or even letting people know what they were doing (or how many of them there were), this coalition kept Rudy afloat in his one-oared boat way longer than he deserved and then abandoned him for McCain as soon as McCain showed signs of life.
What they were looking for was a realistic Republican who was not a theocrat.
They got him. But by choosing him over the born-agains and the rest of the field they also made his next move very delicate.
The history of others in a similar position is not definitive, but it is full of lessons and hints.
The lesson from Humphrey’s run in 1968 is that running too close to a failed incumbent’s legacies and policies won’t work. It’s true that Hubert eventually distanced himself from LBJ and Vietnam. But too late. So Richard Nixon, a candidate for whom the people had no affection, prevailed.
George McGovern’s candidacy was flawed in many ways, but Hunter Thompson’s book Fear and Loathing On The Campaign Trail '72 delineates the mistake that made McGovern a loser.
McGovern astonished everyone, and most of all the Democratic establishment, by winning the nomination in 1972. He won it with the same kind of outsiders who were later visible in 1978 in Wisconsin and are playing a major role in this year’s presidential primaries. His first moves after winning the nomination that these mavericks gave him were to go to Chicago to visit Dick Daley and to Austin to call on Lyndon Johnson. And then he was toast. All those people who had brought him that far disappeared.
My favorite relevant story in this historical journey is Harry Truman’s improbable win in 1948. Talk about not playing to the base; how could he; there wasn’t one. The southerners became Dixiecrats with Strom Thurmond as their candidate and the Looney lefties went off into outer space with Henry Wallace (sort of the Ralph Nader of his time). Granted, the non campaign mounted by the over-confident Tom Dewey was part of the reason for Truman's victory, but there had to be more to it than that. There had to be a major move by moderate independents to the Truman camp, and there was.
It is entirely possible that 2008 is another 1932, where no matter what John McCain says or does he will not be able to overcome the mess that W will leave behind both here and abroad with the challenges and difficulties and even imponderable unsolvables he dealt with over the last eight years.
The Republicans generally and McCain particularly are in danger of being stuck with the blame, deserved or not, for everything that has gone wrong irrespective of the fact that some of them had no say in or even opposed the responses to these extraordinary and unpredictable events.
And the Democrats are, so far at least, presenting attractive, vigorous candidates; so the hope that they’ll do a Tom Dewey for John McCain can be put aside.
Assuming McCain does get a fighting chance then, it falls to him to not blow it by not paying attention to the history lessons of the three candidacies from the middle of the last century.
March 1, 2008
Biting the hand that posts me
By Bill Kraus
The appointment of a committee of the Wisconsin State Bar Association to keep an ethical eye on judicial elections was deemed unworthy and/or inappropriate by:
1. The esteemed founder of this website, who thought the committee was arrogating power. If it was, from whom? The understaffed and overworked press? The endemic bloggers?
2. Charlie Sykes, who thought the committee was suppressing free speech. Hmmm. Isn’t the committee exercising free speech, or is it a commodity that isn’t available to any and all?
3. The Greater Wisconsin Committee, whose members and donors remain undisclosed. Whoever they are, they favor Justice Butler.
4. The Club For Growth, also a semi-secret society, but one whose undisclosed members and contributors favor Judge Gableman.
5. Rebecca Bradley, the president of the Milwaukee Chapter of the Federalist Society, who slanders the appointees by accusing them of being shills for the Butler candidacy which she does not support.
There are probably others who think that this is a bad idea or that the members of the committee are fatally flawed, but that’s not the point of this blog entry.
The point is that the committee is raising the profile of the campaign for the Supreme Court and calling voters’ attention to inaccurate and unseemly assertions and behaviors by the candidates and others who are participating on their own devices and with their own resources.
The committee pointed out to the Gableman organization that we noticed a statement on Gableman letterhead said that a sex offender was released when in fact he was still incarcerated.
The committee pointed out to the Greater Wisconsin Committee that the practice of lawyers donating to politicians’ campaigns is a long-standing and respected part of partisan politics.
Whether these mild slaps on the wrists will alter future behavior remains to be seen.
What is already clear is that widespread coverage of the committee’s actions has had the salubrious effect of drawing voters’ attention to the possibility that there may be more to what they are seeing and hearing than meets the eye and the ear.
Inappropriate behavior by the candidates and the campaigns themselves can be dealt with directly.
And one can hope that this kind of enlightenment may lead to the voters asking the question that has troubled me for some considerable time about disclosure of the unregulated and uninvited participants in this and other political campaigns.
Aren’t we entitled to know who all those people wearing the modern-day equivalent of white sheets are? Especially since it may explain why they are saying these things?