February 26, 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.
Both of these predictions are based on the assumption that the voters who really decide elections reside in what used to be regarded as the moderate middle. They are people who are looking for a government that works, for candidates who sound like problem solvers.
The natural, rational conclusion that I drew was that the 2012 election (and the recalls that preceded that election in Wisconsin) would be characterized by strong appeals to those swing voters who are persuadable and numerous enough to determine the outcome of the 2012 elections.
It hasn’t happened.
The Republicans are particularly focused on their base constituents and are going beyond being indifferent to the moderate middle to going out of their way to alienate them. They are stuck in old ideologies and prejudices.
The President, since he is in office has to work a wider agenda and is the potential beneficiary of the Republicans’ parochial appeals appeals and tactics, is not going out of his way to address issues and ideas that interest or worry that moderate middle either.
It is true that primary campaigns are usually more partisan than the general election, because the fewer voters who turn out for them are more partisan. But at this stage of the game it is considered prudent to keep one foot on the moderate dock instead of jumping into the true believers’ boats.
All of my experience and history would suggest that the advisers and the candidates would be acknowledging that governing is more about close questions and original responses to new situations than about old, tired subjects that are more crowd pleasers than problem solvers. I would think that there is more to leadership than finding words and images to accompany the petty, personal digs that seem to be a standard part of the current crop of campaign geniuses’ repertoire.
The fact that the delivery system and the people who make the media decisions are tilted toward one liners and 30-second commercials which work best with simple didactic appeals has been a factor in undoing the world I knew.
Even so, I am surprised that all these supposedly smart professionals with all that money are not listening to the predictions and advice of the political scientists. Instead, they are telling their clients to play the same old songs, at a higher decibel level.
Someone is wrong. I don’t think it’s the political scientists.
February 19, 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.
TV was a minor player in political campaigns then. Most of us who were involved in campaigns didn’t really know what to do with it. TV was for selling soap. It was not appropriate for something as important as politics. The candidates shied away from using it aggressively. Most TV ads put the candidate, the candidate’s family, the candidate’s pets on a couch in their living room. The candidate then spoke about the importance of voting. This ran on TV on the Sunday night before the Tuesday election. It was usually scheduled after the late local news.
Sometime in the next several years a man named George Henman, who was an adviser to Nelson Rockefeller, convinced political operatives everywhere that TV was not demeaning, that they should not think of their candidates as tubes of toothpaste but as Buicks.
TV became a campaign staple in the '60s. Mostly it was more an animated brochure about the candidates, very positive, a moving colorful resume if you will. Cinema verite was popular during this period until everybody figured out it was more cinema than verite.
What brought TV to the top of the media steeple was the presidential campaign of 1964 when Doyle, Dane, and Bernbach, a creative NY ad agency, made a series of ads for Lyndon Johnson to use against poor, outgunned, not-ready-for-prime-time Barry Goldwater. These ads suggested that Barry would drop the atomic bomb, wanted to cut the whole northeastern U.S. adrift into the Atlantic Ocean, and had social security on his hit list.
That campaign, those ads, that overwhelming Johnson election victory propelled TV ads to the top of the political media list for every campaign where buying this expensive message delivery system was not absurd for geographical reasons. Within a few years, newspaper ads, which had been the mainstay of political campaigns, were pushed aside. Too long, too expository, not emotional enough, and the mantra became: spend everything on TV, and if you have anything left over, spend that on TV too.
In one respect 2012 is our best hope that because of the length and number of campaigns, of wretched excess of exposure, of message overkill and of over simplification instead of amplification, a browbeaten voting public might just turn it off.
Enough, already? It could happen. Certainly there is going to come a day when TV ads don't work in elections.
February 11, 2012
Hit by the revolving door
By Peter McKeever
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported in September that the Wisconsin Department of Justice decided not to provide assistance to Milwaukee County John Chisholm’s John Doe investigation of then-current and former aides to Scott Walker. As a result of subsequent open records requests, the paper reported on December 30 that DOJ officials discussed the investigation on November 1, 2010, the day before Walker was elected, and again on November 15, 2010.
According to the paper, Chisholm met with DOJ senior staff on November 15. Among the staff present was Ray Taffora, then the No. 2 official in the department. It is safe to assume that sensitive and confidential information was discussed. This was, after all, a criminal investigation.
At some point, Walker’s campaign hired Attorney Steven Biskupic to represent his interests. Biskupic, a former U.S. Attorney under George Bush, is a criminal defense attorney with Michael, Best and Friedrich, a law firm with offices in Milwaukee and Madison. The Wisconsin State Journal recently described this law firm as “in-house counsel” for Walker and the Republican Party in Wisconsin.
Fast forward to January 20, 2011: Michael Best & Friedrich issued a press release announcing that Ray Taffora had left the Department of Justice and joined the law firm. It said, “Taffora will head the firm’s newly-formed Government and Regulatory law practice Group, which includes a number of highly experienced attorneys including former U.S. Attorney Steven Biskupic.”
Read that again: Taffora is now working with and apparently supervising the attorney representing Scott Walker in a John Doe investigation about which Taffora has insider confidential information from the prosecutor.
That cool arrangement gives whole new meaning to the notions of “in-house counsel” and revolving doors. On its face it suggests at the very least the appearance of a grievous conflict of interest. It also suggests once again that too many people who are benefiting from the current administration lack an ethical compass.
February 5, 2012
Cures for toxicity
By Bill Kraus
A longtime supporter suggested to a legislator that his ambition for higher office could be advanced if the legislator joined forces with a Republican who shares his views on the legislator’s favorite issue and has offered to join the effort to help do great things for Wisconsin.
“Remember who your friends are," the legislator replied to his now-former supporter.
A politically active Democrat whose day job would be advanced if the Legislature acted on a significant and difficult bill was advised to lay low on political activity until the bill is passed.
The watering holes where legislators of all persuasions, administrators, and even reporters once spent their “off the record” off hours together are gone, strictly segregated along political lines, or too toxic for one side or the other to consider patronizing.
A major health institution which is putting together a plan to increase health care coverage and reduce health care costs was told that the enabling legislation for this worthy idea would have a better chance getting through what has become the Capitol war zone if the institution and its members reduced their political profile and activity.
Speaking of war zones, one legislator says he will not feel safe in the hallowed halls of the state Assembly unless armed. Surely this is an isolated view. Or not.
Is it any wonder that as the level of contentiousness rises the sane and sensible citizens who are alleged to be the object of the affections of their representatives are disgusted, which is bad, and being advised to absent themselves from the public arena, which is worse?
Representative government is increasingly a closed shop and in a shambles.
Is there no hope for assembling representatives of diverse views from different places who think they are elected to make this a better place for all of us and are willing to work together through their inevitable differences to deliver what the people want: a government that works?
Only if they get out of their trenches, fox holes and silos. Only if they give themselves a chance to get to know one another so they can discover that in many ways, despite their differences, they are more alike than different.
Not until it is possible to disagree without being disagreeable, where it is possible to dislike ideas without despising the people who have them.
There are three things going on which seem to me to have de-toxifying potential.
The first is memorial services. This is a somewhat morbid way to bring people together; also unpredictable; also unwelcome. It is evident though that when a politician passes and the survivors and successors come together to praise and mourn the dear departed that they mingle and even enjoy each other’s company. There is hope. Maybe they don’t hate each other full time after all.
Another less maudlin movement is an embryonic attempt to resuscitate something known as the Special Edition dinner where all the denizens of the public sector gathered to honor one of their own for succeeding in the arena they all occupy. Food and drink and fun were reliable ice breakers before and may be again.
A more notable, successful, and long running de-toxifier is headed by two remarkable women who run a series of seminars where the warring incumbents can come together with professionals and experts to dissect and discuss objective, quality research on the subjects on the public agenda. The objective, which is routinely met, is to get to the facts and away from the ideologies in search of the common ground from which solutions spring.
The question is can we get together before toxicity pulls us ever further apart?
Only if we start with mutual respect and civility and keep all eyes on the problem not the process or the people advancing the solutions.