"Nonpartisan, my ass."
If I had a nickel for every time I've heard those words over the last 10 years, I'd be a rich man.
Who says it depends on whose ox we've gored most recently. As Jason Stein of the Wisconsin State Journal observed back in 2006, it's amazing how partisan operatives can call the Democracy Campaign nothing but a political puppet one minute and then a respected nonpartisan watchdog the next.
To partisans, we're nonpartisan only when it benefits their side.
To anyone outside of the political class, though, nonpartisanship means a little bit more. Let me start with what it doesn't mean. It doesn't mean you're agnostic on public policy or, in the Democracy Campaign's case, neutral on what's best for the health of the democratic process in Wisconsin. We have an agenda. It's just that putting politicians of a particular stripe in power is not part of that agenda.
Being nonpartisan means not endorsing candidates. It means not having a political action committee for making donations in partisan races. It means not sponsoring phony "issue ads" to get favored candidates elected, or engaging in any form of campaigning aimed at influencing the outcome of elections. It means not having any favorite candidates.
For us, nonpartisanship means blowing the whistle when we see wrongdoing, no matter what party the offender belongs to. That doesn't mean the whistle has to be blown half the time on one side and half the time on the other. It means it has to be blown whenever there is serious wrongdoing. If it happens all those being flagged are Republicans, so be it. Or all Democrats. The chips will fall where they may. As it turns out, plenty of chips have fallen on both sides of the fence.
Democracy is party politics, but it also is much more than that. It is a living thing, and like all living things, it will die if not cared for. Whether the Democracy Campaign has been faithful in aspiring to be that caretaker – and faithful in its nonpartisanship – is for many to debate, and many already have decided.
What I am certain of is that there is a place for nonpartisanship in politics. And it is possible and indeed essential that some practice it.