Wednesday, April 29, 2009

A Smear By Any Other Name

After issuing our report yesterday on campaign advertising by special interest groups in this spring's elections, we got a fair amount of feedback from people who took sharp exception to our headline characterizing the sponsors of the ads as "smear groups." The report focused primarily on two left-leaning organizations – Greater Wisconsin Committee and Wisconsin Education Association Council, the state's largest teachers union.

A smear is obviously in the eye of the beholder, and those on the right rip us every time we use disparaging language to describe attack ads done by right-wing groups and people on the left rip us when we condemn attacks by left-wing groups. People see these ads through their own ideological lens.

I look at WEAC's TV ad in the school superintendent race, for example, and can't help but see it as self-serving, misleading and sleazy. The union even photoshopped a picture of candidate Rose Fernandez to take the smile off her face. Seriously. Watch the ad and compare it to the photo that accompanies this story about the race. It's obviously the same photo but it's been retouched to give Fernandez a dour, rather gruesome expression. To me, that's sleazy.

As for the content of the ad, it says the report cards are in and Tony Evers gets all "A's" while Fernandez gets an incomplete and a couple of "F's." No real evidence is offered to support the conclusion that Evers deserves such grades, and likewise there is the flimsiest justification for the failing marks given to Fernandez.

Sorry, but I think it's neither a stretch nor unfair to label an ad a smear when it makes unsubstantiated claims adulating one candidate and demonizing another, and then stoops to doctoring a picture to make its point.

We stand by our characterization.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The Problem Behind Every Problem

On Earth Day six years ago, I gave a speech to a small audience on the UW-Madison campus. I wouldn't change a word if I made it again today. If anything, I would attach a greater sense of urgency to the message.

I said then that the greatest environmental challenge of our time is the health of our democracy and that clean water will never flow from dirty politics. Follow the money and you see why clean air initiatives are so often blocked too.

It's not just our natural resources that fall prey to dirty politics. United for a Fair Economy is a national group that is concerned about the growing concentration of wealth in fewer and fewer hands in America and how regressive tax policies have encouraged the extreme risk taking, reckless speculation and unchecked greed that have wrecked our economy. But in a critique of President Obama's tax proposals issued two weeks ago, the group identifies the problem behind the problem.

"Like many other industries, the financial industry is enjoying a self-reinforcing cycle between favorable tax treatment and political influence. The more the industry profits from low taxation, the richer it grows. The richer it grows, the more it invests in politicians who will deliver favorable regulations and taxes."

It's not just the investment banks and the big hedge funds that have been playing this game. Look at AIG. Follow the money and you see why AIG was never reined in and then was quickly bailed out once things fell apart. Look at all three industries that are at Ground Zero of the economic implosion. Follow the money and you see why they were allowed to play fast and loose with other people's money and now are being gently tut-tutted for their crimes.

Follow the money and you see why health care reform has had such a hard time getting off the ground in Washington. Or in Madison, for that matter. Speaking of our state capital, look at the Tavern League. Follow the money and you see why the beer tax hasn't been raised in 40 years and why a statewide ban on smoking in public places enjoys such broad public support but has been such a tough sell to state legislators.

Follow the money and you see why payday lenders – a sanitized name for loan sharks – have been left totally unregulated in Wisconsin. Look even more closely and you begin to see why a lot of things that seem so totally out of character for Wisconsin are happening.

It never ceases to amaze me how many people I run into in my travels who have a hard time seeing why politics matters and how government is important to their lives. Self evident as it might be, they don't seem to see that the richest and most privileged in our society clearly believe politics matters a great deal and are convinced government is of the utmost importance. They've invested vast fortunes to warp the rules government makes in their favor. And they've reaped even greater fortunes from those investments.

As many people as I encounter who aren't putting two and two together, I find even more who get it but still are paralyzed when it comes to doing something about it. I can't help but suspect that's because we've all been taught – brainwashed, really – from a very early age to be consumers first and foremost, not citizens.

Of the problems behind every problem, that's the biggest one of all.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

A Self-Inflicted Gunshot Wound

To paraphrase Casey Stengel, the secret to responsible gun ownership is to keep those who irrationally fear the president the hell away from those who are undecided.

The NRA and other right-wing groups like Dick Armey's FreedomWorks have been whipping gun owners into a sky-is-falling frenzy by spinning a yarn about how President Obama supports a 500% tax increase on ammunition, a claim that says "distorts Obama's position on gun control beyond recognition."

Absence of fact has not prevented this rumor from growing legs, to the point where there's been a run on ammo across the country. Gun show business is booming, with one merchant reporting that gun and ammo prices already have doubled. Another gun shop owner says he saw a 55% increase in gun sales in one month and "they're out of everything right now."

It looks like gun owners are well on their way to imposing that 500% tax they fear. . . on themselves.

Former Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Tom Loftus once called the state lottery a "tax on stupidity." Such penny-ante gambling is pea-sized numbskullery compared to this.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Shortchanged Again

Rich interests and their yes-men in the political class are fond of claiming that negative campaigning is good and the more that is spent on elections the better. The logic behind this line of bull is that no-holds-barred, no-expense-spared politicking creates a spectacle that invariably leads to the civic equivalent of rubbernecking, creating a sense of excitement about the race and building awareness of what is at stake. Which in turn boosts voter turnout. And thus democracy is served.

On a platter.

There was record spending in last year's high court race, and the advertising – whether sponsored by a candidate or outside interest groups – was squarely in the gutter. In this year's contest, spending was somewhere between one-third and a half of what it was in 2008 and the pitches for votes were made from the high road. Yet voter turnout in the two elections was virtually identical – just shy of 20 percent. Which is to say abysmal.

Voters were shortchanged in the 2007 and 2008 Supreme Court elections. We were repeatedly lied to and seats on the state's highest court were bought. But the way this year's race played out is not much better. There was no special interest hijacking like we saw last year and the year before. And we weren't force-fed a diet of deception and character assassination this time around. It's just there wasn't a contest.

Four interest groups did 90 percent of the TV advertising in last year's race. This year, one candidate did almost all the talking. Incumbent Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson not only had a grotesque financial advantage over challenger Randy Koschnick, but she had the one interest group that weighed in on her side too.

For democracy to function at least and flourish at best, every election needs to be a competition of ideas. That means competing candidates are required, not just competing interest groups. Candidates, and not interest groups, need to be front and center because it's the candidates who are on the ballot. But it's equally essential that more than one candidate have the means to get a message out to voters because only then do voters have a meaningful choice about who will best serve the public.

Another reason more than one viable candidate is required is that elections are supposed to be instruments of accountability. Only when there are serious challengers are the views of winning candidates sufficiently challenged and their records adequately scrutinized. And only then are elected officials forced to remain reasonably faithful to those who vote them into office.

By these measures, the last three state Supreme Court races left a great deal to be desired. The most recent fell short for quite different reasons than the previous two, but nonetheless it fell short of what the public deserves and should expect. The experience of these last three elections cries out for reform.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

New Reporting System Fails Public Again

An effort by several candidates to post their latest campaign finance reports on the state Government Accountability Board's new electronic filing system has gotten fouled up again - cheating the public of information it may want to look at before they vote in next Tuesday's election.

The latest glitch occurred Monday - the day the last campaign reports before the April 7 spring election were due. The board said several reports filed by candidates got stuck in the system's innards so the public could not view them.

Unfortunately, the board's effort to work around the problem and post the reports didn't work so well either.

For instance, 841 contributions totaling $157,325 on Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson's report are unidentified - no names, addresses, cities, states or zips. Those contributions represent more than half of the $296,819 she raised between February 3 and March 23.

And the numbers in the latest campaign finance report for Rose Fernandez, a state school superintendent candidate, don't come close to adding up. We were told by board staff she raised $65,611. But the report posted for her shows only $9,287 worth of contributions.

We've found many candidates make some mistakes on their report - simple math errors, not putting contributions from individuals and political action committees in the correct sections and an inexplicable knack for not being able to record the ending cash balance on one report as the beginning cash balance on the next report they file.

But we highly doubt Abrahamson or Fernandez messed up their reports this badly, given the myriad of problems the Government Accountability Board has had with electronic reporting since last fall.