Friday, October 29, 2010

A False Choice

Those who've taken to calling themselves tea partiers are fond of saying that the solution to our nation's problems is to get back to following the Constitution. Good advice. Trouble is, as John Nichols aptly pointed out in a recent column, the constitutional principles to which they profess fidelity often are unrecognizable to the rest of us and would be equally unfamiliar to the framers themselves.

Christine O'Donnell's take on church and state clearly is the most amusing and frequently cited example of this, but the problem does not begin or end with her ignorance of the Establishment Clause. Tea party groups are in league with Citizens United and have come down firmly against campaign finance reform, even opposing more disclosure of campaign donors and election spending. They say any such reform is inconsistent with the First Amendment.

It's not just the tea partiers who've bought in to the notion that we have to choose between preventing government corruption and allowing free expression. The venerable Wall Street Journal falls prey when it asks "Should free speech be curbed in the name of good government?" Some who long supported disclosure now say political transparency and political discourse are incompatible. Even pro-reform commentaries often fall into the trap of believing that keeping our government as clean, open and honest as possible is a goal that might have to be sacrificed because of the Constitution.

The choice that is relentlessly thrust upon us is a false one. It has its basis in a radical reinterpretation of the First Amendment. We were 200 years into the American experiment and the First Amendment was 185 years old by the time the U.S. Supreme Court interpreted those 45 words to mean that money equals speech in the 1976 Buckley v. Valeo case.

From that moment on, it's been drummed into us that we must choose between protecting the right to speak and safeguarding our government from corruption and our republic from the onset of plutocracy. At the same time, any thought to whether the right to speak bears any relationship to the ability to be heard in our society has been beaten out of us.

It's not an either-or. The future of the American experiment depends on our ability to break free of the brainwashing we've been subjected to for 30-plus years. It is possible and indeed necessary to combat corruption and have a vibrant marketplace of ideas. It is both possible and essential that we protect the right of each individual to speak and ensure that the First Amendment has real meaning to those who don't possess great riches by seeing to it that the wealthiest in our society aren't the only ones whose voices are heard. We can and must follow the Constitution and reestablish that money is property, not speech. In fact, reestablishing that fact is the single most important way we can honor the framers' design.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Now You See Them, Now You Don't

By our latest count, there are 43 different interest groups spending money like crazy to influence the outcome of state-level elections in Wisconsin this year. Eleven of the 43 are disclosing their donors while three-quarters of them are able to keep their funding sources a secret. The ones structured in a way that allows them to conceal their donors are doing the vast majority of the spending, so the public is being kept in the dark about the origins of most of the money being spent by outside groups.

The other thing that is striking about these outfits is their fly-by-night nature. Of the 43 groups active in state-level races in 2010, only 14 of them were around in 2008 and 11 were doing electioneering in state races in 2006.

The shadiest of these groups have names that ooze grassroots authenticity and evoke images of patriotism or motherhood and apple pie. They pop up, travel the low road doing the dirtiest of the political dirty work, and then vanish, to be replaced by new groups run by the same cast of characters.

The Democracy Campaign has been tracking this political sleight of hand since it started in earnest in Wisconsin in 2000. That year, the campaign hijackers were named Americans for Job Security, Independent Citizens for Democracy, People for Wisconsin's Future and Project Vote Informed.

Independent Citizens for Democracy was anything but independent and was really just one citizen, namely Chuck Chvala, who was then Senate Democratic leader and later of course a convicted felon. Chvala's group returned under the same name to haunt Wisconsin elections one more time in 2002. Project Vote Informed morphed into the Alliance for a Working Wisconsin. They were joined by Citizens for Clean and Responsible Government, Citizens for Wisconsin's Future, the Coalition for America's Families, Coalition to Keep America Strong and Working Families of Wisconsin.

In the next election in 2004, Citizens for Wisconsin's Future stuck around for a repeat performance and was joined by All Children Matter, the Alliance for Choices in Education and Americans for a Brighter Tomorrow.

All Children Matter remained active for two more elections in 2006 and 2008. Another group that surfaced in 2004, the Greater Wisconsin Committee, continues to intervene in state elections to this day. They were accompanied in 2006 on the left by Building Wisconsin's Future, not to be confused with Building a Better Wisconsin, the campaign arm of the Wisconsin Builders Association. And there was Working Families PAC on the right, not to be confused with Working Families of Wisconsin that helped Democrats in 2002.

Joining the fray in 2008 was Advancing Wisconsin, a regional group called Keep Our North Strong, and the Wisconsin Institute for Leadership. Only Advancing Wisconsin has been heard from in Wisconsin since.

This year, All Children Matter has been reincarnated as the American Federation for Children. This group's efforts are being orchestrated by former Assembly Speaker Scott Jensen, who is awaiting a new trial on corruption charges. It is best known for attacks leveled against Green Bay-area state senate candidate Monk Elmer, who has served on the Kimberly school board. The group lambasted Elmer and his supposed fellow board members for declaring a financial emergency and hiking taxes by exceeding state revenue limits on school budgets. The ads cite as evidence an article that appeared in a newspaper . . . in Idaho . . . about the fiscal woes in a Kimberly school district in that western state.

Other groups sponsoring campaign ads in 2010 include the American Justice Partnership, Building a Stronger Wisconsin (not to be confused with Building a Better Wisconsin or Building Wisconsin's Future), Citizens for a Progressive Wisconsin, Citizens for Fox Valley Jobs, Citizens for Southwest Wisconsin, the Club for Growth, Jobs First Coalition and Northwoods Patriot Group. Two of the biggest spenders this year are the Republican State Leadership Committee, one of the few such groups with a name that gives voters a clue which side it is on, and RGA Wisconsin 2010 PAC, whose initials would provide a clue if voters knew they stand for Republican Governors Association.

The reason most of these electioneering groups don't have to reveal their donors is they are gaming the tax code. This also helps explain why they come and go so quickly. Staying one step ahead of the law, don't you know.

Many of these groups are organized under section 501c of the federal tax code. Political campaigning is not a permissible primary purpose for 501c organizations under federal law. Some complaints have been filed calling on the IRS to investigate, but one wonders if the subjects of the complaints will exist anymore by the time the IRS finishes investigating and tries to enforce the law.

Trying to chase groups that spring up like weeds one moment and evaporate into thin air the next is exceedingly unlikely to get us anywhere good. Instead, Congress and states like Wisconsin should pass new laws requiring disclosure of the source of funds used for election spending regardless of how a group is organized. In the meantime, the IRS could do the public a huge favor by refusing to automatically grant 501c status to groups intending to engage in electioneering. Make them organize under section 527. Political campaigning can be the primary purpose of so-called 527s, but they have to disclose their donors.

Our elections are filthy with party fronts and shadowy interest groups that the IRS considers charitable organizations that promote the social welfare. This is a ruse. Both common sense and the public interest demand that they be required to operate as 527s and made to prove that influencing elections is not their primary purpose before being granted 501c status.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Political Malnutrition

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has been truth-testing this season's political ads and, as one of the newspaper's columnists observed last week, there hasn't been much truth to be found.

The architects of our society's third stage of ownership, their minions in public office and apologists in academia like to say that all these ads are good for us, even going so far as to call them multivitamins for democracy. The more advertising the better because it creates a more informed electorate.

Excuse me, but how does a steady diet of scurrilous claims, half-truths, character assassination and outright lies leave us one bit more "informed?"

I know, I know, the comeback of the third stagers is that voters are smart enough to see through lies and figure out who's telling the truth and who's not.

But what if no one is telling the truth? Are slander and deception and duplicity and crookedness still politically nutritious?

Lying is not new to politics. What is new is the ever-expanding ability of candidates and their surrogates to do end-runs around traditional truth meters and deliver unfiltered lies directly to voters.

In the past, politicians delivered their campaign messages through a medium. When they told a whopper, there were trained journalists who researched the statement's validity. If it was found to be untrue or even highly misleading, the claim was often never reported to us. If it was reported, it came to us with the appropriate background information allowing us to judge its truthfulness. No more.

Now if you have enough money you can bypass the truth testers and buy your way straight into voters' living rooms with a pack full of lies. You won't be held accountable. You'll even have judges bless your deed and some professor somewhere will say what you did was actually good for democracy and a godsend to the voting public.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

The Death Of Courtship

Used to be that politicians were always on the lookout for a crowd, any opportunity to meet and greet potential voters. And time was when those same politicians were constantly tugging at the shirtsleeves of the news reporters, pining for a chance to share a story or a pithy quip that might make it into the papers.

Now most all of them are surrounded by handlers who advise them to severely limit public appearances and debates and steadfastly refuse media interviews. If, god forbid, they are left with no choice but to open their mouths during an unscripted moment, they are schooled in the art of staying "on message," which in practical terms means they are drained of any and all spontaneity and originality and turned into freaking automatons.

Used to be that in Wisconsin we elected Bill Proxmire to represent us in the U.S. Senate. He famously ran his statewide campaigns for a couple hundred bucks. And seemingly everyone in the state had their own story of an encounter with Prox. Maybe it was at a Lambeau Field tailgate or out in front of Camp Randall. Or they ran into him while eating something-on-a-stick at the State Fair, or you-know-what at Cheese Days in Monroe. It could have been at a plant gate at the GM factory in Janesville, or standing in line to get a kringle at O&H bakery in Racine. When you weren't running into Prox in a restaurant or outside a tavern somewhere, you were reading about him and his Golden Fleece awards in the papers. He had no handlers, at least none who could keep up with him on the trail, and certainly no one was telling him to avoid media interviews.

Now the pollsters tell us there's a good chance we'll send Ron Johnson to Washington to represent us in the Senate. Has anyone ever actually met Johnson? Can someone out there confirm for certain that he's not merely a green-screen image that will be digitally superimposed on the Senate floor during debates?

State secrets have nothing on Johnson's campaign schedule. He almost never agrees to talk to reporters. Hell, the executive editor of Johnson's hometown newspaper serves with him on the Oshkosh Chamber of Commerce, and couldn't get an interview.

Johnson is running a thoroughly modern campaign. One TV ad after another after another. All style, no substance, much nonsense. Everyone knows government doesn't produce jobs . . . I know how to create jobs so send me to Washington and put me in your government and I'll make the economy hum. In a span of a little over four weeks, over 18,000 TV ads aired in the U.S. Senate race at a cost of more than $7 million. Close to $4 million of that came from Johnson himself, with another $625,000 coming from interest groups supporting him.

Used to be if you wanted to get married, you had to meet the family before popping the question. You had to break bread. And you had to have "the talk" with your future father in law. In politics, there was something akin to that courtship.

Now if you want to represent us in the halls of Congress or at the State Capitol you don't have to meet us or get to know what makes us tick or answer our questions. You don't have to have the talk. You just have to beam your green-screen image into our living rooms over and over and over again.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

'No End Of Consternation'

The state Government Accountability Board issued a statement yesterday voicing concerns about a mailing sent by an outfit calling itself RGA Wisconsin 2010 PAC. The mailing is part attack ad targeting Democratic governor candidate Tom Barrett and part absentee ballot application, already filled out for the voter and pre-addressed to the voter's local election clerk. Included are voter birthdates and telephone numbers. Some receiving the mailings are unsettled by the breach of privacy, others are downright freaked out.

GAB director Kevin Kennedy said in the statement that the mailings are technically legal, but "often provide no end of consternation to voters and election officials."

That's putting it mildly. For more than a week now, the Democracy Campaign has been getting daily doses of this consternation in the form of hate mail and nasty phone calls. See, RGA Wisconsin 2010 PAC does not have a website, which is by design as these kinds of smear groups don't want people to be able to easily figure out who they are. Voters get the garbage they send out in the mail, promptly go online to Google or some other search engine and type in RGA Wisconsin 2010 PAC and are directed here, our write-up about this outfit.

Despite the fact our description is under the heading "Hijacking Campaign 2010," quite a few consternated individuals have nevertheless jumped to the conclusion that the Democracy Campaign and RGA Wisconsin are all part of one big happy family. And they fire off an e-mail or ring us up on the phone to share some choice words.

One said she received the "most disgusting piece of electioneering" from us that "defamed (Barrett) with your distortions and republican lies." Another called us "elitist Smucks." Followed by yet another saying "You can take your lies on your Milwaukee's Worst mailer and shove them up your ass."

We've tried explaining that we didn't mail them anything, but rather are only monitoring the activity of these types of groups. More often than not our explanations have fallen on deaf ears.

The other night I got a call at home from a voter in Trempealeau County who was outraged by a mailing from another group that has been making its maiden electioneering voyage in Wisconsin in 2010. The shadowy sponsor of this charming ad, RSLC Inc., claims it will spend $1 million this fall to influence the outcome of state legislative elections in Wisconsin.

The only good thing that can be said about all this is there's only 19 more days to go 'til it's over.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

One Way Out Of This Mess

Doesn't matter who you talk to. Neighbor. Co-worker. Stranger on a street corner. Ask them about political ads on TV. Here's what you hear: "Can't stand 'em." "Don't watch them." "Never pay any attention to that garbage." "I change the channel as soon as I see one."

Of course many if not most who say that are lying. If no one is watching the ads, how does anyone in Wisconsin know who Ron Johnson is, much less support him? He has no public record to examine because he's never held any public office. He's never even sought one before. In his current bid for U.S. Senate, there haven't been any candidate debates yet. Johnson has avoided media interviews like the plague.

His campaign has consisted of TV ad after TV ad after TV ad. If no one's paying attention to the TV ads, no one would know Ron Johnson exists.

To seriously compete for public office in our country nowadays, you have two options: Have a personal fortune or be willing to take out a second mortgage on your soul. Either way, you spend a bundle and people conclude you bought the office. One way, we end up with a House of Multi-Millionaires. The other, a House of Whores. This is the Cash-22 of contemporary American politics.

Voters have it in their power to break us free of this wretched plight. All the money is needed to pay for TV air time. If people really and truly would do what they say they do already, namely ignore the ads completely, it wouldn't take that long for candidates and their operatives to figure out that spending boatloads on TV is a colossal waste of money. They would be forced to innovate, to come up with new ways to reach voters. They would have no choice but to debate and do media interviews.

And we would have something more closely resembling an actual democracy.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Damned Either Way

No doubt about it, most Americans can't stand the Democrats. And with Democrats currently controlling both houses of Congress and the White House (not to mention both houses of the legislature and the governor's office here in Wisconsin), most in the political class are figuring lots of them are going to be sent packing in November.

Problem is, if the latest polling done by The Associated Press is to be believed, the Republicans are even more hated than the Democrats.

Spooked by the parallels between present-day America and the fall of the Roman Empire, even mainstream political observers like Tom Friedman are left to ponder whether we have reached a point when the existing two-party arrangement is no longer sustainable. He quotes a Stanford University political scientist stating the obvious, that we "basically have two bankrupt parties bankrupting the country."

Friedman seconds the motion, observing "our two-party system is ossified; it lacks integrity and creativity and any sense of courage or high-aspiration in confronting our problems."

No kidding.

We are all enduring what will most assuredly prove to be the most expensive midterm election in history. And the least transparent election of any kind in anyone's memory. Thanks to the Roberts court for that. Outside interest groups are pouring vast sums of carefully laundered money into television advertising, get-out-the-vote campaigns and other electioneering efforts. Some analyses have Republican front groups outspending Democratic groups by as much as 6 to 1 on TV ads.

It's hard to feel sorry for the Democrats on this, though. Before Ted Kennedy's death, they had a filibuster-proof majority in Congress and failed to take any action to alter election financing. They eventually adjourned and hit the campaign trail without passing the Fair Elections Now Act or the DISCLOSE Act or the Shareholder Protection Act.

It was the same story at the state level. The Democrats had majorities in both the Assembly and Senate as well as Jim Doyle as governor, but failed to reform the way their elections are paid for. Oh, they passed public financing for state Supreme Court, but pointedly refused to do the same for their own elections. The Senate passed major campaign finance disclosure legislation, but despite the fact the votes were there in the Assembly to put it on Doyle's desk (who promised to sign it), Democrats in the lower house closed up shop and went home without acting.

Obviously they wanted the bed made this way. So now they must lie in it. Even if it winds up being their death bed.