Allow me to get out of the way up front that I'm not happy about Doyle's acceptance of campaign funds from Dennis Troha's family members. I think the campaign knew all of the money was really from daddy and not any of the kids.
But I don't think there's going to be any evidence to actually convict Doyle or any of his top campaign staffers of wrongdoing. And setting aside that legal question, as Brian Fraley points out
, it's the court of public opinion that most politicians need to consider first and foremost when news like this hits.
In many ways, the standard for conviction in the court of public opinion is lower than in a court of law. There are rules and regulations in a courtroom that don't exist in the realm of public discourse. And courts of law are presided over by judges who often have a level of respect for fairness and equity, while the court of public opinion is presided over by the media that is -- more and more, as a recent Frontline series pointed out
-- after an eye-catching and, subsequently, money-making headline.
That said, my guess is that this story will have little to no political impact on Governor Doyle. And that has nothing to do with Doyle himself, but rather the Office of Governor in the State of Wisconsin.
After Doyle beat Mark Green in November -- so much so that the GOP didn't even bother using Doyle's cash advantage as an excuse -- many conservatives in the state were at a loss for words to explain why. Indeed, Doyle had been hit and hit hard for months on ethical questions.
I had conservative commenters showing up on nearly all of my election-related posts from last spring on telling me to "just wait until November" when Georgia Thompson and all of the other messes thrown at Doyle would finally hit the fan (and I'm sure I'll get the same about Troha).
And the Journal Sentinel
easily has enough coverage of its own to dedicate a special section on its website to all of the front page stories it ran against the governor.
But not only did Doyle greatly expand his margin of victory from 2002 across the state, as Jay pointed out
shortly after the election, the governor went from losing the 5-county Milwaukee area to McCallum in 2002 to winning it in 2006. That means in spite of the incessant JS
attacks, Doyle actually picked up votes in the area where the paper is most widely read.
And this isn't to say that Wisconsin voters don't care about ethics, as some conservatives assumed after the election. Rather, most simply see it as part and parcel of the institution of governor in the state. For most, ethics was going to be just as questionable under Green as it was under Doyle. In short, ethics was a wash.
To be sure, does anyone think that Troha and others who skirt campaign laws would simply stop donating to the Wisconsin governor in the event that Green won the election? People can talk all day about how Green is a "good guy," and I'm sure he is. After seeing his webmercial where he played basketball with his kids out in the driveway, I thought he seemed like a pretty good guy myself.
But, again, ethical questions are not as much about the person as they are the institution. Green didn't talk at all about how he'd change the institution of governor in Wisconsin, and so voters were left to believe -- and I'd say rightfully so -- that he wouldn't have changed it.
For more evidence, take a look at who Dennis Troha was giving his money
to between 1991 and 2000: Tommy G. Thompson.
Of course, ethical bombshells that dominate even TV news -- where most people get their info these days -- can play a role in the outcome of gubernatorial elections, but as riled up as conservatives got over Georgia Thompson and as riled up as they'll get over Dennis Troha, those stories simply don't constitute bombshells in the general public's eye.
To put it bluntly, the bar for what constitutes an ethical bombshell for governors in Wisconsin is so high because the bar for public expectations of gubernatorial ethics is so low.
So where does that leave us? For me, it's about getting back to the point where the ethical expectations for the governor in Wisconsin aren't at the basement level.
Wiggy argues that the issue is about the play side of pay-for-play. He writes
With the news of the Dennis Troha brouhaha, we have yet another reminder that if we really want clean elections without campaign contributors trying to buy influence, then the surest way would be to remove the power of the state to reward campaign contributors. Putting the governor as the main arbiter in handing out casino licenses is just an invitation for abuse.
I just don't see a solution there. After all, the issue is not simply about the governor's control over casino licenses. Even if stronger checks were given to the legislature on that issue, it may disburse the level of stink by spreading out the donor love to more legislators, but the process as a whole would still stink just as much.
And this issue isn't just about casinos. It's a problem that pervades public policymaking. Unless the plan is to stop elected officials from setting public policy -- in other words, doing their job -- then no amount of futzing with the legislative process in relation to the campaign donation process is going to change the fact that elected officials are accountable first and foremost to those who help their chances at re-election the most. That is, those who give them the most amount of money.
The solution, rather, is to focus on the pay side of pay-for-play. If politicians are going to be accountable first and foremost to their donors and the goal is to make them accountable first and foremost to the public, then you need to make the public their donors, plain and simple.
Elections and the representatives that are created by them are public entities, and they should be funded that way.UPDATE
: The Recess Supervisor nails it
, as usual.
Labels: campaign finance, dennis troha, doyle, mark green