US News and World Report joins the scattered speculation about Presidential prospects for Russ Feingold:
He’s on a nationwide mission to test out his progressive message that’s liberal on some issues, like universal healthcare, and conservative on others, like the deficit. Fans think he can bridge the blue-state-red-state divide, making him not just a voice for a changing Democratic Party but a possible ’08 presidential candidate.
Feingold, re-elected in November to US Senate – from Wisconsin no less – by a wide margin, was also just named Deputy Democratic Whip. Feingold’s success should be not only inspirational but instructive for the party. Voters gave him six more years by a 12% margin while breaking only narrowly for John Kerry. It wasn’t that they thought Feingold was more moderate (even Karl Rove, when asked by a Wisconsin reporter weeks before whether the so-called “most liberal Senator” was really to the left of Feingold, declined to answer). Looks like it was Russ Feingold who was more compellingly able to speak to the issues facing Wisconsin voters and to their better angels and greater hopes. Looks like Wisconsin voters recognize what Feingold does, and what the pundits don’t: that being an independent is a very different task from being a moderate. That political courage isn’t a matter of sometimes reading from the other party’s talking points but of privileging allegiance to a set of values over capitulation to consensus, whether partisan or (as is too often the case) shared by powerbrokers in both parties. That meant standing for fair trade even as the Democratic party embraced NAFTA’s global race to the bottom. That meant successfully building a majority for real steps, however tentative (and in a few cases, counterproductive), towards limiting the suffocation of democracy by money. And that meant standing in the shadow of September 11 for that which is strongest in the American tradition by breaking with all 99 of his colleagues and voting against the PATRIOT Act. Russ Feingold didn’t run away from these votes when Tim Michels campaigned against them. He ran on them. And he won counties that John Kerry lost.
It’s not the first election in which Feingold defied political prognostication. He won in 1992 against well-financed better-recognized opposition with ads patterned more on Michael Moore movies than conventional TV spots. He showed up at his opponents’ mansions with a camera crew to ring their doorbells and ask for a debate (no response). He took viewers on a tour of his own home (“Here’s the closet: Look, no skeletons”), including the garage door on which he’d painted his three campaign commitments: No out-of-state funding. Town meetings in every county of Wisconsin every year. And no pay raises while in the Senate (a twelve-year legacy recently celebrated by a conservative stalwart). Go watch those ads. And the latest batch as well. They’re not just clever – they’re courageous.
So is Russ Feingold. He publically criticized Kerry and Edwards both for voting for the Iraq War and for voting against the $87 billion. He’s introduced or co-sponsored legislation to bar state and federal executions, use of permanent replacements during strikes, and drilling anywhere in the Great Lakes. He’s voted against NAFTA, the Defense of Marriage Act, and the No Child Left Behind Act. He’s cast a few bad votes. One was to confirm John Ashcroft as Attorney General; another was against scuttling impeachment proceedings against Clinton. He justified confirming Ashcroft, whose nomination he condemned, on the grounds that Presidents deserve the counsel of a cabinet of their own choosing. He justified his vote against halting impeachment on the grounds that the charges merited a full debate. Feingold voted against impeachment on both counts, though his comments were strongly – I would say unjustly – critical of Clinton’s conduct. They do demonstrate a hearteningly high set of ethics standards for elected officials, even if unfortunately misapplied in the Clinton case. And as the Madison Capital Times observed when Gore announced his running mate, Feingold’s criticism of Clinton’s use of political power in the Lewinsky investigation was far more credible than Lieberman’s self-serving reminders to America that sex outside of marriage is immoral.
Peter Beinart argued after the Ashcroft vote that Feingold was guilty of “the proceduralist delusion, that if you get the process right–figure out how much deference presidential nominations deserve or how much money candidates should spend–you can avoid taking sides politically.” But while Beinart is certainly right that “good government” reforms alone won’t overthrow entrenched noxious power or achieve social justice, only willful blindness could lead one to argue that Feingold has avoided taking sides on the divisive moral questions of the day. Beinart’s likely rightly to argue that Feingold’s 1998 campaign could have focused more on what he was doing in Congress and less on how he was campaigning (positively, and with in-state contributions). But in an era in which everyone expresses a desire to clean up American politics but most politicians bristle at regulations which could mean changing the way they themselves do business, Feingold deserves a great deal of credit for leading by example, holding himself to the standards of what would become McCain-Feingold three years before it became law. And Beinart is himself falling prey to delusion if he believes that the means by which politics is conducted has no impact on the relative power of the good guys and the bad guys to achieve their ends (all that said, McCain-Feingold of course still needs a great deal of work).
Feingold’s commitment to progressive means and progressive ends has struck a cord with voters we might expect and voters we might not. His capacities both to take courageous stands on principle and to cooperate constructively with unlikely allies have yielded a string of victories – some immediate, some partial or deferred. Russ Feingold serves as a telling reminder for the rest of the Democratic party that the road to victory in the next Presidential match doesn’t run away from the values of liberalism. And I’d say he has a better claim than most at serving as the party’s standard bearer in that fight. Looks like he’s beginning to think so as well:
Now, some may think that Alabama and Wisconsin are the polar opposites of American politics. But in both states I’ve found that — along with sharing a sincere appreciation of a good turkey dinner — too many hardworking people are losing their battles for decent paying jobs and adequate healthcare. I’m tired of seeing the power-hungry persuade the hardworking people of this country that the only way to preserve important values is to vote against their own families’ basic interests. I believe that the working people of both states have sacrificed for other people’s agendas for too long. And I believe that any political party or political movement or political candidate who would consistently say this would be heard throughout America.