Dem Maverick Takes on Squishy Middle

Senator Feingold Urges Party Leaders to ‘Stand Up and Show Some Guts’

by Nick Welsh

At a time when high-profile Democratic Party warhorses such as Hillary Clinton are hewing aggressively to the middle, Wisconsin senator and possible presidential aspirant Russell Feingold is warning the party might be in need of more organ transplants than the Tin Man, the Scarecrow, and the Cowardly Lion combined. “Democrats need to stand up and say what we believe and show some guts,” said Feingold, 53, during a hurried phone interview that took place as he waited to board his plane from Milwaukee to Washington, D.C.“We need to stop listening so much to the paid consultants and start listening to the people.” Feingold warned that fellow Democrats risk failure by trying to play it safe. “I think it’s clear we can’t expect to win by default,” he said. “We’ve tried that approach and, as a result, we lost in 2000, 2002, and 2004.”

With the next presidential campaign two years away, Feingold is currently undertaking a speaking tour of the nation, with a weekend visit to Santa Barbara on July 28 and 29. He hopes to better assess where Democrats really stand and measure his own presidential chances. Since first being elected to represent the Badger State in the U.S. Senate in 1992, Feingold has made a point of visiting each of Wisconsin’s 72 counties once a year in what he bills “his annual listening tour.” He has held more than 1,000 such public meetings in his senatorial tenure.

A fiscal hawk and an unabashed peacenik, Feingold has emerged as one of the Senate’s more outspokenly liberal voices. After the 9/11 attacks, Feingold was the only senator to vote against the Patriot Act. Later, he voted against authorizing President George W. Bush to wage war on Iraq. Last year, Feingold became the first senator to articulate a specific timetable for removing American troops from Iraq, calling for a complete withdrawal by the end of this year. “I don’t think we can let Bush use the same bad arguments that got us into the war in the first place to keep us there, when it’s clearly not working,” he said. Because of America’s military engagement in Iraq, Feingold said the United States is less able to respond to the challenges posed by Iran and the Israel-Lebanon conflict. Feingold acknowledged the possibility that a withdrawal of U.S. forces—strategic or otherwise—could precipitate an internal bloodbath, but he also argued the eruption of sectarian violence now convulsing Iraq might actually diminish with the withdrawal of American troops, which he feels are regarded as an occupying force. “Clearly our troops are not providing the security that country needs,” he said.

For the Democratic Party’s frustrated progressive base, Feingold might seem the second coming of Howard Dean. While he said he has nothing but respect for Dean, he added, “I prefer to think I’m Russ Feingold.” Like Dean, Feingold has consistently shaken up his more cautious and conservative Democratic brethren, sometimes inadvertently offering consolation to his Republican foes in the process. When Feingold pushed a measure last March to censure President Bush for authorizing wiretaps of Americans’ telephones, normally media-crazy Democrats suddenly could not be found for comment. Those who could be coaxed out of seclusion suggested it might have been politically prudent to call for an investigation before demanding the president’s censure. Republicans, by contrast, were not so media-shy, pledging to make Feingold and the alleged excessiveness of his censure proposal the centerpiece of their political survival strategy. If they do, they might discover what other Republicans have learned since Feingold took to the national stage 13 years ago: that those who underestimate his political skills do so at their own peril.

From the beginning, Feingold has taken a decidedly squeaky-clean route to political success. When he first ran for senator in 1992, Feingold ran TV commercials claiming to have secured Elvis Presley’s endorsement, using humor against the two other candidates in the Democratic primary, who reportedly set new standards for campaign slime. His Republican foe in the runoff countered with an ad featuring an Elvis impersonator challenging Feingold’s claim. He won anyway.

From the outset, Feingold has championed campaign finance reform, refusing to accept the automatic pay increases the Senate has voted to enact for its members. During his second run for office, Feingold refused to accept soft-money donations or TV commercials from third-party donors, asking supportive organizations like the Sierra Club or League of Conservation voters to stand down. He also voluntarily imposed a campaign cap on his own fundraising efforts, refusing to raise or spend more than $1 for each state resident—or $3.8 million. This caused apoplexy among national party leaders, who couldn’t believe Feingold would jeopardize a prized Senate seat for what they dismissed as a high-minded political stunt. Feingold managed to win, but just barely, triumphing by a margin of 1 percent. In his most recent 2004 campaign, Feingold relaxed his own standards somewhat, raising $11 million. Still, he took pride in the fact that 90 percent of his donations came from individuals—rather than political action committees (PACs)—and that his average contribution was $60. In 1995, Feingold teamed up with Republican maverick John McCain to pass a campaign finance reform act limiting the extent to which soft-money donations to PACs impact electoral success. Seven years later, the bill that bears their name was eventually passed. More recently, in 2005, Feingold introduced legislation to limit corporate gifts and the donation of private jets for politicians’ campaign use; that measure has yet to be approved. Feingold expressed qualified relief at the recent Supreme Court ruling holding that Vermont’s stringent campaign donation limits were unconstitutional. Given the conservative makeup of the current Supreme Court, Feingold said the justices could have done far more damage to campaign finance reform than they actually did. Key to any long-term reform, he said, are new rules requiring broadcasters to provide airtime to candidates running for office. “That’s one of the best ideas out there, but it’s one of the toughest ideas to get members to sign off on,” he said. “McCain and I could not overcome the power of the broadcast industry.”

You can hear for yourself what Feingold has to say when he makes a pit stop in Santa Barbara this weekend. He’ll be the guest of honor at a Montecito fundraiser dinner beginning at 6 p.m. this Friday, July 28. Call Jon or Julie Williams at 565-9789 for more information. He’ll also be speaking at the Democratic Women Club’s annual summer brunch on Saturday, July 29, beginning at 10:30 a.m. at the Fess Parker Double Tree Resort. Call 568-5932 to reserve your space.

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