Dem Maverick Takes on Squishy Middle

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

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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