Russ Feingold: A Real Maverick Confronts an Improbable End
AP / Lee Marriner
Here in the Midwest we produce more than our share of throwbacks. Minnesota Twin Joe Mauer is a local Pheenom who stays with the hometown team. Garrison Keillor channels Samuel Clemens, who hailed from just downriver. And Senator Russ Feingold resembles “Fighting Bob” La Follette who graced the halls of Congress and the Wisconsin state house in the 1920s as a progressive who made a difference.
Feingold is facing a political unknown with no real history in this, his quest for a fourth term in office, and that opponent, Ron Johnson, is leading by an average of nine points in the polls largely on the basis of being able to fog a mirror. That the dynamics of this race differs from any other in the 2010 Senate landscape is down to Feingold’s penchant for doing it his way. His way means no outside Democratic attack ads, no running away from President Obama, and no running away from his voting record in Congress.
If Johnson wants to lie about Feingold’s record on health care reform by charging, “A majority of Wisconsinites opposed the government takeover of health care. But Russ Feingold voted for it anyway,” (flat-out False on the PolitiFact meter) Feingold stands by his support of health care reform. Johnson, who has not yet won the support of Wisconsin tea partiers, nonetheless comes across as tea party-ish, especially on the issue of health care reform. He lost the endorsement of one tea party group, the Rock River Patriots, because they felt he didn't know the Constitution well enough.
Asked about his rejection of outside help in this season of post-Citizen’s United Darth Vader-financed corporate hit pieces Feingold said, “I consider it to be outside help of a kind that is uncontrolled and tends to believe in a philosophy of slash-and-burn politics. That's frankly not who I am. I don't want to win that way.” That’s what he told AOL’s Walter Shapiro this week, even as his own prospects looked increasingly clouded.
So what is that, principled or just plain nuts? Or, in the current era, are the principled automatically nuts? If so, and if we lose Feingold to the Senate, we will have lost more than just one good vote left of center. We will have lost perhaps the last exemplar of a tradition that once described the membership of the Senate to a degree far greater than we find today in the shadowed chambers of our degraded national debating society.
Feingold, of course, is best known for the McCain-Feingold Act, the campaign finance reform law—a law that is almost universally detested and honored only in the breach. It was a little bit like healthcare reform, a quixotic turn against overwhelming resistance—a resistance that was partially hidden or disguised at the time of its passage but subsequently emerged in a paroxysm of loophole exploitation.
Beyond that, he was the only Senator to vote against the Patriot Act the first time around. He is an unabashed bipartisan practitioner. He opposed NAFTA. He opposed H.J. Resolution 114 authorizing the use of force in Iraq in 2002. He’s for immigration reform, hates capital punishment, and voted against the confirmation of Timothy Geithner. In short, he is a maverick to a degree that McCain never really was. He is a man who thinks for himself, and votes as he thinks. And for this, apparently, we will lose him.
Wisconsin is a state with a blue urban south surrounded by red-to-purple ‘burbs and a deep red rural North. It swings as most states swing, by the economy, and is sharply reactive by virtue of its exposure to a declining manufacturing sector. Wisconsin is less affluent than Minnesota, its buttoned-down neighbor to the west, and noticeably more progressive, primarily due to its neighbor’s rightward drift in recent years.
This makes Feingold’s shortfall a little hard to fathom. He is no Barbara Boxer, and certainly, decidedly, no Harry Reid. More than anything he carries the DNA of a progressive reformer, almost more in the sense of those turn-of-the-century reformers, those trustbusters, upon whose backs Theodore Roosevelt stood. He is—and this is the most important fact about him in the present moment—an ardent anti-corporatist. The Committee for Truth in Politics, a corporate stealth group, has targeted Feingold with $7 million in fresh money according to the Wall Street Journal. The group has ties to a North Carolina attorney named James Bopp, “one of the lead attorneys in the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission case,” according to the WSJ. The paper quotes Feingold’s aide, John Kraus, as saying, “It's no surprise that corporate special interests are attacking Sen. Feingold, he is not their friend,”
In the face of the facts about Feingold’s political career, his opponent’s—and his opponent’s surrogates’—attempts to paint him as just another rubber-stamp Democrat is untrue to the degree that it insults the state’s electorate. But, and here’s the strangest thing, I don’t know if they know that. Sometimes a fresh face is just a pig in a poke, in this case one delivered by deep-pocketed corporate handlers, but in Wisconsin this year that might be all it takes.