Russ Feingold, the Senate's True Maverick
When Russ Feingold jogs onto the stage of the Barrymore Theatre on a Friday night in Madison, Wisconsin, a thousand old-school progressives—not liberals avoiding the L-word but heart-and-soul believers in a political ethic that traces back to the trustbusters and anti-imperialists of a century ago—rise to cheer the living embodiment of their faith. The three-term senator speaks to them in the language of another time in America, when populists shouted from the backs of farm wagons and urban radicals mounted soapboxes to spread the social gospel. "There is no institution in our society that is safe from the power and greed and corruption of these corporations," rages Feingold, who speaks against the warping of foreign policy by military contractors, the molding of the national debate by consolidated media and the pay-to-play politics of business interests, before lowering his voice for a dramatic declaration: "Now, after they attacked the media, the Congress and the executive branch, they have managed to corrupt the US Supreme Court."
Echoing former Wisconsin Senator Robert La Follette, whose memory he has come to honor with activists from across the state, the only senator to vote against the Patriot Act says he knows there are reasons to fear big government. "But," he adds, in a speech that decries the High Court's decision to let corporations spend as they choose on elections, "there is one thing that's worse: government controlled by, dominated by, corporate special interest."
For Feingold, though he is locked in a brutal battle with a free-spending millionaire Republican who cloaks allegiance to Wall Street in the populist rhetoric of the Tea Party, the essential question of the moment has less to do with party politics than with the money that's turning the major parties into two sides of one corporate coin. His re-election fight is being covered by much of the national media as just another partisan horse race, one of several in which senior Democratic senators, like California's Barbara Boxer and Washington's Patty Murray, are in unexpectedly tough re-election struggles that could determine whether their party retains control of the Senate. But Feingold's race raises more basic questions about how much our politics are becoming nationalized and homogeneous, about whether the parties are more than mere extensions of sitting presidents or in opposition to them, about whether there is a place for the independent man or woman of principle—especially one who rejects the dictates of Wall Street and multinational corporations—in an increasingly managed and manipulated Senate.
Feingold has taken these questions on the road in a campaign that is like no other this year. With the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission ruling opening the floodgates for special-interest spending, the Senate's fiercest campaign finance reformer says the Court is "turning our system of government and our democracy into another example of what is essentially corporate naming rights."
"What do they want us to do: choose between Republican toothpaste and Democratic toothpaste?" asks Feingold over an approving roar from the crowd that has gathered on a late summer night. The progressive faithful are with him, but the polls show Feingold struggling to keep even with GOP businessman Ron Johnson, who has pledged to spend as much as $15 million on a campaign so carefully plotted to exploit frustration with President Obama, fears about the economy and anger at Washington that it appears to have been squeezed from Karl Rove's tube. The contrast is sufficiently stark that the result on November 2, no matter what happens elsewhere in the country, will tell us something about the politics of our era.
Everything about Feingold's Senate career has been a fight against a future where Crest Democrats do battle with Colgate Republicans. More than his sometime ally John McCain, the man from Wisconsin is the Senate's true maverick. And unlike McCain, whose "independence" always had about it an air of self-absorption and attentiveness to the media, Feingold has never been a maverick for the sake of being a maverick. His eighteen years in the Senate have been defined by a steadiness of commitment that pays little regard to presidents or parties.
Feingold opposed Bill Clinton's North American Free Trade Agreement and normalization of trade with China; he opposed George W. Bush's Central American Free Trade Agreement; now he is challenging attempts by the Obama administration to advance trade policies that do too much for multinational corporations and too little for workers and farmers here and abroad. Feingold was the leading Senate critic of Clinton's failure to abide by the War Powers Act; he opposed Bush's rush to war in Iraq and was the first senator to call for a timeline to bring the troops home; now he complains that the Obama administration is not moving fast enough to wind that war down. Feingold noisily challenged constitutional abuses during the Clinton and Obama years, and as chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee's Constitution subcommittee, he is pressing the Obama administration to get serious about civil liberties. Feingold opposed Clinton's proposal to loosen bank rules, arguing that doing so could threaten financial stability; he opposed Bush's bank bailout; and he was the sole Democrat to object that the reforms Obama backed did not go far enough because they did not do away with "too big to fail" banks and did not adequately protect consumers or taxpayers.
Much has been made this election season of Democrats distancing themselves from Obama; but Feingold and the president parted company years ago. The Illinoisan said during his 2004 Senate campaign that he saw Feingold as a role model. But once in the Senate, Obama kept clear of Feingold's effort to censure Bush over abuses of privacy rights and the Wisconsinite's lonely defense of arms control treaties. Feingold cast his Wisconsin primary vote in 2008 for Obama over Hillary Clinton, and he backed Obama's economic stimulus and healthcare reform. But he opposed Timothy Geithner as treasury secretary, objected to Obama's plan to surge more troops into Afghanistan and has complained loudly about the administration's uneven response to soaring unemployment.
This independent streak has frustrated Democrats who don't "get" Feingold's votes. He's not a movement politician, in the sense that his friend and frequent ally former Senator Paul Wellstone, was; while Wellstone worked with liberals when they said they needed him to take the lead in challenging conservative overreach in fights about the impeachment of Bill Clinton or the nomination of John Ashcroft as attorney general, Feingold cast the sole Democratic vote to continue Clinton's Senate trial and argued, based on their joint service on the Judiciary Committee, that Ashcroft was more respectful of the Constitution than anyone else George Bush would pick. Those votes infuriated interest groups and Democratic leaders in Congress. But many Feingold backers share the opinion of Wisconsin union activist Terry Fritter, who says, "A lot of people get mad at Russ when he casts one of those 'only Democrat' votes. Then they calm down and think, if Russ did it, there had to be a principle involved."