Russ Feingold Speaks Out
Russ Feingold was a different kind of senator—more committed to progressive principles than to a party, an internationalist who opposed free-trade deals because they served multinational corporations rather than multinational communities, a stalwart defender of the Constitution whose commitment to civil liberties and regard for the requirement that wars be declared by Congress led him to stand alone against presidents and colleagues. Feingold's independence and rectitude were such that the most conservative member of the Senate, Oklahoma Republican Tom Coburn, would mark the departure of the most progressive member by saying of the Wisconsin Democrat, "One man of great integrity [kept] his word and [held] to his values through every crisis and every vote."
So it should come as no surprise that Feingold will be a different kind of ex-senator. Instead of retaining his residence in Washington and signing on with some K Street lobbying firm, he packed up his apartment and headed home to Middleton, Wisconsin, where he'll live in the same modest house he owned when he first ran for the Senate in 1992. Feingold has taken a teaching post at Marquette University's Law School in Milwaukee, and he's already outlining a book that will be highly critical of recent US foreign policy. But there is much more on Feingold's agenda. After maintaining relative silence since his narrow defeat in November, he arranged to talk with me on the last day of his third term. Just minutes after finishing his service as a senator, Feingold and I conducted a wide-ranging interview in which an upbeat and highly engaged former legislator explained that, far from leaving the public stage, he intends to embrace the role of citizen reformer, continue challenging corporate power and play a part in renewing and extending the progressive movement. He is not running for president in 2012. But he surely hopes to influence a president, a nation and the world. Here is some of our conversation:
Nichols: Why, after years of serving as such an independent senator, such a maverick, did you get swept up in the wave that defeated so many Democrats in 2010? Why didn't the fact that you were so often at odds with your own party and president insulate you?
Feingold: I think people got in a mindset that they weren't going to make distinctions between different Democrats. They wanted to send a message, particularly to anybody who was an incumbent, particularly to anybody who had supported the president's policies on some high-profile issues. So I think that was more important to...people than looking at the actual record.
People wanted to send a message. Sometimes elections are for that purpose. I respect that. I don't think it was a reflection on my record or what I was doing; somehow, there was enough concern about the way things were going that it prevented people from considering the record.
I think a lot of the concern that was generated was not based in fact, with regard either to the stimulus bill or the healthcare bill [both supported by Feingold]. But I do believe there was a broader desire to send a message, and I think I was just included in that.... It had to do with broader issues. That was something no amount of independence or facts could get around.
Do you think the way mass media cover politics these days—so much attention to the horse race and partisan positioning—made it harder for you to connect with voters in 2010 than in the past?
Oh, yes, it's gotten a lot harder over the years since I came to the Senate. It's gotten a lot harder to make distinctions. Everything is painted in broad strokes. It seems like a judgment is made [by elite media] earlier in any election year about what's going to happen. The narrative is defined according to what pundits believe will happen, or...should happen, and it's very hard—harder than ever—to break through that. In the past, you could steer the debate in a more serious direction. But it's so much harder now to be heard above the shouting—and the incredibly simplistic partisanship—and to get to the substance of the debate.
What about the money that was spent in your race?
Money in politics is a huge issue. But let's be clear: I certainly wasn't underfunded [in 2010]. I don't think another $100 million would have changed the outcome of my race. I don't think even $100 million would have mattered, because of the mindset that had developed, because of the desire on the part of a lot of voters to send that message. I think it's important to make this point, because I'm not here to say that I was a victim in particular of that. I think we have to see the whole money-in-politics issue in a broader context.
What happened in my race was frustrating. What happened in 2010 was frustrating. But it is going to be worse in 2012 unless we do something—much worse. That's why money in politics is such a fundamental issue. In terms of the incredibly corrosive effect that unlimited spending by corporations has, we're just seeing the tip of the iceberg.... I think the process is being destroyed by this. Some of my future activities will involve challenging that directly.
You were always resistant to the idea of proposing a constitutional amendment to address Supreme Court decisions—the Citizens United v. FEC ruling, but also the earlier  ruling in Buckley v. Valeo—that have allowed money to dominate our politics. Since Citizens United, however, many constitutional scholars and activists have suggested that an amendment is the only tool we've got to renew competitive elections. What's your sense now?
I'm not ready to endorse the idea of amending the Constitution. But...these events, for the first time, make me at least have to look at it one more time.
I really hate the idea of changing the words of the Bill of Rights for the first time in the country's history; I don't want to go down that road. But this thing that's going on with our political process is so destructive, so contrary to what I'm sure the founders intended, that we've got to find a solution. So my efforts will be directed toward finding solutions that involve something short of a constitutional amendment—especially toward overturning the [Citizens United] decision, and also toward legislative initiatives. But I want to be in coalition with those who might have other views. And I intend to keep an open mind.
Something has to be done about this. This is one of the worst threats to democracy in our nation's history. I don't think I'm exaggerating. So I continue to oppose [a constitutional amendment]. But...I'm a little less vehement about it, because [removing limits on corporate spending] is something I never believed could happen. I couldn't imagine the Supreme Court doing this. We have to look at everything now, every tool we've got to address a real threat.
So you intend to remain engaged with reform issues in a major way.
Yes, I'll be involved in a structural way.
Working with an existing reform group?
Either that, or having an organization that I help set up. That's something that is still being worked out. But I am going to be a part of this fight, this debate, in a big way.
Everything you're saying suggests a determination to remain in the political arena. Do you see yourself as a candidate for public office in the future?
You're absolutely right; I have no intention of stepping out of public life—in terms of speaking out, being involved with causes, maybe being involved in organizations. I prefer, at this point, to have the experience of working on these issues in this way, the way so many progressive citizens do. Whether or not I would ever run for public office again is completely up in the air.
"Up in the air" for you, perhaps, but a lot of progressives got excited when, at the close of your concession speech on election night, you shouted, "On to 2012!"
All right, I'll tell you what I meant. This is a serious answer; it is my true intention: I'm only one guy in a long, beautiful sweeping tradition of Wisconsin and American progressives. I was looking on election night at a crowd of people in that room, and thinking about people listening from across the country, who had fought these battles, these incredible battles we've been involved in to defend civil liberties, to oppose wars that just don't make sense. I just wanted to say to them: Despite the disappointments of the evening, including the result in my race, "It's on to 2012!" That means that our collective effort together to turn things around, to do this as progressives, continues.
The reference to 2012 had nothing to do with me in particular, other than that I am a progressive. I am one of the people who recognize that we have to go on to the next fight. It wasn't egocentric; it simply wasn't about me or my intentions. I'm very aware that the only reason I ever got to have this privilege is because of progressives in [Wisconsin] and around the country who saw me as a worthy example. That's what I meant: that the broader struggle goes on. I am happy, I am proud, to be a part of it. But it's not about me. It's about this movement, this tradition.