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.