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Rockin' in the Real World | The Nation

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John Nichols

John Nichols

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Rockin' in the Real World

A crack in the façade of Congressional congeniality was discovered last week, as Senate Democrats gathered to discuss particulars of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform bill.

That bill was passed with overwhelming support from Senate Democrats and general opposition from Senate Republicans. But that does not mean that Democrats really favor reform; for most of them, backing McCain-Feingold was an act of political positioning, as became obvious at last week's closed-door gathering of the Senate Democratic Caucus.

At the session, senators heard from Democratic campaign lawyer Bob Bauer, a favorite of those senators for whom reform is less progress than threat. Bauer delivered dire warnings about the dangers of the McCain-Feingold law -- and of moves by US Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wi., to toughen Federal Election Commission regulations and enforcement procedures.

Feingold disagreed. Arguing that Democratic senators ought to embrace reforms aimed at driving the influence of big-money out of politics, Feingold dismissed claims that law-abiding senators could be overwhelmed by legal threats from the FEC and Republican operatives.

Feingold's remarks rubbed US Sen. Hillary Clinton the wrong way. "Russ, live in the real world," yelled Clinton, one of the Senate's most aggressive fund raisers. Recalling the struggles of her husband's presidency and her own Senate race, sources say Clinton told Feingold he should be wary of "political adversaries." "They will be all over you like a June bug," counseled Clinton.

Clinton's outburst stunned the 20 senators who were present into silence. Finally, Feingold replied, "I also live in the real world, senator, and I function quite well in it."

Feingold was being modest. For someone who had no prominent name or big bankroll to get him started, the senator has done a remarkably good job of mastering the real-world politics. He has prevailed in ten primary and general election battles since 1982 -- winning every single contest where his name has been on the ballot. He has defeated better-known and better-funded Democrats in primaries and dispatched entrenched Republican incumbents in a swing state.

In 1998, despite being targeted for defeat by the entire Republican establishment and their allies in the anti-abortion movement, Feingold refused to accept corrupt campaign money through the Democratic party's sleazy backdoor channels. As a result, the man whose net worth statements regularly get him listed as the Senate's poorest member was dramatically outspent in that hard-fought contest. He won the election narrowly, but the significance of that victory proved to be overwhelming -- as it proved that it remains possible to practice honest politics in Wisconsin and America.

Feingold's refusal to play politics according to the rule book distributed by Democratic party insiders -- as well as his attempts to reduce the influence of corporate special interests on party policies -- has frequently put him at odds with fellow senators. Of late, he battled what he calls a "core group" of half dozen Democrats who want to find ways to get around the McCain-Feingold bill's ban on soft money -- large, unregulated donations to political parties from corporations and powerful interest groups. Feingold identifies Clinton as a member of that group, although Clinton aides challenge the characterization.

After his clash with Clinton last Thursday, Feingold said, "It was a troubling display for a party that claims to be for trying to clean up the system." It was also a reminder of the dramatic differences between the worlds -- real or otherwise -- in which Russ Feingold and Hillary Clinton travel.

Where Clinton has, since her election in 2000, proven to be a cautious, predictably centrist Democrat on most issues, Feingold has a record of rocking the boat. A defender of civil liberties who cast the only vote in the Senate to block the USA Patriot Act's assault on Constitutional protections, Feingold has also been the Senate's most consistent foe of corporate-sponsored free trade schemes, its loudest critic of the death penalty and its most unyielding proponent of government ethics and reform.

Feingold is a maverick whose votes sometimes offend Democrats; for instance, he backed the continuation of the Senate's impeachment trial of Bill Clinton, and he cast a lonely Judiciary Committee vote for the confirmation of the loathsome John Ashcroft as Attorney General. (At the same time, he has opposed more Bush judicial nominees than Clinton and most other Committee Democrats.)

This year, Feingold waged a solo Senate battle to prevent George W. Bush from eliminating the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, and the Wisconsinite has recently challenged Bush administration attempts to launch a war on Iraq without consulting the Senate.

Feingold relishes pushing his party to stand up for progressive principles. He openly condemns the conservative Democratic Leadership Council and that group's attempts to make the Democratic party more appealing to corporate America. On issues of corporate power and politics, Feingold can be a scold -- not to mention a purist. Yet, it is worth noting that his own ethics have led him to eschew the Senate's business-can-do-no-wrong line with a regularity that illustrates the freedom that comes from rejecting the bundles of "soft money" that invariably come wrapped in corporate strings.

Feingold does live in a very different world from Hillary Clinton, Democratic National Committee chair Terry McAuliffe and other Democrats who have chosen to go the big-money route. Democrats can debate whether the Clinton or Feingold is more closely associated with real world. But, for those who take seriously the issues of corporate power and corruption with which the Congress is currently wrestling, there should be little doubt that Russ Feingold's worldview is superior.

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