Russ Feingold, the Senate’s True Maverick

Russ Feingold, the Senate’s True Maverick

Russ Feingold, the Senate’s True Maverick

He’s now in the fight of his life.


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."

Over time, Feingold’s antiwar and anticorporate record, as well as his defense of civil liberties, have made him a hero to progressive populists. "Russ is not shy about taking on the forces of arrogance and ignorance in my party," says author and activist Jim Hightower. Since the death of Wellstone, says Hightower, "Feingold’s the one Democrat I don’t have to apologize for." Unfortunately, Feingold’s independence isn’t inspiring the enthusiasm it once did among Wisconsin swing voters. He’s running well with Democrats, but polls have him trailing among unaffiliated voters. And Republicans give him no more credit than they do party-line Democrats. "Politics are more partisan now, more cynical," says former Wisconsin Attorney General Peg Lautenschlager. "You used to hear people say, ‘I don’t agree with him on the issues, but he’s his own man’ or ‘I’m not a Democrat, but I’m proud of him.’ Now a lot more people are in their camps; they don’t want to think someone on the other side might be honorable."

Lautenschlager’s words apply not just in Wisconsin but nationally. Bush’s Iraq War, abuses of civil liberties and failed economic policies have resulted in growing division between the two major parties. Rhode Island Democrats and independents, furious with Bush and Senate GOP leaders, refused to vote as they once had for liberal Republican Lincoln Chafee in 2006. Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter stopped believing that Democrats would cross over and vote for him, and Delaware Congressman Mike Castle learned—after his Senate primary defeat at the hands of a Tea Party firebrand—that there are no longer many moderates voting in GOP primaries. The remarkably unified "Party of No" response to Obama’s initiatives by Congressional Republicans, combined with the relentless assault by right-wing media on Democrats and compromise-oriented "RINOs" (Republicans in Name Only), appears to have fostered an edgy and unforgiving partisanship even in states where ticket-splitting was once common. This explains the devolution of McCain on issues ranging from immigration to climate change; it also explains why Chuck Grassley, who once served as a reasonably rational "Bob Dole Republican" (working with Democrat Tom Harkin to enact the Americans With Disabilities Act), is now best known for repeating absurd claims about "death panels."

The bitter divisions over the Bush and Obama presidencies have highlighted longer-term shifts in the makeup and dynamics of the Senate. When Feingold arrived in Washington, regional differences and personal styles were still very much on display in what were far more ideologically diverse party caucuses. The Senate’s most consistently antiwar member in the early 1990s was a Republican, Oregon’s Mark Hatfield, who also happened to be a steady foe of the death penalty, school prayer and discrimination against gays and lesbians. There were more conservative Democrats from the South in those days, but there were also Southern Democratic populists like Fritz Hollings, who backed Jesse Jackson for president in 1988 and often sounded like Ralph Nader when talking about corporate power. New England Republicans weren’t the faint hopes represented by the likes of Maine’s Susan Collins; they were proud independents like Rhode Island’s John Chafee, one of the biggest backers of moves to expand Medicaid coverage for low-income children and pregnant women. When the Senate debated whether to ban flag-burning, there were votes when more Republicans opposed the assault on freedom of expression than Democrats.

Feingold has seen the Senate grow more partisan and dysfunctional since the days when McCain crossed the aisle and asked the young reformer from Wisconsin to help him squeeze soft money out of national politics. The men and women of principle, the outliers who cast unexpected votes and who forged unlikely coalitions, have mostly been replaced by programmed politicians who dare not deviate from party talking points. The late Senator Robert Byrd—Feingold’s ally in resisting the steady creep of executive power—worried aloud in his last years about the way the "history and tradition of being the world’s greatest deliberative body is being snubbed."

Yet it is not merely an increasingly White House–focused politics—and the media that reinforce it—that has changed the character of the Senate. The most significant change has been in the way senators get elected and re-elected. In 1992, when Feingold first ran, most races cost millions, with only a few costing tens of millions. Candidates rarely relied entirely on home-state donors, but it was still possible to suggest that most politics was local. Now serious Senate contenders—if they are not independently wealthy—count on massive spending by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which collected $162 million and $94 million, respectively, in 2008, and on the myriad special-interest groups that have wildly inflated the cost of getting elected. And those staggering figures do not take into account the enormous spending by supposedly independent groups. The "money power," as Feingold’s progressive forebears referred to it, has redefined Senate races and senators. "In most cases, candidates no longer control their own campaigns," says Ed Garvey, who once sought Feingold’s seat and over the past quarter-century has been a leading campaign finance reform activist. "Even candidates who get into politics with the best of intentions start thinking they can’t get re-elected without money from the party leaders, from the people in Washington, to keep their jobs. Senators get so reliant on the money that they reflect it; they stop thinking for themselves, stop thinking like the people who elected them. They just worry about getting the money."

More than any current senator, Feingold has resisted the march of money, not merely by fighting for campaign finance reform but by trying to get opponents to agree to limit spending and keep special-interest groups from pouring money into Wisconsin. But his opponent, Johnson, secured the GOP nomination with a promise to use his family fortune to mount one of the most expensive TV ad campaigns in Wisconsin history. Johnson’s ads not only distort Feingold’s record on specific issues but foster the fantasy that the only Democrat to oppose Obama’s mild banking reforms is a rubber-stamp for president and party. "Russ Feingold normally and almost always votes on party lines," claims a Johnson TV ad. "He’s right in the Reid, Pelosi, Obama camp." The claim is absurd—Feingold crosses party lines more frequently than all but six senators. But the relentless attacks have had an impact; Johnson pulled even with Feingold in summer polls, and the race moved from a "safe Democratic" rating to one of the year’s most competitive. That’s certain to steer more corporate money into Wisconsin. Karl Rove says he expects to raise $50 million to defeat Democrats, and Democracy 21’s Fred Wertheimer says, "Shadow Republican groups formed by longtime party officials and party operatives are raising and spending hundreds of millions of dollars in this election."

So it is that Russ Feingold finds himself in the fight of his life. He has built a campaign fund of almost $14 million the hard way: with an average contribution of $53. In the past, that would have been more than sufficient to keep the poorest Democrat in the Senate competitive. But not this year, in the aftermath of Citizens United, with corporate money flowing more freely than ever before. Corporate-allied groups like the Club for Growth are already buying heavily to attack Feingold and support Johnson.

Feingold’s sure he’ll be outspent. But he’s also sure he’ll win. A political junkie whose father was active in Wisconsin’s independent Progressive Party of the 1930s and ’40s before becoming a Democratic stalwart in the factory town of Janesville, Feingold is betting it’s still possible to counter organized money with organized people. Borrowing a page from Wellstone’s remarkable re-election races of 1996 and 2002, Feingold is determined to "win this campaign at the grassroots." To that end, he has opened sixteen field offices, from Ashland on the shores of Lake Superior to Kenosha on the Illinois border. Twenty-seven regional steering committees have taken his campaign into the most rural counties. By early September, canvassers had knocked on more than 105,000 doors and made more than 107,000 phone calls to targeted voters. Feingold is doing much of the asking himself, keeping to a relentless schedule that sends him to the state’s most Republican counties to compare notes on the Constitution with conservatives, who don’t see many Democrats these days.

The tech-savvy Feingold campaign has 25,000 Facebook friends and 11,000 Twitter followers. Supporters even download "Feintunes"—the senator’s picks of songs by Wisconsin artists like Bon Iver and the BoDeans. Yet while he embraces the bells and whistles of modern campaigning, Feingold is betting more on message than mechanics. "I still think people understand," he says, that they need senators willing to stand up to "the power and greed and corruption of Wall Street…the power and greed and corruption of the pharmaceutical companies…the power and greed and corruption of the health insurance companies." Feingold is counting on that understanding to see him through a year when more cautious Democrats may not make it. He says that like the progressives of old, he wants to beat the "money power" in this race so he can go back and fight it in the Senate. "I want you to know that I am committed to this cause because I think it goes to the very core of our democracy," the senator declared on that Friday night when he rallied the faithful.

"You do it, Russ!" came a shout from the crowd.

If Feingold does it, if he wins this race in this year, it will not be as just another Democratic senator. It will not be as a maverick, nor even as an idealist. It will be as a signal that maybe, just maybe, people power can still beat the money power. That senators aren’t just extensions of parties and presidents, and that politics can be about something more than Democratic toothpaste versus Republican toothpaste.

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