Russ Feingold stood on the floor of the Senate Wednesday to mark the passing of the fifth anniversary of President Bush’s signing of the Congressional resolution that authorized his use of military force in Iraq — and to declare that he would not rest until the dark deed was undone.

“I will not stand idly by while this mistaken war continues,” the Democratic senator from Wisconsin announced, as he pledged to make the wrongheaded occupation of Iraq a day-in, day-out issue in the Senate for the rest of 2007 and into 2008. Refusing to be distracted by the coming presidential election, Feingold promised to remain focused on the work at hand: bringing U.S. troops home, taking honest steps to promote stability in the Middle East, and turning the attention of the U.S. intelligence and defense establishment toward real threats as opposed to the fantasies of Dick Cheney and the neocons.

Feingold’s declaration was an essential act that, unlike the silly sparring of recent weeks between Illinois Senator Barack Obama and New York Senator Hillary Clinton about who said what when and why, recognized the reality of the moment rather than the over-the-top demands of presidential posturing.

Of course, it matters that Obama trusted his gut instincts and spoke out against attacking Iraq in 2002, just as it matters that Clinton lacked the knowledge and the skepticism that her position as a member of the Senate required. But it matters a good deal more that, once the occupation began, Obama and Clinton began to sound an awfully lot alike. And it matters a great deal more that both contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination have failed to lead in the way that Feingold — who not only spoke right but voted right back in 2002 — has in the struggle to bring the troops home and to hold the president and vice president to account.

By using the anniversary as an opportunity to refocus the discussion on Bush’s responsibility for a war authorized on the basis of his administration’s inflated and irresponsible claims, Feingold brought the discussion back to the reality of the moment. Almost 4,000 soldiers from the United States have died in an unwise and unnecessary occupation that threatens to claim thousands of additional lives. More than 27,000 soldiers from the United States have been severely wounded in an occupation that threatens to claim the physical and mental health of tens of thousands more. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians have been killed and millions displaced in a war that threatens to displaces hundreds of thousands more and to displace millions more.

Neither Obama nor Clinton is running as an anti-war candidate. They both continue to fuzz the margins, so much so that neither will commit to getting U.S. troops out of Iraq during their first term. They both continue to suggest that the way to end the war is to elect a new president in November, 2009, and hope for a change of course sometime in 2009 or, perhaps, 2013.

Neither Obama nor Clinton has spoken so bluntly about the duty of this Senate in this year as Feingold did when he informed his colleagues on Wednesday that, “I will continue working to end this war and bring our troops home, and I will continue looking in the days and weeks ahead for opportunities to debate and vote on ending the war – this year, and, if necessary, next as well. My colleagues may complain, they may be inconvenienced, they may prefer to focus on other matters. But this Congress has no greater priority than making right the mistake it made five years ago when it authorized this misguided war.”

There is, of course, much interest in what goes on in Iowa and New Hampshire and other early caucus and primary states. The fight for the Democratic presidential nomination is relevant to the debate about the war. But what goes on in Washington is more relevant. And, right now, Russ Feingold is showing a great deal more seriousness than Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton regarding the need to save the thousands, the tens of thousands, the hundreds of thousands, the millions of lives that are at stake.