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.