When a prominent political figure decides not to make an anticipated bid for the presidency, it is usually said that the exiting contender gave something up — a chance to define the national debate, to lead the party and, perhaps, to occupy the White House.

But U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold did not appear to be giving anything up when he sat down the other day for the first extended discussion about his decision — announced only hours earlier in an e-mail message to supporters — that he would not be a candidate for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination. After almost two years of speculation, which heightened as the three-term senator campaigned nationwide this year on behalf of like-minded Democrats, Feingold is suddenly out of the running. Even the prospect of a vice presidential nomination, which he does not rule out, seems remote for a Democrat who has often jousted with his party’s centrist leadership.

Still, Feingold sounded, if anything, more engaged, more enthusiastic and more prepared to advance the progressive agenda that would have been the centerpiece of a presidential bid.

“I feel like it puts me right at the heart of the greatest issues of our time,” Feingold said of the decision by voters in last week’s elections to hand control of the Senate to his Democratic caucus — a move that all but assured the junior senator from Wisconsin powerful positions on four of the chamber’s most important committees.

Sitting in the living room of his home outside Madison, Wisconsin, Feingold came off like a man who was embarking on a new career. In a sense, he is. After spending most the last 14 years as an outsider in a Republican-controlled Senate, he is now a reasonably senior member of the majority party. And, to Feingold’s view, the prospect of finally making things happen in the Senate — especially at a time when the House of Representatives is also shifting to Democratic control — is as exciting and necessary as that of spending a year mounting what would unquestionably have been an uphill bid for the Democratic presidential nomination.

“I’ve been the stopper on so many things relating to civil liberties and other issues that so many of us care about,” the senator said. “Now, I have a chance to actually fix some of those things.”

It was Feingold’s role as a dissenter that made him an attractive presidential prospect, especially among progressive Democrats and independents who saw him as one of the few members of Congress who was willing to challenge the Bush administration on the fundamental issues of war and peace, civil liberties and torture.

The sole senator to oppose the Patriot Act in 2001 and the first senator to advocate a timeline for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, Feingold stoked speculation about a possible 2008 presidential bid by refusing to read from the cautious Democratic Party playbook during the early stages of the 2006 congressional campaign season.

His call for the censure of President Bush for authorizing illegal warrantless wiretapping was wildly popular with party activists — even if most of his fellow Democratic senators shunned the move. His refusal to endorse pro-war Senator Joe Lieberman in the August Democratic primary in Connecticut established him as an ally of grassroots activists who wanted to force national Democrats to move toward a clear anti-war stance.

“Run, Russ, Run!” Web sites were created by supporters in states across the country. Syndicated columnist Molly Ivins wrote that “I can’t see a damn soul in D.C. except Russ Feingold who is even worth considering for president. The rest of them seem to me so poisonously in hock to this system of legalized bribery they can’t even see straight.”

The senator has always bristled at descriptions of him as a “maverick.” And, now, in a Senate where Democrats are in the majority, and where new members such as Vermont’s Bernie Sanders and Ohio’s Sherrod Brown have records of working with Feingold to stop the war and block the Patriot Act, Feingold is looking at the prospect of shaping domestic and international policy rather than merely mounting lonely fights against the forces of reaction.

“It’s a different way to look at the world,” Feingold said. “I was very accepting of my role as a dissenter — and tried to do it well. I was happy to stand up for what was right. But to be able to actually fix some of this stuff, to do positive things, that’s exciting to me. I know some people won’t believe it, because they think politicians are always running for the next office, but what we can do in the Senate is as exciting to me as the prospect of running for president.”

Feingold is convinced that he is uniquely positioned to get things done as a member of four key committees: Budget, Judiciary, Intelligence and Foreign Relations. It’s expected that he will chair the Foreign Relations Committee’s subcommittee on Africa, which will allow him to be a key player on international development and disease prevention. He also will be able to play a critical role in shaping a realistic discussion about averting terrorism.

“This obsession with Iraq has caused such a failure to understand what is happening in the rest of the world, in the horn of Africa, in northern Africa,” the senator says of regions where failed states, porous borders and poverty have contributed to the rise of Islamic militancy. “Five years after 9/11, we’re still not thinking clearly about what the real threats are and how best to address them. I think I can use this committee to help us all think about it clearly — not just think about Africa but think about the whole problem, using Africa as a prism.”

On the Judiciary Committee, where it’s anticipated he will chair the Constitution Subcommittee, Feingold will be able to reopen discussions about the Patriot Act, warrantless wiretapping and other civil liberties issues. Feingold also wants to examine questions relating to how the Bush administration rushed the country to war in Iraq without a formal declaration of war and without respecting the War Powers Act. The Wisconsinite talks of using his committee chairmanship to hold hearings that will reassert “the sense our founders had about what you had to do before you go to war.”

Those are heady issues, as heady as will be addressed in the presidential campaign. And the opportunity to dive into the policy debates immediately is what excites Feingold. Had Republicans held their majority on Tuesday, he admits, “it would have made it harder” to forego a presidential run and the bully pulpit that goes with it.

But Feingold is no longer a member of what he described as “the deep minority.” His party controls Congress, and it could, within two years, control the White House.

While he won’t be the candidate, Feingold anticipates playing a role in selecting and electing a Democrat in 2008. To the senator’s view, the 2008 presidential field has always been divided into two classes of candidates. “One is the celebrities. There are three celebrities,” he said, listing Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., and Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill. “Then there’s the mere mortals, and the very mere mortals like me.”

Feingold acknowledged that “there was a world of difference” between the attention he got on the 2006 campaign trail and the response to Obama. While Obama was on the cover of Time magazine on the eve of the election, Feingold was on the cover of Madison magazine.

“He’s the rock star,” Feingold says of Obama. Yet Feingold says it was not fear of facing Obama or Clinton that led him to leave the Democratic field for 2008.

A student of presidential politics going back to his youth in Janesville, Wisconsin, Feingold is well aware that frontrunners can stumble, and he has already taken calls from other Democrats — such as Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack — who will be running in 2008 with an eye toward capitalizing on any frontrunner missteps.

If the 2008 contest were to come down to Clinton and Obama, Feingold said he won’t be making an early endorsement. But he is clearly more impressed with the fact that Obama questioned the Bush administration’s rush to war in 2002 than he is with Clinton’s vote that year to authorize the president to attack Iraq and her continuing support of the endeavor.

What Feingold really wants to do going into the 2008 caucuses and primaries is to encourage Democrats to take progressive positions, and to highlight it when they do. He says, “I’m prepared to be supportive of this candidate if he says ‘let’s overturn that torture bill,’ and this person if they’re willing to say ‘let’s have a timeline for Iraq.’ I’m willing to go with them, do an appearance. But it’s going to be based on their merits, on their positions and how things develop.”

What happens if it develops that the 2008 Democratic nominee taps Feingold as his or her running mate?

“I feel that’s an obligation almost. If the nominee of my party sits down with his advisers and says ‘Feingold’s the guy,’ I think it’s pretty hard to say ‘no.’ I think you have a duty,” he says. “There would be cases that would be harder than others to do it. I don’t think that will ever happen, but I would be ready to do it if asked.”

Feingold is probably right when he says he does not expect a vice presidential invite. An Obama/Feingold ticket is unlikely, as they are both senators, both Midwesterners and both considered to be from the liberal wing of the party. A Clinton/Feingold ticket would provide regional and ideological balance, but the New Yorker and the Wisconsinite have long been at odds with one another.

Ultimately, however, if McCain is the Republican presidential nominee and Democrats feel they must counter the Arizona senator’s appeal as a straight-shooting reformer, a savvy Democratic presidential nominee might turn to the Democratic half of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform team.

After he made his announcement, however, Feingold was not worrying much about vice presidential machinations.

Instead, he was readying himself to return to a Capitol where Democrats will now be in charge. He did not sound like someone who was giving up a presidential run; indeed, he sounded like a senator who was genuinely excited about flexing the muscles that develop when his party is in charge.


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