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.