The Loss of Russ Feingold: Lamentable and Shameful
Bring yourself back, if you can bear it, to October, 2001. Remember flags ubiquitous, tears irrepressible. There were a good many of us who declared at the time that we were afraid not only of the threat of violence from abroad but also of the domestic danger that our liberties would be revoked in the name of security. We had good reason, too; after all, like offenses have routinely beset crisis-ridden countries. Those of us who opposed the Security-Over-Liberty fervor saw our righteousness, patriotism and sanity questioned daily in the halls of power and on the airwaves—America had just been attacked, and it was shameful of us not to stand behind our government as it did whatever it announced was necessary in response.
Late in the month, the Senate passed (before it had even deliberated) the PATRIOT Act, which significantly limited the liberties of Americans and enormously bolstered the government’s powers to intrude into the private lives of the same. The roll call from that day reveals one lone vote of “nay.” Think back. Which Small Government, Get Washington Off Our Backs, Rights Of The Individual, Limit The Powers Of The Federal Bureaucracy, Don’t Tread On Me Republican Senator cast that vote? Jeff Sessions? John Kyl? Mitch McConnell?
None of them. It was Russ Feingold, Democrat of Wisconsin, who for the last 17 years has been the conscience of the Senate, one of the few public servants at so high a level of government to embody consistent integrity, thoughtfulness and principle. And for his nearly two decades of unwaveringly exemplary service, Wisconsin voters replaced him yesterday with a man named Ron Johnson, who, among other things, defended BP from the “all-out assault” President Obama had “launched” on the corporation, later to disclose that he owned more than $100,000 in BP stock.
There are progressive commentators who have latched onto silver linings in the tea party cloud that shrouded the nation yesterday, and I’m given to buying a lot of their arguments. But the loss of Russ Feingold hurts very badly. Not as loud a mouth as Jim DeMint and lacking the celebrity status of Al Franken, Feingold is unlikely to be commemorated much in the headlines, and this is a travesty, because if ever this country needed an example of a life well spent in politics, that moment is now. Let us take this opportunity to mourn the end of Feingold’s career in the Senate.
It began with a contract that Feingold wrote on his garage door, consisting of five promises:
1. I will rely on Wisconsin citizens for most of my contributions.
2. I will live in Middleton, Wisconsin. My children will go to school here and I will spend most of my time here in Wisconsin.
3. I will accept no pay raise during my six-year term in office.
4. I will hold a “Listening Session” in each of Wisconsin’s 72 counties each year of my six-year term in office.
5. I will hire the majority of my Senate staff from individuals who are from Wisconsin or have Wisconsin backgrounds.
That contract – along with campaign ads consisting of home-movies introducing the public to his house, wife and public-school-enrolled children – formed the bulk of his 1992 primary campaign, which pitted Feingold, a relative unknown, against two millionaire opponents.
His subsequent campaigns all followed the tenor of that first. In 1998, Feingold capped his own fundraising at $3.8 million, or one dollar for every Wisconsin citizen. He refused money from wealthy interests and demanded that lobbing groups and even his party abstain from making ads on his behalf. In 2004, after his unpopular votes against the PATRIOT Act and the bill authorizing the war in Iraq, Feingold even carried a number of counties that went for President Bush to win by 12 points; more than 90% of the money he raised in that campaign came from individuals, with an average contribution of $60.
This type of grassroots good-governance posture not only defined his campaigns but, as a result, his legislative career, too. The bill for which he is most famous, the McCain-Feingold Act, limited both the influence of soft money in campaign financing and the flood of issue advocacy ads in the weeks leading up to elections. (The last provision was undone by the Citizens United ruling earlier this year). It is also the reason hopefuls must endorse their own ads with an “I approve this message,” which makes candidates more accountable for the external communications their campaigns undertake.
Holding himself true to his original five campaign promises, Feingold returned over $50,000 in raises to the US Treasury in his time in the Senate and returned all appropriations his office, by all accounts the most frugal of any senator’s, didn’t use, and this to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars. That type of fiscal frugality is precisely what the Tea Party and conservative folks who cut short his career claim to be looking for in a candidate. Indeed, for his budgetary conservatism, Citizens Against Government Waste, the right-wing tax-payer watchdog, ranked Feingold more favorably than any other Democrat.
Conservatives should also have appreciated Feingold’s idea for a constitutional amendment prohibiting governors from making temporary senatorial appointments, citing the corruption revealed by the Rod Blagojevich affair. They should like that he was the only Democratic senator who voted against dismissing the impeachment of President Clinton, standing firm in his conviction that prosecutors should have “every reasonable opportunity” to prove the guilt of the accused. Most importantly, perhaps, Feingold had the courage to do what conservative favorites like Bob Corker and Tom Coburn couldn’t: he voted against TARP. Fighting to expose and abolish government corruption, maintaining a hawkish posture on the budget and opposing the government bailout of the Wall St. banks – those tea partiers who rally for better reasons than foil-hat conspiracy theories and naked bigotry should thank their lucky stars for a Senator like Russ Feingold.
Not that he was a conservative. To the contrary, Feingold was, for the years between the death of Paul Wellstone and the election of Bernie Sanders and Sherrod Brown, the only reliable progressive voice in the senate. A staunch opponent of the Iraq War, expanded military spending, trade policies that send American jobs elsewhere, the privatization of Social Security, capital punishment and prayer in schools and a firebrand advocate for immigrants, progressive taxation, alternative energy sources, Americans living through poverty, public education, national health care, gay marriage (note: not just civil unions) and women’s reproductive rights to privacy, Feingold was incorruptible and earnest in his advancement of policies founded on social solidarity and mutual cooperation.
This type of honesty and conviction, so rarely on display in the nation’s capital, was not reciprocated by the Johnson campaign that defeated him.
Take, for instance, this ad, which does its college best to twist Feingold’s words and positions through the use of innuendo and non-sequitur. In it, Feingold is shown claiming, rightly, that nationwide private sector employment has grown for 9 consecutive months, by all indications a sign that the economy is moving in the right direction, if too slowly. By way of rebuttal, the ad notes the job loss in Wisconsin, a standard which does not contradict Feingold’s statistic, and extrapolates from it that Feingold was claiming that the economy was fine (or better – gangbusters!). The word “gangbusters” was not one that Feingold used at all to describe the economy, but his quotation of the way a local fence-builder described his business operation at a county fair – bear in mind, this ad’s specific claim was that Russ Feingold is out of touch.
Out of touch! This from a guy who opposed a Wisconsin bill that would protect child sex abuse victims from their abusers; Johnson opposed the Recovery Act, which created more than 640,000 jobs in Wisconsin; he supports teaching creationism in schools; he called scientists who attribute the climate crisis to man-made causes “crazy;” he believes in marriage discrimination and Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell; he attributed his opposition to stem cell research to the amount government-funding of the same adds to the deficit. Show me a man who thinks that Parkinson’s disease is bad, but not as bad as that pesky 0.000084% of the federal budget, and I’ll show you a man who ought to think long and hard before hurling accusations like “out of touch.”
I forget the wit who remarked recently that we don’t need better politicians as badly as we need better voters, but nowhere is that more obvious than Wisconsin, where the electorate, faced with the prospect of re-hiring or firing a politician better than whom none lives, decided on the latter. I will strain myself to attribute reasonable motives to those who are hostile to my views, but given the evidence, I cannot believe that Wisconsin’s rejection of Russ Feingold was borne of earnest investigation into the candidates and their positions on issues. Even Tim Carney, the arch-conservative columnist for the right-wing Washington Examiner was moved to remark on Twitter: “I gotta say, losing an honest liberal like Feingold would be a bit sad. Could we give him Schumer’s seat instead?”
No, we lost Feingold because of a stupid and fatuous voting public, who would rather throw tantrums than investigate with any rigor the actual salient facts. How the founders would cringe to imagine an electorate so pathetically short-sighted that it votes the way children have fits: I’m not happy; I want something different! We are a country of big, fussy babies, and we are cutting off our nose to spite our face.
All it would take to make an informed electorate would be a little interest and a society that encourages a culture of the mind rather than a culture of the gut. Even the stupid are entitled to their opinions and their votes, but if they want to show themselves worthy of the democracy they enjoy, a democracy that many people died and killed for in our war for independence, they are not entitled to their stupidity. It makes one recall the words of John Stuart Mill (from Considerations on Representative Government, 1861):
Thus a people may prefer a free government, but if, from indolence, or carelessness, or cowardice, or want of public spirit, they are unequal to the exertions necessary for preserving it; if they will not fight for it when it is directly attacked; if they can be deluded by the artifices used to cheat them out of it; if by momentary discouragement, or temporary panic, or a fit of enthusiasm for an individual, they can be induced to lay their liberties at the feet even of a great man, or trust him with powers which enable him to subvert their institutions; in all these cases they are more or less unfit for liberty: and though it may be for their good to have had it even for a short time, they are unlikely long to enjoy it.
Russ Feingold was the staunchest defender the Senate had of that liberty. Now we fucked around and lost him. Turns out, far from the ones we’ve been waiting for, we are the ones we’ve been dreading.
Nice one, America.