At the Democratic State Convention in Milwaukee last month, U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold took the stage as loudspeakers blared "On Wisconsin." Here, in front of his Democratic base, the senator with a reputation for being a maverick ignited the crowd by lashing out at President Bush and needling Democrats for not putting up a stronger opposition. If the Dems are going to win back the White House and retake Congress, he said, they've got to develop some backbone.
"My friends, we will not get there by being Republican Lite," he told the cheering crowd. "We will not get there by being Republican Quiet. We will not get there by being Republicans on Monday and Democrats on Tuesday."
The party faithful - the unionists and activists and unabashed liberals who turn out for state conventions - were hungry for red meat, and Feingold served it to them. He attacked Bush on both domestic and foreign-policy issues, staking out his own clear positions on the opposite side.
Feingold's biggest applause lines came when he addressed the very issues that Republicans see as making him vulnerable in his upcoming re-election campaign: being the only senator to vote against the USA Patriot Act; his opposition to Bush's tax cuts and, of course, the war in Iraq.
"We do ourselves no favors by meekly accepting the Bush administration's confused foreign policy," said Feingold, who from his seat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee has been asking nagging questions about what he calls "the constantly shifting justifications for the war." Questions like: Where exactly was the intelligence showing Iraq posed a threat to the United States? Feingold has also blasted Bush for drawing a tenuous connection between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaida and the events of Sept. 11. Republicans have responded by questioning Feingold's patriotism.
"To ask these questions is in fact patriotic," he told the Milwaukee audience, which responded by giving him a standing ovation. "In fact, it is necessary for the success of the fight against terrorism and the safety of all Americans."
By criticizing the war and the Bush administration's response to terrorism, Feingold has stuck out his neck in a way few of his fellow Democrats seem willing to do. It's a point he subtly underlined when he addressed the Democratic presidential candidates - Dennis Kucinich, Howard Dean and John Kerry - who were waiting to speak after him at the convention:
"We Democrats should be the party known for standing up for American civil liberties. That's what we should be known for!" advised Feingold, who has ruled out a run for the White House himself. "We won't win the presidency if we simply take a pass and say George Bush is doing a pretty good job on the fight against terrorism and on foreign policy, but we're better on domestic issues and the economy."
2004 will be a crucial year for the Democrats, who are trying to find a way to oppose a popular wartime president without looking unpatriotic. Will the party as a whole move closer to the view of Feingold and its activist base and mount a direct attack on Bush for violating international law as well as the Constitution and the Bill of Rights? Or will the Dems temper their criticism, and run as Bush Lite?
If the Republicans have their way, the Democrats will fail to get it together, Bush will be re-elected, and Feingold, a top target in the Republicans' bid to pick up seats in the Senate, will be defeated. If that happens, the Bush administration's loudest critic in Washington will have been silenced.
Nearly beat in 1998
So far, no Republican has announced a definite plan to challenge Feingold, although several are weighing their options. Rumors of a possible challenge by former Gov. Tommy Thompson aroused a lot of excitement at the State Republican Convention in May. But Thompson has said he has no plans to run. Former lieutenant governor Margaret Farrow, whom a convention straw poll deemed the best possible challenger, also recently decided not to take the challenge.
That leaves several possible contenders, including state Sen. Bob Welch, Waukesha County Executive Daniel Finley and businessman Tim Michels, who has less name recognition, but a lot of personal funds to draw on.
The last time Feingold ran for re-election, in 1998, he was challenged by U.S. Rep. Mark Neumann, considered by many to be a lightweight contender. Neumann got on television early with humorous ads that featured flatulent cows and monkeys in space to mock Feingold's votes on legislation concerning methane gas and NASA. Despite his reputation as a far-right candidate with little statewide name recognition, Neumann nearly unseated Feingold, garnering 48.7% of the vote to Feingold's 50.8%.
During that race, Feingold took a stand on principle that proved to be nearly fatal. He refused to accept money from the national Democratic Party - the kind of "soft money" now banned under McCain-Feingold, his signature campaign finance reform law. He specifically asked party leaders to pull ads they wanted to run supporting him. He also devised a 10-point plan limiting his own fund-raising and campaigning practices. Among the promises:
"I will not spend more than $1 per eligible Wisconsin voter."
"I will raise at least 60% of my contributions from Wisconsin individuals, and at least 75% of my individual contributions will come from Wisconsin residents."
"I will raise no more than 10% of my contributions from PACs."
"I will not participate in efforts to raise soft money."
"I will not spend more than $2,000 of my own money."
"I will publicly request that all independent third-party groups refrain from engaging in negative advertising against my opponent and stay out of Wisconsin."
Feingold raised and spent slightly more than his opponent, reporting expenditures of $4,620,782 compared to Neumann's $4,373,953. But outside contributors, including the Christian Coalition, the National Pro-Life Alliance, and the NRA spent a total of $6,730,000 on Neumann's behalf. While Feingold drew support from a handful of groups including the AFL-CIO, the Sierra Club and NARAL, he ended up being outspent more than two-to-one - $11.7 million to $5.2 million.
This year, McCain-Feingold is law, and some of Feingold's supporters are hoping he will not impose any limits on himself beyond what the law requires. What does Feingold intend to do?
"I was pleased to win the last election without the benefit of party soft money and more pleased it will likely be outlawed in this election," he says in a statement to Isthmus. "Furthermore, I will continue my longstanding pledge, as originally put on my garage door contract in 1992, of receiving a majority of my campaign contributions from Wisconsin individuals."
But the new McCain-Feingold law doesn't exactly level the playing field. While the idea of relying on individual contributors instead of big pots of party funds is more populist, the truth is that Republicans are likely to do better than Democrats, generally speaking, in the post McCain-Feingold era. That's because Republicans have more individual contributors. Indeed, Feingold has been criticized by some within his own party for negotiating a reform that will benefit the other side.
'Out of the mainstream'
This much is clear: Feingold has been targeted for defeat at the highest levels of the Bush administration. Karl Rove, the president's chief political adviser, is focusing much of his prodigious skill on picking up Senate seats for the Republicans in the 2004 elections. Part of the strategy will be to send Bush to states where Democratic incumbents are seen as vulnerable.
"We believe this will be a targeted state, which means the president will be here very often," says Rick Graber, Wisconsin's Republican Party chairman. "And the president's numbers are quite high here as elsewhere around the country. So we think this may be a great opportunity."
The war on terrorism and Iraq have given Bush a big bump in nationwide polls, eclipsing other political issues. The Republicans are eager to use Feingold's opposition to Bush on those and other issues against him.
"In general, we believe Russ Feingold is out of touch and out of the mainstream with Wisconsin voters," says Graber. "You can see it in a number of his votes: against the president's anti-terror legislation, tax cuts and in his obstructionist ways when it comes to judicial nominees. It's not where people in this state are."
Yet it's exactly this swimming against the tide that Feingold's supporters most admire: "He's one of the few to really understand the magnitude and gravity of what the Patriot Act represents - a monumental erosion of our civil liberties," says Bruce Rosen, a Madison defense attorney.
A March Badger Poll, sponsored by The Capital Times and Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, placed Feingold's statewide approval rating at 48%. Republicans point to another, more recent poll, which showed him at 41%, but Feingold's office disputes its legitimacy. But even the higher number suggests Feingold is vulnerable.
"As an incumbent, his favorable rating should be at least 50%, and it's not," says Jim Miller, president of the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute. "I think [Feingold] has, to a certain degree, a chemistry problem in the state. I don't think he connects real well with the voters in Wisconsin. It's not all about issues - it has to do with personality and things of that nature."
Brandon Shultz, a former staffer for Rep. Scott Klug and current head of the Wisconsin Grocers Association, takes a similar view. "I was pretty surprised at the numbers," he says, framing his assessment of Feingold as a backhanded compliment. "Maybe he doesn't care. Maybe he thinks, 'I'm going to do what I think is right, and if people like me they like me. If they don't, they don't.' Good for him."
Then again, Feingold did better in the Badger Poll than Herb Kohl (46% positive), who handily won his last reelection bid. Feingold also scores significantly higher with female voters than with men - 52% of women give him the highest marks, compared to 44% of men. But overall, he scores well below President Bush, who got a 55% positive rating in the same Badger Poll.
Upholding the Constitution
How does Feingold think his maverick stands on terrorism and the war in Iraq will play with Wisconsin voters?
"My guess is that if a majority of Americans have an opportunity to look at the actual provisions of the USA Patriot Act that I've complained about, that the vast majority of Americans would agree with me," says Feingold. "That's been my experience in traveling the state - conservatives, moderates, liberals. You ask them if library records should be that easily accessible [to inspection by government agents], or whether computer records should be accessed in cases where a person not only has no terrorist connection, but not even a criminal connection. I think there's a gut feeling that this administration might be going too far."
Feingold believes the administration is trying to manipulate fears about international terrorist networks to smother objections to overreaching domestic law enforcement: "They act as if fighting terrorists who are blowing up people in Saudi Arabia is the same thing as making sure we have a file on every video every person checked out in Lodi, Wisconsin."
He thinks the Bush team has been too quick to shred constitutional protections. "What I am frankly a little shocked at is not only this administration's failure to be careful in balancing civil liberties but their failure to even refer to the Constitution - to even talk about it. To even say, 'Look, we know that the Constitution protects this right. We think this is a modest adaptation of it.' They don't talk like that. They just talk like, 'We can do whatever we want.'"
As a lawyer and legislator who takes the idea of good government seriously, upholding the Constitution is at the heart of Feingold's definition of patriotism.
"Without that document being a living and effective document through time, we just have geography, and a lot of people - good people, interesting people, diverse people. But we don't have the unique thing that makes us America without the Constitution. And you can lose the Constitution very easily by not learning the lessons of history."
It's patriotic, he says, to point out that the country made a mistake during World War II with the internment of Japanese Americans. "That's why some of us are trying to warn about possible excesses in this post 9/11 era."
Feingold remains confident his style of politics will stand him in good stead with voters.
"I am very independent, and I take a lot of votes that sometimes get me in some hot water until people have had a chance to see the reason why I voted that way," he says. "So I'm always going be someone people think they can knock off, using words like patriotism or whatever. But I don't think it's that easy, because I'm straight with people. I don't say one thing in one town and another thing in another. And I've been to 750 listening sessions, so I know what people in Wisconsin are thinking."
One area where Feingold got into hot water with liberals was his support for the appointment of John Ashcroft, Bush's attorney general. Ironically, he has since gotten in more hot water with conservatives for being a leading critic of Ashcroft's policies.
Feingold has no regrets. "I did the right thing," he says of his support for the nomination. "Obviously, John Ashcroft would be about my last choice for attorney general of the United States. That wasn't the question. The question was, were cabinet appointments the right place to make the battle? Nobody has ever blocked cabinet appointments on ideological grounds. It's been an area of comity and cooperation."
But when Ashcroft recently came to Congress seeking an expansion of the USA Patriot Act, Feingold let him have it with both barrels: "Before requesting even more power, the administration owes Congress and the American people a full account and explanation of abuses that have occurred, and not just a promise, but evidence, that it is serious about preventing any recurrence of such abuses."
And as a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Feingold has been one of the most outspoken opponents of Bush's right-wing judicial appointments. He was particularly critical of Miguel Estrada for refusing to answer basic questions put to him at confirmation hearings.
What, he worry?
Maybe as the 2004 election approaches, some other Democrats will join Feingold in putting up a stronger opposition to Bush. That's certainly what he hopes happens.
"There's no question in my mind that if we act wimpy and act like George Bush is that popular, we'll get clobbered," says Feingold. "They'll go with the real thing."
Besides, asserts Feingold, Bush is really "not that popular." The people he talks to are "at a fundamental level proud of many of the things he's done, but also very concerned that he has a very reckless foreign policy [and] an even worse domestic policy."
Democrats, says Feingold, "have to convey to people that we're ready to govern in this very complex and scary international environment." That means "not being afraid to say, 'You know, the Iraq situation is serious, but it's not the same as the fight against terrorism. And why isn't the White House doing a better and more coherent job in the fight against terrorism?'
"Now a lot of Democrats are afraid of saying that," he continues. "Why should we be afraid? Nothing is more serious than what was done to us on 9-11. Nothing is more serious than Americans and our allies being targeted in Iraq and Saudi Arabia. What are we going to do? Have a fortress country where we don't feel free to send ourselves or our children to other countries? Are we just going to hide out here?"
Feingold thinks voters will respond favorably to candidates who challenge Bush's go-it-alone foreign policy, which has alienated even America's allies, "because their instincts tell them that the world is a little more hostile toward us than is really good for us right now."
Besides big, national issues, Feingold wants his campaign to be about the local concerns he works on. These include getting Wisconsin a fair share of federal Medicare reimbursement funds; expanding dental care for kids; funding home health care; and backing a program that provides potential heart-attack victims with external defibrillators.
He has also taken the lead on an issue close to the hearts of teenagers and rock music fans: combating radio consolidation. A year ago, Feingold introduced a bill to help independent radio station owners, promoters and consumers, called the "Competition in Radio and Concert Industries Act." It made him a hero on the Web site clearchannelsucks.org - an outlet for enemies of America's biggest radio company and the corporate homogenization of music.
"When teenagers are coming up to me complaining about the price of Phish tickets, something is wrong," the Web site quotes Feingold as saying. (Clear channel now controls more than 60% of rock programming in the nation's biggest radio markets, as well as concert tours of major acts like Pearl Jam and Madonna.)
Feingold's bill aims to promote diversity and bring down concert ticket prices. It also challenges the scheme by which radio corporations shake down record companies in exchange for playing their songs.
And Feingold has emerged as a leading opponent of media consolidation. He's cosponsored a bill to reverse the recent FCC decision to lift limits on ownership of multiple media outlets by a single corporation.
Feingold is often cited as the poorest man in the Senate - a club made up mainly of millionaires. He launched his first campaign by painting his promises to the people of Wisconsin on his garage door in Middleton. Among them, that he would never accept a pay raise while in the Senate, and that he would continue to live in Middleton and send his kids to school there. He has kept those promises. And he knows his willingness to speak up and ask pesky questions of the most powerful men in the world has won him die-hard supporters.
"Some people are elated, because they feel like very few people are speaking up," he notes. As for critics who say he has a lot of nerve to attack the President of the United States, Feingold has this to say: "Well, if United States Senators, on the Foreign Relations Committee, aren't going to go to the floor of the Senate and talk about this, who is? Who's supposed to do that? Apparently, we're supposed to have gags on our mouths. I'm not going to do that. And I don't think the people of Wisconsin want me to do it, either."
Feingold's favorite title, conferred by a constituent in Sheboygan, is "the guy who asks questions."
"You know, people could pay me to go out there and just say, 'George you're right,'" he says. "Or they could pay me to ask tough questions. That's what I'm doing. That's what I'm going to continue to do. Because, you know what? The lives of Americans are at stake, and if you're not going to ask questions, you shouldn't even be there."
Nobody here but us patriots
Without much debate or dissent, the Patriot Act rewrites the Constitution
Russ Feingold was the only U.S. Senator to vote against the USA Patriot Act, a 342-page bill that vastly expanded the government's domestic spying powers. The Senate passed the act on Oct. 26, 2001, with no discussion, debate or hearings. Many Senators complained that they didn't have enough time to read it. The Bush Administration implied that lawmakers who voted against it would be responsible for the next terrorist attack.
Among other things, the USA Patriot Act:
- Expands terrorism laws to include loosely defined "domestic terrorism."
- Allows the FBI to force doctors, librarians, bookstores, universities and Internet service providers to turn over records on their clients. The FBI no longer has to show any reasonable suspicion that the records are related to criminal activity.
- Allows the FBI to investigate American citizens without probable cause of a crime if it claims the investigations are for "intelligence purposes."
- Expands the government's ability to conduct secret searches of private property without notice to the owner.
- Allows non-citizens to be jailed based on suspicion of terrorist connections and denied readmission to the United States based on their political speech.
- A further erosion of civil liberties has come from a series of executive orders now in effect. These include:
- Military commissions can try suspected terrorists who are not citizens and obtain convictions based on hearsay and secret evidence.
- American citizens suspected of terrorism can be held indefinitely in military custody without being charged and without access to a lawyer.
- Thousands of men or Arab and South Asian origin are being held in secret federal custody, sometimes without any charges filed against them. The government has refused to disclose their names or where they are being held.
Attorney General John Ashcroft, who pushed for the USA Patriot Act, has since requested even broader powers, under a proposed bill called Patriot Act II. It's essentially a wish list of enforcement powers the FBI and Ashcroft wanted long before Sept. 11. Patriot II would expand the broad definition of terrorism in the original Patriot Act to apply to political protesters. It also allows broader use of the death penalty and an expansion of presumptive, pre-trial detention.
But opposition is growing. Thousands of citizens groups and individuals across the country have joined Feingold in opposing these measures. And many local governments have passed resolutions rejecting the Patriot Act and reaffirming the Bill of Rights.