Principle CAN pay off in politics. Over a long enough period of time, voters recognize it and respect it.
Such is the case of Russ Feingold, the only member of the U.S. Senate to vote against the Patriot Act, one of a handful of Democrats to vote against the bank bailout, one of three Democrats to vote against the confirmation of Obama's treasury secretary, Timothy Geithner, but most relevantly, one of the only Democrats to make an open stand against earmarks.
I remember the first day of my internship for Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ). My boss told me very frankly that the main function of the office was constituent services and pork barrel spending. "Now I know you've probably heard about pork and how it represents the downfall of democracy that's bullshit! If there are 10 dollars in D.C. we want all 10 for New Jersey!"
That attitude has existed in politics since the founding fathers authorized a system of revenue. Voters tend to be as hypocritical as the politicians on the issue. They want their reps to bring home the bacon even though they respond positively to national politicians railing against the system (John McCain).
"Will David Westlake, Terrence Wall and Tommy Thompson stand with Russ to end earmarks once and for all?"
That's the press release from the Feingold for Senate campaign in my inbox. Since Republicans are basing their campaigns on the premise that Washington is spending too much money and driving the government too far into the red, it's a clever move for the Democrats to put them on the spot on earmarks. Do they lamely admit that they agree with Feingold, or do they accuse Feingold of neglecting Wisconsin's fair share of the pie?
The answer is both. Earmarks account for only a miniscule portion of federal spending. It's more of an ethical issue than a fiscal one. It's a great way for lawmakers to buy eachother's votes, but it hardly makes a difference in the grand scheme of the budget. If I were Wall (or Thompson), I would say that Feingold votes for big government spending but fails to bring back money to Wisconsin. Wall's best argument would be that Wisconsin voters would be better off with tax cuts, but that if Congress is going to spend a lot, Wisconsinites deserve some of the pork. Disingenuous because earmarks and appropriations bills are two different things, but most voters won't bother grasping the difference.
Nevertheless, I think earmarks is a winning issue for Feingold. He gets to emphasize that he's a maverick (did Sarah Palin ruin the word?) and put the GOP candidates in an uncomfortable position of either agreeing with him or having to take time to explain a seemingly contradictory position