In the movie Singles, the character of Steve (played by Campbell Scott) approaches a woman at a bar and says he'd really like to meet her, but really doesn't have a smooth "act." She promptly points out that his "not having an act" is his act.
For 18 years, U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold's "not having an act" has been his act. He rolls up his sleeves and shows up at hearing session after hearing session, portraying himself as a "maverick" limited only by the constraints of his own conscience. Despite growing up in a wealthy home and benefiting from a Harvard law degree, Feingold, 57, swept into office with homey, humorous ads that portrayed him as the underdog.
And Wisconsinites bought it. Even I voted for him in 1992, the first election in which I was old enough to vote. (This is evidence that the voting age should be 30, as I likely thought a "filibuster" was an implement used to clean a bong.)
Eighteen years later, it appears Wisconsinites have caught on to Feingold's act. If the polls are to be believed, our junior U.S. senator is between five and 10 percentage points behind political neophyte Ron Johnson, who joined the race less than five months ago.
Perhaps Feingold's sagging poll numbers are a byproduct of nobody believing his self-appointed "maverick" status. Naturally, conservatives flinch when they hear Feingold characterized in this way, because the evidence suggests that Feingold is a doctrinaire liberal.
When was the last time you heard a liberal say, "Gee, I'm not sure about Russ Feingold - he votes with the Republicans too much?" A recent poll found that 47% of Wisconsinites think Feingold is "too liberal," while only 4% say he's "too conservative."
Indeed, most of the time when Feingold opposes legislation, it's for not being liberal enough.
For instance, Republicans opposed a recent banking regulation bill because they thought it went too far; Feingold opposed it because it didn't regulate the financial system enough. Similarly, Feingold has opposed several Democrat-backed free trade bills and voted "no" on authorizing military intervention.
Contrast this with fellow self-proclaimed Republican "maverick" John McCain, who underperformed in Republican areas because of his perceived "independence." The only way Feingold can be considered a "maverick" is because he occasionally breaks ranks with progressives to vote with the Democrats.
During the remainder of the election season, Russ Feingold will be accused of many things. But he should never be accused of lacking a sense of irony.
Take, for example, the signature achievement of his 18-year tenure: the Hindenburg known as the McCain-Feingold Act, to "reform" campaign finance. Feingold is fortunate that the public views campaign finance reform as superfluous; if he were responsible for a similar disaster regarding a legislative issue people actually cared about, he'd be a national laughingstock.
In the past six years, the Supreme Court has dismantled the law, which was supposed to keep money out of politics (how's that working out?). In three separate cases, the court has struck down major provisions of Feingold's law as unconstitutional. There are prisoners in Guantanamo Bay who have a better winning percentage before the Supreme Court than Russ Feingold.
Feingold's law was meant to restore public confidence in campaigns. And yet, during his bumbling campaign of 2010, Feingold himself has done a yeoman's job undermining the Wisconsin public's faith in "honest" elections.
When Ron Johnson launched his campaign, Feingold started the attacks early. When Kentucky Republican Senate candidate Rand Paul indicated that he'd be comfortable repealing a portion of the Civil Rights Act, Feingold tried to use this imbroglio to smear Johnson as a racist.
"[Johnson] hasn't even said he supports the Civil Right Act," Feingold said in a June 16 interview with Politico.com. That Johnson also said nothing to suggest he doesn't support the Civil Rights Act was of no concern.
Other Feingold attacks have similarly fallen flat. On MSNBC's The Ed Show, Feingold essentially called Johnson a communist sympathizer after Johnson made the innocuous observation that jobs were leaving America for China. And Feingold attempted to bottle the hysteria over the BP oil spill by falsely accusing Johnson of wanting to drill for oil in Lake Michigan.
In June, Johnson attended some meetings in Washington, D.C., including a meet-and-greet with lobbyists. Feingold's attack dogs went on offense. "By going out to Washington, D.C., to meet with lobbyists and special interests, Ron Johnson makes it pretty clear whose side he's on," shouted a Feingold press release.
Ironically, earlier in the campaign, Feingold criticized Johnson for being a millionaire. Wouldn't that mean Johnson isn't beholden to special-interest money? Apparently, according to Feingold, Johnson is "corrupted" either by his own money or other people's money, depending on what week it is.
Furthermore, it only me took about three mouse clicks to find a list of political action committee contributions Feingold has accepted during his time in the Senate. The tally of special interest contributions collected by Feingold: 1,096 lobbyist contributions totaling $1,868,908. This from the self-professed King of Campaign Finance Reform.
It's these types of baseless attacks that dissuade good people from entering the political arena - much more so than the influence of money on campaigns.
Feingold's contradictions regarding "clean" campaigns merely serve as an appetizer to the feast of follies he has served up in his campaign.
For instance, in his first ad, Feingold labeled himself a "penny pincher." This from a senator who voted for nearly $1 trillion in "stimulus" dollars that nobody believes stimulated anything except for the GOP's electoral chances in November.
In the same ad, Feingold pushes a plan meant to show how fiscally conservative he is; he once proposed denying U.S. senators pay raises.
Set aside, for a moment, the infinitesimal sum that plan actually saves taxpayers. Feingold is trying to cash in on the unpopularity of the very Congress in which he serves. The algebra looks like this: vote for wildly unpopular legislation, tarnish the reputation of Congress, then try to score political points by running against the Congress that you aided in casting into disrepute.
Or take Feingold's television ad, which he calls "On Our Side," in which he proclaims his allegiance to "regular folks" over special interests. Yet one of the "regular folks" featured in the ad is a lobbyist for the AFL-CIO. According to Project Vote Smart, Feingold had a 94% rating from the AFL-CIO until 2009. "Maverick" indeed.
Of course, contradictions themselves aren't that big of a deal. They are embedded in the human character. However, if I publicly express condemnation for Jersey Shore, but actually watch it, nobody loses his job. Feingold's contradictions matter, and the public has wised up to his charade.
Feingold is trying to run a race that convinces people he's the most serious candidate by pitching puerile smears against his opponent. He is attempting to prove he is above Ron Johnson by taking up residence beneath him.
Which leads us to Feingold's most portentous irony: Let's call it the "Russ-22."
In order to defeat Johnson, he's going to have to attack him mercilessly. In doing so, Feingold must shed the nice-guy carapace he's worn for two decades, and Wisconsin voters may forget the reason they grew to love him in the first place.
Three reasons to vote for Ron Johnson
1. He doesn't need the job. We should vie for elected officials who have been successful out of office. In politics, not needing the job is the best qualification for having it.
2. He's plainspoken. Johnson has run into some trouble on the campaign trail for speaking his mind. You know he'll tell you what he thinks, because it appears he can do nothing but.
3. His boots are on the ground. Johnson has spent 20 years creating jobs in the private sector. Wisconsin needs that kind of résumé to turn its economy around.
Christian Schneider, a regular contributor since April, blogs at christianschneiderblog.com.