Russ Feingold: The Next President of the United States?

By Tony Palmeri

[Note: This essay is the cover story in the July, 2006 edition of The Valley Scene. Click here for some representative Russ Feingold quotes that appear as sidebars in the hard copy version.]

Recently at a meeting of Fox Valley area peace activists I met Ed, an African-American Vietnam vet. Passionate about social justice and solidly in favor of an immediate withdrawal of US troops from Iraq, Ed showed up wearing a “Feingold For President” t-shirt. I asked why.

Feingold’s an intellectual, a Rhodes scholar, a man of integrity,” he said. “He’s not tainted by big money like other politicians, and that censure Bush resolution showed some real guts.” But when I asked if Feingold could actually win the presidency, Ed thought the fact that the Senator is twice divorced and “not corrupt” would make him a tough sell to the Democratic Party insiders in control of the nomination.

Ed’s comments prompted me to seek some answers to three questions: (1) how enthusiastic is the support for a Feingold for President campaign? (2) Does Feingold want to run? (3) Can Feingold win?

Enthusiasm For Feingold

The “Draft Feingold For President” movement, though still in its early stages and largely Internet based, is starting to have the feel of the late Minnesota Democratic Senator Eugene McCarthy’s 1968 run. Hippies excited by McCarthy’s candidacy cut their hair and pledged to get “clean for Gene.” McCarthy earned 42% of the vote in the New Hampshire primary and, though he did not win the nomination, his candidacy symbolized the growing call for withdrawal from Vietnam.

Feingold’s presidential campaign backers appreciate his call for a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq, but like Ed most cite a plethora of reasons for their support. Activists at RussForPresident.Com, the first national website devoted to drafting Feingold for President in ’08, do not even mention the war in their list of top ten reasons to support the Senator:

Ilya Sheyman directs RussForPresident.Com. He is a political science student from the Chicago suburbs. He organized the first Russ for President “Meet Up,” held at Madison’s Escape Coffee Gallery in frigid 14-degree weather on February 19 of this year, and attended by 21 people. Since then, there have been Meetups at coffee shops and libraries in Los Angeles, Ames and Iowa City, IA, Minneapolis, New Brunswick, NJ, Massachusetts, New York, Madison, LA, NJ, Oakland (CA) and Denver. There are also supporters organizing around websites in Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, Tennessee, Oregon/Washington, Missouri, Texas, and Pennsylvania. According to Ilya, there are already active movements in 15 states

Sheyman claims that in March, at the height of the censure proposal, RussForPresident.com was averaging over 10,000 hits daily. Over 3,000 supporters have signed up and over $28,000 pledged to a Feingold ‘08 campaign. The site has been inundated with requests for "Run, Russ, Run" buttons since they were mentioned in a Washington Post article.

Ilya’s enthusiasm is shared by Dan Kuehnert, a student at Washington University law school in St. Louis, self described “liberal nerd,” and creator of two pro-Feingold blogs: Russ Feingold For President and Missouri For Feingold. Dan’s been a Feingold fan since following the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform bill at age 18 in 1999. He says that even when he’s disagreed with Feingold (such as his vote to confirm John Ashcroft as Attorney General) he “always thought he acted really thoughtfully and followed his own principles.” Like Ed, Dan thinks that Senator Feingold's integrity and intelligence are characteristics we need in a president, and that “he has positions on the issues that are also what America needs: a president who will fight terrorism while protecting civil liberties, a president who will make government cleaner and more accountable, and a president who will make the global economy work for everyone, here and abroad, rather than just the big corporate CEOs.” If Feingold announced a candidacy, Dan would stand out in the freezing weather handing out flyers or knocking on doors, “and Senator Feingold's the only possible candidate I'd do that for.

Jody Thompson is a mother of two college-aged daughters, a supporter of the UW Eau-Claire Progressive Media Network, and publisher of the Side Street blog. She says “There is nothing I would like to see more than for Russ Feingold to run for president.” Eau Claire Democrats “are energized by the idea of a Feingold candidacy,” but Jody suspects other chapters that often act like “fearful old biddies afraid of what the neighbors think” won’t follow suit. She thinks that’s too bad, because “I can't think of another candidate capable of throwing this rust-bucket our nation has become back into drive. Going in reverse at full speed is getting a little scary.”

Fox Valley activists agree. Kay Springstroh of Oshkosh is a blue-collar worker, union leader, and this year is working to defeat the referendum that would ban civil unions. She likes Feingold’s strong pro-labor record along with his support for marriage equality. She also appreciates the way Feingold conducts his campaigns, citing as an example his refusal to accept PAC money in his 1998 race against Mark Neumann: “A junior Senator from Wisconsin turning down PAC money? He barely squeaked by in that election, but he got to keep his seat and his soul. How many Dems can say that? Justin Mitchell, recent UW Oshkosh graduate and co-chair of the Lake Winnebago Green Party, says, “If Russ runs, he will be supported by an initial groundswell of Greens, Independents, and progressive Democrats. The campaign and its supporters will be loud, active, and optimistic.

Even citizens far to the right of Feingold have good things to say about him. Winnebago County Republican Party Chair Michelle Litjens opined that Feingold is on the “radical left,” and a too negative “doomsayer,” but “I have a lot of respect for the man because he stands his ground no matter how much grief he gets from the Democratic establishment.” Jim “Uncle Jimbo” Hanson in an ex Green Beret now running the Military Matters Blog and the Milblog Wire. He says he disagrees with Feingold on virtually every substantive issue, is convinced that Feingold’s positions reinforce the idea that Democrats are unelectable on national security, but “I believe he is one of the few truly principled politicians we have in either house of Congress. I can't think of a Republican that I would say the same about, except maybe Orrin Hatch.”

Does Feingold Want To Run?

Senator Feingold holds annual “Listening Sessions” in each of Wisconsin’s 72 counties. These days, rarely does a listening session pass in which the Senator doesn't get quizzed about his presidential aspirations. Village of Kimberly resident Lori Hoover is a student at UW Fox Valley. She attended Feingold's June 2, 2006 Outagamie County Listening Session at the Town of Buchanan Town Hall. After the session she approached Feingold and asked him what would be the deciding factor for him to run. Says Lori, "He asked me to walk with him and his eyes lit up with ambition--I think he's giving it a real possible consideration. However, his response to me was: There are several factors – 1.) If he could handle the job 2.) Whether it is right for his family (he said his 2 daughters don't want him to and, 3.) Whether he could win." Hoover, who considers herself moderate to liberal on most issues, likes Feingold but was hesitant to say he should run for President because his response struck her as “indecisive and not as confident in his abilities.”

For his part, Feingold will not make a decision on whether to run until after the November midterm elections. The deciding factors he identified for Lori he has also communicated at other speaking engagements and in writings. Still, he has sent out some strong signals that he does want to run, most notably in his creation of the Progressive Patriots Fund Leadership PAC (PPF) and his travels around the country in support of progressive Democrats.

Beltway pundits and watchdogs claim that when a member of the US Congress starts a leadership PAC, he’s signaling an interest in testing the waters for a possible presidential candidacy. The PPF enables Feingold to offer financial support to candidates who may return the favor by supporting his presidential campaign, produce media ads supporting his agenda, make personal appearances in other states, and demonstrate fundraising prowess necessary for a national candidate to be taken seriously by the mainstream press and the establishment party hierarchies. As of May he had $387,000 on hand in the fund, a respectable amount but not close to what a Hillary Clinton or John Kerry commands.

Perhaps the best sign that Feingold wants to run is that he has traveled to more than 10 states since 2004, including New Hampshire, site of the all important first primary. He is received warmly everywhere he goes, even in the red south. Warm personal receptions in blue and red states combined with a growing and fired-up Internet following in my opinion make a Feingold run almost certain.

Can Feingold Win?

Though he has developed a national following, Feingold does not have widespread name-recognition. In a poll of likely Iowa Caucus participants asking whom they would vote for and how they feel about the likely candidates, Feingold earned support of only 3% of the voters while 56% had “unsure” feelings about him. On the other hand, in the unscientific polling at the liberal Daily Kos website, Feingold is the only Democrat to hold the support of over 40%. Support of Net activists will be crucial if Feingold is to have a realistic shot at the winning the Democratic Party nomination.

Even Feingold’s most loyal supporters fear that the fact he is Jewish, twice divorced, and liberal create a perception even among many Democrats that he is not electable. Others, like Kay Springstroh, believe the Democratic Party machine will never tolerate a maverick at the top of the ticket and “will play every trick in the book to prevent Feingold from becoming the Presidential candidate.” Most likely, she argues, they'll blame the voters: “’A divorced Wisconsin Jew who courts gay people--that won't play in Alabama’ and the well-behaved rank-and-file Democrats will follow the leaders, despite how much they love Russ now.”

But Ilya Sheyman of RussForPresident.com is excited about Feingold’s chances: “I wouldn't be doing this if I didn't think he could win. In other years and other elections, Russ would probably not stand a chance. But, 2008 will feature a convergence of forces that make this election different. First, Democrats are fed up with people running as Republican-lite. There is a tangible desire for a progressive candidate and Russ has been a leader on such issues. At the same time, the progressive netroots have emerged as a powerful voice in the Democratic Party. Finally, and most importantly, Russ Feingold is an electable candidate who knows how to win. He won in Wisconsin in 1992 despite being underfunded and was reelected despite being the sole Senator to oppose the PATRIOT act. The grassroots support for his campaign is real and the Senator can win.”

The Democratic nomination may ultimately go to the candidate with the most dollars and insider connections. But no one should underestimate Russ Feingold. Based on his track record, if he decides to run he will give the establishment a run for its money.

Tony Palmeri (www.tonypalmeri.com) is an Associate Professor of Communication at UW Oshkosh Sidebars

 

 

Feingold on the Issues

Against the PATRIOT Act:
“Of course, there is no doubt that if we lived in a police state, it would be easier to catch terrorists. If we lived in a country that allowed the police to search your home at any time for any reason; if we lived in a country that allowed the government to open your mail, eavesdrop on your phone conversations, or intercept your email communications; if we lived in a country that allowed the government to hold people in jail indefinitely based on what they write or think, or based on mere suspicion that they are up to no good, then the government would no doubt discover and arrest more terrorists.
But that probably would not be a country in which we would want to live. And that would not be a country for which we could, in good conscience, ask our young people to fight and die. In short, that would not be America.” Speech on the Senate Floor Against the PATRIOT Act, October 25, 2001


On Censuring the President:
"Passing a resolution to censure the President is a way to hold this President accountable. A resolution of censure is a time-honored means for the Congress to express the most serious disapproval possible, short of impeachment, of the Executive’s conduct. It is different than passing a law to make clear that certain conduct is impermissible or to cut off funding for certain activities. Both of those alternatives are ways for Congress to affect future action. But when the President acts illegally, he should be formally rebuked. He should be censured." Senate Speech March 13, 2006

On setting a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq:
“Our country desperately needs a new vision for strengthening our national security, and it starts by redeploying U.S. forces from Iraq. Our military has performed valiantly in Iraq, but the indefinite presence of large numbers of U.S. forces there tends to weaken our ability to fight the global terrorist networks that threaten us today.” April 27, 2006 statement introducing an amendment for US forces to withdraw from Iraq by December 31, 2006.

On Marriage Equality:
“The proposed ban on civil unions and marriage is a mean-spirited attempt to divide Wisconsin and I indicated that it should be defeated. It discriminates against thousands of people in our communities – our co-workers, our neighbors, our friends, and our family members. It would single out members of a particular group and forever deny them rights and protections granted to all other Wisconsin citizens. It would also outlaw civil unions and jeopardize many legal protections for all unmarried couples, whether of the same or the opposite sex. We shouldn't’t enshrine this prejudice in our state’s Constitution.” –April 4, 2006 statement in response to a question posed at a Kenosha County listening session

Contacting Feingold:
DC Office:
506 Hart Senate Office Building
Washington, D.C. 20510-4904
Phone: 202-224-5323
Fax: 202-224-2725
http://feingold.senate.gov/
District Office- Green Bay:
1640 Main Street
Green Bay, WI 54302-2639
Phone: 920-465-7508
Progressive Patriots Fund: http://www.progressivepatriotsfund.com/