‘A Shocker Year’

The Democratic Party is at a pivotal point as Campaign 2006 heats up. National polls show that voter dissatisfaction with the Bush administration has opened the door for the party to make strong inroads into Republican control of the legislative branch this November. But the Dems are deeply divided over Iraq, U.S. troop redeployment and whether the party should move to the center or the left. Are they on the cusp of a wave—or will their internal dissent cost them crucial votes?

Russ Feingold is one prominent Democrat with a clear opinion on the war and what the party needs to do in November. The Wisconsin senator, now in this third term, has carved out a vocal niche; a rebel with causes that he has not been afraid to take across party lines in crafting campaign finance legislation or in taking positions on principle rather than party loyalty. While he was the lone Senator to vote against the original USA Patriot Act in 2001 and the resolution authorizing the use of force in Iraq the following year, he also voted for the nomination of Bush pick John Roberts as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and was one of three in his party to vote against U.S. participation in NATO air strikes in Kosovo during the Clinton years.

NEWSWEEK’s David Gerlach sat down with Feingold in his Senate office last week to get his take on the Democrats’ chances in the midterms, the prospect of a viable third party entering the fray and whether he will run for the White House in 2008. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: How are you feeling about the mid-term elections?

FEINGOLD: I think there will be very surprising results in both House and Senate races. It’s one those years, sort of a shocker year, where very unexpected results occur in races that might not even be on people’s radar screens. I’ve been to 16 states in the last year and a half and I just have this feeling that…there is such volatility. It is probably going to be to the benefit of Democrats, but we’re still capable of blowing it if we are too meek on things like Iraq and guaranteed health care for all Americans. It could actually lead to bizarre results. I could see the Republicans gaining ground in one house and losing the other house. People [are] feeling they don’t have an obligation to vote in a bloc one way or another. And far more voters are in play than is usual. It’s going to change the face of American politics.

How so?

I don’t know yet. But whatever happens, the government is going to look very different in five months. I don’t think it’s going to feel like this—this sort of one-party rule.

What about arguments that Democrats should be coming together and focusing more on  defeating Republicans than attacking each other in races like Connecticut’s Democratic Senate primary, where Joe Lieberman is being challenged by Ted Lamont. 

Well, that is a complicated situation. If Democrats don’t seriously address the need to get the troops out of Iraq, then we might as well forget about it. That is going to be the defining issue in November. In that sense the Connecticut race, you could say it is a hindrance. It’s also the possibility, depending on how it goes, that people will see this as proof that Democrats are willing to stand up to this intervention and the mistakes that we’ve made.

So you don’t think it is a bad thing for the Democratic Party?

In some ways it’s bad, in some ways it’s good. What’s good about it is that it’s giving voice to the fact that the vast majority of Democrats are appalled that Democrats voted for this Iraq war and never should have. It was an enormous failure of the Democratic Party to not stand up to George Bush when he was dead wrong. Without this voice being given in Connecticut and other places, we are going to suffocate our own base. And our base will turn away from us. We could end up with a third party pretty soon. If the Democrats can’t stand up to all the mistakes that Bush has made here, we’re not much of a party.

You were re-elected to a third term representing Wisconsin in 2004 by 12 points, while John Kerry only beat President Bush by one point in your state.  What's your secret and are you sharing it with other Dems?

People in Wisconsin, and everywhere for that matter, want their elected officials to stand up for what they believe. Democrats aren’t going to win in November simply by running out the clock. We need to show the American people that we stand for things like guaranteed health care for all Americans, bringing the troops home from Iraq, and defending the rule of law.

There have been rumblings of new Democratic populism arising, specifically in places like Kansas, Montana, and Colorado. What does the term populist mean to you?

This is where the Democratic Party has to catch up with its own supporters. There is a populist movement, a desire for the party to stand for populist positions and strong positions, both international and domestically. All over the country, people are saying the same thing to me. And it is out there in a way I have ever seen before. If the Democratic Party doesn’t have the sense to catch this wave, we may pay for it.

What are the populist issues?

Internationally, it is a belief that we should be focused on those that attacked us on 9/11 and not be confused with the so-called neo-conservative theories. On the domestic side [people] want things like guaranteed health care for all Americans. Same thing goes for bad trade agreements that ship jobs overseas, which I voted against. They feel strongly America’s been betrayed by some of these trade agreements. That’s all part of a growing populism. And that’s not just Democrats; it’s independents and Republicans, too. … I’ve been to 16 states and everywhere it’s the same.

You recently introduced another bill dealing with campaign finance reform.

Which one, we have about five or six of them? We always said banning soft money was the first step. We need to get rid of the Federal Elections Commission and replace it with a stronger agency. We need to fix the presidential primary public funding bill. We need to make sure these 527s [tax-exempt groups that can raise funds for election-related activities] are clearly prohibited. But also, I support public financing of all federal campaigns.

In the past, you worked extensively with Sen. John McCain on campaign finance reform. Recently, however, Sen. McCain did not co-sponsor your bill regarding the system for public financing of presidential campaigns. Where does your partnership stand now?

Sen. McCain and I have a long partnership and friendship dating back to right after the ’94 election, when he asked me to work with him on good government issues. You don’t wage and win a multi-year struggle as we did in banning soft money without forging a real bond. In this case, I wanted to pursue the bill fixing the presidential system that we introduced together in 2003, and he decided not to. But we continue to work together on many issues, like the amendment reforming the Army Corps of Engineers that we just passed, 527 reform, FEC reform, earmark reform, ethics reform and many others. Our partnership will undoubtedly continue as we work to improve the way our campaigns are financed.

Is it frustrating that while you’ve been working on campaign finance reform since your first term in office [in the mid 1990s], it seems that every time a solution is found, some new loophole [arises]?

Not at all. That’s in fact an inaccurate statement of what happened. Soft money was banned 100 percent effectively. The practice of members of Congress calling up people and asking for corporate or union or an individual’s huge contributions is now a federal crime and that is all our bill tried to do. The fact that there are independent groups that can spend a lot of money is not the same issue. [It’s] a different issue about whether they should be able to corrupt the process in that way. That’s not a loophole of [the] McCain-Feingold [law]. I’m excited we fixed this problem, now we’ve got to fix the other problems.

How would you describe the Bush administration’s handling of the current crisis between Israel and Hizbullah/Lebanon and how would you deal with it?

I agree with the president that Israel has every right to defend itself against Hizbullah and other terrorist organizations. I hope that Israel will use as much restraint as possible and do all it can to protect the lives of innocent civilians. But it is clear that the U.S. must become more engaged in bringing the violence to an end. This situation requires our country’s undivided and sustained attention. The administration should appoint a high-level special envoy to the region—someone like a Colin Powell or James Baker—to engage in aggressive diplomacy.

How can Washington walk the line between supporting Israel while also being cognizant of the image and diplomatic standing of the United States in the Middle East?

The best way for the U. S. to enhance its image in the Middle East and elsewhere is to adhere consistently to basic American values, such as respect for the rule of law and human rights.

You’ve visited 16 states across the United States over the past 18 months and have raised a little more than $2 million so far in 2006—with roughly $1.3 million from individual donations of $200 or less. Sounds like a presidential campaign is gearing up?

That’s a decision I’ve said I will make after the November elections. At that point, I’ll give it serious consideration but right now, I simply want to get out there and do what I can to help Democrats win.

Editor's Pick