Published on Wednesday, November 3, 2004 by the Capital Times / Madison, Wisconsin
The Lesson of Feingold's Win
Almost exactly three years ago, even his supporters were suggesting that U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., might have finished himself off politically with a solo vote against the Patriot Act.
Almost exactly two years ago, his critics were suggesting that Feingold had finished himself off by joining the small band of senators who voted against the congressional resolution authorizing President Bush to launch the war with Iraq.
Almost exactly a year ago, Republican operatives were gleefully suggesting that one of their three high-profile Senate candidates would finish off Feingold.
But reports of Feingold's political demise were premature.
After mounting a campaign in which he proudly proclaimed his opposition to the Patriot Act, his opposition to Bush's war-making and his determination to keep the banner of Wisconsin progressivism flying even in an increasingly conservative age, Feingold was re-elected by a comfortable margin of 55 percent to 44 percent over Republican businessman Tim Michels.
Feingold faced serious opposition. Michels was a self-financing millionaire who beat better-known GOP contenders in the Republican primary and then received strong support from the Bush White House - which targeted Feingold for defeat - and from former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who went so far as to appear in television commercials supporting Michels.
But Feingold prevailed. He did so not in spite of his record but rather because of it. Wisconsin gave a resounding vote of approval to a candidate who spoke frankly and frequently about the failings of the Patriot Act, the misguided occupation of Iraq and the need to assert progressive values on issues ranging from trade policy to health care.
There is a lesson in Feingold's victory for Democrats at every level of the struggle to reclaim this country from the forces of reaction.
Feingold campaigned enthusiastically for Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry, not so much because he agreed with Kerry on every issue but because he disagreed with President Bush on just about every issue.
It is notable that, as Feingold was winning easily, Kerry was struggling to win Wisconsin.
Ultimately, Kerry did take the Badger State. Yet, as election night wore on, it did not appear that he was taking America. Though Kerry backers held out hope that their candidate might eke out a win in Ohio, and with it the presidency, the prospects for such a result grew increasingly slim as Bush's margin of victory became apparent this morning.
Barring a twist of events involving provisional ballots that might resurrect the Kerry candidacy, the next stage for Democrats will be a painful period of self-assessment.
During that period, Democrats would be wise to study the lesson of Russ Feingold's win. It is still possible for a political leader - and perhaps even a political party - to stand on principle, and to win while doing so.
© 2004 Capital Times