Published on Saturday, February 12, 2005 by the Capital Times / Madison, WI
Feingold for President
by Joel McNally
Wisconsin Sen. Russ Feingold told Democrats in Florida recently he would decide whether to run for the presidency after "going around the country" building "national organizations of people" committed to taking back the White House.
Of course, if Feingold weren't already leaning toward becoming a candidate, why would a Wisconsin senator be campaigning in Florida?
Feingold won his third term by crushing Republican Tim Michels, an early favorite of George Bush's political brain Karl Rove, at the same time Democrat John Kerry barely eked out a victory over Bush in Wisconsin.
The same qualities that made Feingold's previous elections extremely close - his courage to stand up for progressive political causes in a repressive political age - now have made him a formidable incumbent in state electoral politics.
What are the chances his political strengths could be translated nationally into a serious run for the presidency? They could be greater than they've been for any other state politician in history.
The last one to even consider the idea was former Gov. Tommy Thompson. Thompson's problem was that his backslapping, small-town pol persona, which served him so well in the state, was snickered at by the national press when he stepped outside.
Feingold, a good-looking, articulate Rhodes scholar, has much more instant credibility with your basic Eastern elitists.
A couple of other political developments over the past year - the rise of Howard Dean and the loss by John Kerry - suggest this might just be the right moment in history for a candidate such as Feingold.
What Dean proved was that a relatively obscure politician with a clear, direct, progressive message could not only connect with voters, but also raise the enormous sums of money needed to run for president.
In fact, Dean's early strength was that he dared to utter that clear, direct, progressive message at a time when most other Democrats - with the visible exception of Feingold - were terrified to oppose the Bush administration's warmongering and attacks on civil liberties after 9/11.
Dean's ability to raise money and organize volunteers across the country through the Internet changed the whole dynamic of presidential politics.
It gave a former governor from the tiny state of Vermont the ability to tap into the necessary millions to run for president. It could do the same for a senator from Wisconsin.
Kerry adopted Dean's organizational and fund-raising template. Using the same computer fund-raising, the Democratic candidate nearly matched the hundreds of millions of dollars wealthy businessmen automatically shower on the Republican candidate to look out for their interests.
As a result, Kerry almost beat an incumbent Republican president who had cynically wrapped himself in war and terror. Why Bush ultimately succeeded and Kerry didn't also points to Feingold's strength as a national candidate.
Even though opinion polls showed voters had grave doubts about the war in Iraq and the worst budget deficits in history, the Bush campaign succeeded in making Kerry look equivocal and uncertain about what he would do as president.
Kerry tied himself in verbal knots trying to explain seemingly contradictory votes on the war and other national issues. Being thoughtful about complex issues doesn't always pay off in politics.
A candidate who can present convictions in simple, black-and-white terms can come off appearing resolute even if he's wrong. Voters who didn't necessarily agree with Bush told pollsters they liked the president because they knew where he stood.
Comedian Jon Stewart summed up this paradoxical political appeal as: "He drove us into a brick wall, but he didn't blink!"
Without being simple-minded, Feingold has been able to turn clear, strong, progressive convictions on the issues into a political strength in Wisconsin even among voters who are more conservative.
By having the courage to cast the sole vote in the U.S. Senate against the USA Patriot Act, by daring to vote against invading Iraq when other Democrats who knew it was wrong were hiding under their desks, Feingold won admiration as one of those rare politicians with real convictions.
A successful Feingold candidacy would finally put to rest the idea promoted by Republicans that presidential candidates are required to have troglodyte views on social issues.
Feingold is liberal on social issues, supporting a woman's right to choose and opposing the death penalty. At the same time, he is a fiscal conservative who supports a balanced budget. With budget deficits in the bazillions by the end of another Bush term, fiscal responsibility may trump everything else.
Intriguingly, if Feingold won the nomination, he could end up running against his old campaign finance reform partner, Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona.
Finally, we could remove hundreds of millions of dollars in special interest money from presidential politics. Who are they going to give it to - McCain or Feingold?
Copyright 2005 The Capital Times